Only 30% of people who get married have happy, healthy marriages.
More than forty years of research on healthy relationships, pioneered by the work of John Gottman and Robert Levenson at the University of Washington, has pinpointed what qualities successful relationships have in common. Their research has found two types of couples. Gay or straight, rich or poor, with or without children, couples are either Masters or Disasters.
Masters are those who remain happily together at least six years after getting married. Disasters are those whose marriage has broken up or who are chronically unhappy.
What’s the secret to being a relationship Master? Compassion. Here are three compassion secrets to be a relationship Master.
Secret 1: A Climate of Trust
When having conversations, even about the most mundane things, Disaster couples show physiological arousal, a fight-or-flight response with heightened heart rate. It’s as if they are expecting a battle to break out, probably because most previous conversations degenerated into a win-lose contest. This is a drama. Their conversation is adversarial.
Masters show calm connection, regardless of the topic being discussed. The attitude and emotional climate is one of “You’re OK, I’m OK.” They stay engaged with one another, avoiding judgment, attack or blame. They don’t expect a battle and are more emotionally and physically comfortable.
Creating a climate of trust is about Openness. Learn more here.
Secret 2: Curious Engagement
In a relationship, partners frequently make what Gottman calls “bids” for connection. Maybe the husband is watching the weather and says to his wife, “They are predicting icy roads this weekend.” His signal is looking for a response from his wife. How she responds strongly predicts whether the relationship will last.
Disaster couples respond to bids with a lack of curiosity. They either passively acknowledge the bid with statements such as “OK,” actively dismiss the bid with comments such as, “Stop bothering me, I’m trying to read,” or ignore the bid completely. Any of these responses shows a lack of interest in what the other person finds important.
Masters respond to bids for connection with genuine curiosity. They give their partner full attention, ask questions, and take an interest in learning. An example might be, “When is the ice supposed to start? How do you think this will affect our trip tomorrow?”
Curious engagement is about Resourcefulness. What does it take?
Secret 3: Discipline of Kindness and Generosity
Do you expect your partner to mess up? Do you anticipate that he or she will let you down? Or do you give your partner the benefit of the doubt, looking for positive qualities and behaviors to affirm? This dynamic, called contempt, criticism and hostility vs. kindness and generosity, is the strongest predictor of successful relationships.
Disaster couples have developed habits of ignoring and dismissing each other, looking for reasons to criticize and complain, and anticipating negative intentions in one another. Gottman found that people who are focused on tearing down their partners miss a startling 50% of the positive behaviors in their partner, and see a lot of negative things that aren’t even there.
Masters look for and affirm the positives in each other. They assume positive intentions, look for reasons to celebrate, and focus energy on what’s going well. This type of optimism requires discipline, commitment, and hard work. It doesn’t happen by chance, and it won’t magically maintain just because you fell in love. It can only be sustained with daily effort.
The discipline of kindness and generosity is about Persistence. Here are some tips.
Things to Ponder
- Are you are relationship Master, or Disaster?
- What do you want to change in your relationship to have more compassion?