Why do some relationships succeed, while others fail?

Why are some people lucky in love?… while others of us (equally warm, wonderful, valuable and lovable human beings!) endure one romantic train wreck after another?

Is it Fate?


The random miss-alignment of the planets?

Or maybe there truly exists some Freudian subconscious self-sabotage thingy, that drives certain people (like…er, umm…me?) to be Fatally Attracted to one Heartbreak Hotel after another?

In John Gottman’s latest book, The Science of Trust, I have finally learned that, No…..

it’s the Zeigarnik Effect.

Stay with me…

So Bluma Zeigarnik was hanging out in a cafe one day, in Vienna, in 1922, and she noticed the astonishing memory the waiters had for their customers’ orders. The waiters never had to write anything down!

Curious Bluma then interviewed the waiters, and found out that as soon as the orders were fulfilled, the waiters forgot everything.

This was later coined “The Zeigarnik effect.” It is defined as follows: We have better recall for events that we have not completely processed. Zeignarik found that, on average, there is 90% better recall for “unfinished events” than for events we have somehow completed….(The Science of Trust, p 209)

Gottman points out that in every relationship, just like the bumper sticker, S#!T HAPPENS.

And if you think a minute, you’ll be able to name some relationships in which cascades of major-league S#!T has gone down on a regular basis…and those folks are still together!

So, it’s not the S#!T that destroys a relationship.

It’s whether or not the Zeigarnik Effect is allowed to kick in.

Negative events (the super-biggies but also the near-infinite teeny-tiny ones) are a constant and unavoidable  part of any relationship. Comments, gestures, bids for sexual attention or emotional comfort, jokes, gifts…talked too much at the party?…forgot to scoop the cat box?…didn’t call?…called too often?…always getting it right is NOT an option, and every interaction between two people has the potential to go awry and hurt someone’s feelings.

The Zeigarnik Effect says that if relationship S#!T, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, doesn’t get emotionally processed and “closed out”, like the waiters’ checks, it gets mentally rehearsed over and over and over, and piled in with all the other unprocessed S#!T, until the relationship becomes a cesspool of negativity.

In sharp contrast, here’s Gottman Explaining Relationship Success (p 204):

The way relationships work well is that when negative events are fully processed, there is no Zeignarik effect. Hence, these events are not very well remembered, nor are they mentally rehearsed. Instead positive events are remembered and rehearsed. Trust is built because our partner has “been there” for us…our partner, through processing our negative emotions, has demonstrated that he or she has our best interests at heart and is “there for us.” We remember those positive moments…and we minimize the negative in the relationship…We decide that our partner has mostly lasting positive traits that “explain” why we are staying with this person who generally makes us happy, whom we can trust, whom we feel safe with, and whose negativity is hard to remember….New, continually processed negative events are recalled, but only dimly…positivity becomes self-generating…Even if the partner does something nasty, he or she is seen as a wonderful and trustworthy person who is temporarily stressed or in a bad mood.

So there you go! Those “lucky” couples?…are the ones who, for whatever reason, know how to process negative relationship events and not let them fester and poison their love.

Meanwhile, I continue to wonder about the rest of us….like those of us who have endured repeated emotional trauma.

What if “holding no secrets and making your life an open book”(one of Gottman’s recommendations) just doesn’t feel like an option?

Is there nothing but more train wrecks in our futures?

We’ll explore this tomorrow!

[photos of tracks at Westport train station; a couple processing their negative events at LisSurMer]