What makes a relationship last?

And how we can use these research findings in life and writing

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

American scientists Drs Julie & John Gottman have researched successful relationships for decades. What’s the foundation of a successful, happy relationship?

At its foundation, it comes down to communication – verbal and non-verbal.

The Gottman’s observed the way couples react to small bids for emotional connection in their day-to-day life. For example, this might be when one partner commenting on something on TV, or reading out part of an article, or offering a touch on passing in the kitchen.

There are broadly three ways to react:

‘Turn towards’ – engage, react with interest, listen, attend, respond

‘Turn away’ – ignore, not react

‘Turn against’ – reject, contradict, argue

The more partners ‘turned towards’ these bids for connection the stronger the foundations of the relationship. These small but positive day-to-day moments helped them to weather the ups and downs of life.

The Gottman’s research allowed them to predict with 90% accuracy whether couples would stay together happily, or suffer an unhappy relationship, or break up. One of the main predictors was how couples handle conflict: what happens when couples disagree with each other.

They found that those who stay in unhappy relationships or break up tend to handle conflict by: 1) blaming their partner and their personality; 2) escalating to contempt and insults; 3) getting defensive if asked to change; 4) stonewalling by withdrawing eg walking out or going silent. They are in flight or fight mode, treating it as a battle.

Those who stay together happily have a different approach to conflict – they are not as defensive; they take individual responsibility; they are gentler in way they bring things up, showing a sense of humour; and they stay in the interaction to keep working at resolution together.

It’s possible to learn a different way to speak and react when faced with a conflict.

  • Start by being calm and pleasant, with the positive intent to resolve rather than win;
  • Describe your feelings;
  • Outline the specific issue (not everything you don’t like about them!);
  • Be clear on your own needs.

In summary: this is what I feel about this specific situation and this is what I need from you. For example, ‘I’m feeling a bit frustrated because the house is a mess and I’d like it if you would clear up your things sometime this afternoon.’

So, what can we take from this as writers? If you want to portray couples in love or heading for divorce you might pick up some tips for the structure of their dialogue from the Gottman’s research!

In other news: At the end of September I took part with three other psychologists/therapists in a panel discussion, hosted by the author Philippa East. The talk was called The Psychological Secrets of Writing and the discussion ranged over a wide variety of topics in response to questions from the audience. The video of the session is available on Philippa’s YouTube channel: click here if you’d like to see it.

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