The Scroll: The Science of Relationships, Part II

My March Scroll, “The Science of Relationships,” came with a promise: this follow-up blog with the five remaining “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” from the guru of all relationship researchers, Dr. John Gottman. If you’re just tuning in, not having read Part I, no problem. But let’s be clear: These aren’t just lightly distributed tips or sugary-sounding suggestions; they are truths backed up by decades of the best scientific evidence we have in the world about relationship longevity and goodness.

Carol Bruess

Carol Bruess

While my own husband of 22 years often quips that our “marriage is a petri dish” (whatever) and that he is the tallest human communication guinea pig ever (true), he will admit if pushed (not even that hard) that Gottman’s principles are helpful and even applicable in other human relationships (bonus!). There you have it, a sample size (N=2) of two Bruesses … oh, plus thousands of couples in Gottman’s actual longitudinal data set, from which these prized principles have emerged:

Principle Three: Swell your emotional bank account. If you have built up good feelings, they can be cushions when conflict and stress arrive in your relationship – and they will. The currency of a “rich” marriage is free, and it’s called turning towards. When we turn toward each other – notice, acknowledge, respond, are positive and kind, listen, are gentle, express even the slightest bit of care in words and actions – we build a more profound friendship accomplished mindfully moment after moment and day after day. The opposite of turning towards? Turning away, usually accomplished unintentionally and in little acts: half-listening, neutral responses and even lack of interest in the other’s comment or fleeting observation. Turning away can be so slight and brief that it often goes unnoticed … until it adds up. Even small debits, unfortunately, add up to large relationship deficits.

Principle Four is about influence – and being open to it from your partner. Long-term happy relationships are marked by two people willing to be influenced by each other. A lot. And often. Being influenced = respect. Lack of respect in relationships = demise.

Principle Five. Sorry – this one you need to read, in full, straight from Gottman’s book. It’s about conflict … but a fresh take (finally!), including a formula to figure out which of your conflicts are perpetual versus solvable. Ah – freedom! When you know which is which, you decide on successful coping and management strategies. This principle should be its own book. For now, get a copy of seven principles and keep it on the bedside table.

Principle Six: Even loving, low-conflict couples can become gridlocked on perpetual (usually tenacious) conflict topics. Getting out gridlock and back into dialogue is essential. Anyone committed to a long-term relationship knows that is easier said than done, right? But Gottman (and the master couples in his research) teach us how, and it starts with becoming a detective into your partner’s hopes, aspirations and wishes – what Gottman calls “dreams.” Interestingly, over the long haul of marriage, our dreams often become hidden – buried deeply and unarticulated – sometimes even from ourselves.

If I could pick my favorite, it would be Principle Seven – the single notion driving my own 23-years-and-counting research agenda, on how couples create shared meaning. Doing so can happen by developing and sustaining rituals of connection (both the big and the mundane), nicknames (no need to tell others!), and joint storytelling (what’s the worst and best memory of your wedding day?). Really, shared meaning is built in any moment or way that advances understanding of what it means to be in this thing – this family, this relationship, this “us.” If you are successfully mastering the first six principles, you likely already are realizing the seventh. But not always, and if not, rest assured: This is usually the most fun “task” of them all. And yes, relationships should be fun (at least some of the time).

As for the beloved tall guinea pig in my house, he recently has given birth to a new (bad) idea: penning his own book on the topic of long-term happy marriage. Barnes & Noble, do you have room on your shelves for What Happy Couples Do: The Other Side of the Story – Lessons from a Man Married to a Marriage Researcher? Competition for Gottman? Doubtful. Good laughs? For sure. Research does say that (humor) is absolutely essential in marriage. Whew.