Valentine’s Day and Kindness

As many couples celebrate Valentine’s Day with extravagant dinners, elaborate bouquets, and tasty chocolates, it’s time to consider what can truly make those romantic moments last.

In our previous blog, we discussed the factors that make marriages fail and reviewed some research on how to avoid those mishaps. It is now important to turn to the question of how to make marriages actively succeed.

This is a particularly important question, given how uncommon truly healthy marriages are. According to the psychologist Ty Tashiro, only about three in ten people who get married spend the rest of their lives in happy and healthy relationships.

This may strike many of you as an extremely troubling statistic. We would like to see marriages as idyllic journeys off into the sunset, and it may be depressing to revise this notion. You are not alone. In fact, psychologists like Dr. John Gottman were inspired by skyrocketing divorce rates to learn more about the nature of happy marriages.

Dr. Gottman found that mutual attitudes of kindness are key to preserving happy relationships. These expressions of kindness proved to be effective predictors for satisfaction and marital stability, both Dr. in Dr. Gottman’s work and in other independent research.

There are two ways to look at marital kindness. Either it is a fixed trait that you simply have or don’t have, or it is more like a skill or muscle that is strengthened by repeated use. Dr. Gottman and his wife, Julie Gottman, argue that the most successful relationships are preserved by those who see kindness as a skill to be cultivated. But how can we develop this skill?

In working to answer this question, Dr. Gottman and Dr. Robert Levenson, his colleague at the University of Washington, set up the “Love Lab” in 1986. During a series of studies, they observed the behavior of newly married couples while also monitoring their physiological responses by connecting them to electrodes.

They found that less successful couples showed marked differences in physiology from happier ones. Essentially, some couples exhibited signs of fear and anxiety while interacting with their spouse, constantly preparing for a fight or conflict. This even extended to what ought to have been boring, mundane conversations and was measured with physiological factors such as sweating and heart rate.

The researchers concluded that the more successful couples thrived because they had cultivated a sense of mutual trust, understanding that they could let their guard down and open up. In subsequent research, Dr. Gottman found that this sort of climate must be cultivated, like kindness itself, through repeated acts of emotional connection with your partner.

He observed that couples often offer “bids” for connection, soliciting their partner’s response to happy news or simply observations on the world around them. Couples that accept these “bids” by responding with interest and kindness can cultivate a sense of trust. In fact, he found that 94 percent of couples that work to accept each other’s’ “bids” will stay together over the long-term.

Kindness comes into play by training yourself to recognize and accept these bids and becomes especially necessary when exhaustion or conflict makes this that much more difficult. By wielding and developing this skill, Dr. Gottman’s research provides a path forward to become or remain in one of those happy, healthy relationships that we all hope to have.

For past blogs on Dr. Gottman’s research check out our blogs here and here.

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