Certain Habits Doom Relationships: Are You Guilty?
What Emerging Science Tells Us About Love
In the past few months, I’ve had the delight of stumbling across several investigative reports on the topic of dating. In particular, what I loved was each article’s scientific angle.
Can the sharp reasoning skills of the left brain, and our growing foundation of scientific knowledge, actually shed light on the oh-so-right-brained flights of the romantic heart? The science-lover in me likes to think so. And a growing community of scientists increasingly thinks so too.
In the next three columns, I’m going to take a departure from my usual content of answering readers’ letters and share highlights of these three articles.
(Article 3 of 3 in the series)
Consider this a test. When you hear the name “John Gottman,” what jumps to mind? Do you know who he is—or, more importantly, what his research findings are?
If you know the answer to that, congratulations. You are doing one of the most important jobs you have as a single person: Not just working to find That Perfect Someone, but also working on making yourself Your Best Possible Self. That includes reading, and studying, the recipe for lasting love.
Love isn’t just about finding someone. It’s about keeping them. If you are only focusing on the finding, and not on the keeping, how can you ever hope to achieve a lasting partnership, which is what you profess to want?
If you don’t know who John Gottman is, consider this your primer. The rest of the story (and there is a lot) will require you going out and borrowing Malcolm Gladwell’s fabulous book called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and turning to page 29. Even more elaborate reports about Gottman’s research into marriage – and what makes marriages last – can be found under numerous titles under his own name.
John Gottman is a psychologist at the University of Washington who, for decades now, has been conducting highly methodical research into couples. What makes them work, or not work? In his famous “Love Lab,” he films short segments of couples conversing (about an hour long); from those clips, he can determine, with 95 percent accuracy, whether a couple will still be married 15 years later.
Does that shock you!? Good. It should. I think it’s pretty darn astounding. It also gives me a great deal of solace.
If you can learn now, as a single person, what are the characteristics or traits that make a relationship “last-able” – you arm yourself with tools with which to evaluate your future partnerships. You also have a chance, now, before this forever-relationship has even started, to learn the habits and skills you need to conduct your half of this future relationship.
Relationships don’t fail. It’s relationship skills that fail. Skills can be learned. Are you actively studying and learning those skills now? Well, you should be. Don’t come complaining to me that “My relationships never work out!” if you aren’t actively analyzing, questioning and challenging your own behavior in these relationships.
How To Inoculate Your Love Relationship
John Gottman and his research team have learned a great deal about what behaviors doom a relationship—way more than I can summarize here. But I will give you a few highlights included in Gladwell’s book Blink.
Emotions that seem positive on the surface might not be positive in substance. Certain behaviors are highly damaging to a partnership, even if they are done with a smile, laugh or wink—which they often are, at least in the honeymoon stage. For example, people who end up divorced often do these things:
• When one person asks for credit for something he or she has done, the spouse won’t give it.
• When they fight, one or both parties are completely inflexible. Every point is met with a “yes-but” rebuttal.
• When one person raises a complaint about a certain issue, the other person changes the topic into a reverse-complaint about the other person or another issue, rather than addressing the issue at hand.
• The ratio of positive to negative exchanges has an important, long-term impact on the relationship. These “ups” and “downs” can be charted on a graph, and have a strong correlation to the relationship’s fate.
• The single most damaging emotion on a relationship is contempt. The presence of contempt in a marriage can even predict such things as how many colds a husband or wife gets (in other words, it affects the body’s immune system).
“You would think criticism would be the worst (behavior in a relationship) because criticism is a global condemnation of a person’s character,” Gottman is quoted in the book. “Yet contempt is qualitatively different from criticism. (Speaking from a superior plane) is far more damaging, and contempt is any statement made from a higher level. … It’s trying to put a person on a lower plane than you. It’s hierarchical.”
Gottman explains these kinds of behaviors as the “DNA” of a relationship. Each relationship has a series of patterns, like Morse code, that get repeated over and over again. Gladwell explains it this way:
“People are in one of two states in a relationship,” Gottman went on. “The first is what I call positive sentiment override, where positive emotion overrides irritability. It’s like a buffer. Their spouse will do something bad, and they’ll say: ‘Oh, he’s just in a crummy mood.’ Or they can be in negative sentiment override, so that even a relatively neutral thing that a partner says gets perceived as negative. In the negative sentiment override state, people draw lasting conclusions about each other.”
The take-aways from this are obvious:
If you have a habit of seeing the worst in your partner; if you tend toward stone-walling, stubbornness, irritability and arrogance, your past failed relationships could very well be your own fault. Or, at least, partly your fault.
In between all your emails and dates, spend a little time working on yourself. Your future partner will thank you.
This is part three of a three-part series summarizing recent media articles reporting on scientific research into dating and marriage. You can find part 1 of this series here, and part 2 of this series here.