Staying in Love Might Actually Boil Down to This One Simple Thing

What your face reveals during an argument matters more than you think

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

How do you conduct yourself during an argument with your romantic partner? Controlling your emotions can be difficult in heated moments, but according to Professor Vishton, changing one simple thing can improve your relationship significantly.

Couple arguing in restaurant
Physiological changes and body language exhibited during an argument reveal key flags as to whether a couple will remain married long-term or will divorce. Photo By Roman Kosolapov / Shutterstock

Increase Your Odds for Staying in Love

Falling in love is much more common than staying in love. Cognitive neuroscience research provides ample evidence that falling in love is also different from staying in love. Distinct brain systems are involved in the two activities. 

“Here’s a tip that you can use to substantially increase the chances of staying in a long-term relationship with a long-term love,” Professor Vishton said. “When you have an argument with your partner—don’t roll your eyes.”

When you do an eye roll or something similar during an argument, it impacts the brain of your partner in some consistent and negative ways. Your partner’s amygdala, for example, will become more active. 

As it does, the negative emotions associated with that subcortical brain region will emerge, making the rest of the argument that much more difficult. Rolling your eyes for a moment might not seem like a big deal, but several studies suggest that it reduces the likelihood that a couple will stay married or stay in love.

Hormones Associated with Long-Term Love

Long-term love and attachment are associated with oxytocin, a hormone produced by your brain that promotes deep, social attachments. The amygdala activity and the associated fight-or-flight response weaken those bonds. 

Maintaining a relationship is, in many ways, a competition between these two systems. If you too frequently tip the scales in the favor of the amygdala system, love will lose.

Moreover, oxytocin itself can influence behavior in two very different ways. It can promote social cohesion and cooperation, but it can also strengthen memory for negative events and even increase aggressive responses to anyone who’s not perceived as a member of the same family or social group. 

Examples of this can be seen among couples who find themselves in a toxic divorce situation. The same oxytocin that creates the love can contribute to its destruction.

“How to make love last. This is a topic about which you can find a remarkably large amount of advice—some of it’s good, some of it’s not so good, some of it’s contradictory,” Professor Vishton said. “As is often the case, most useful advice, I believe, comes from careful, scientific work on the topic.” 

Predicting Divorce

A leader in developing this type of scientific work, John Gottman is the one responsible for the tip of “don’t roll your eyes.” Gottman and his collaborators have become famous for being able to predict—with greater than 90% accuracy—which marriages will last and which will end in divorce. 

In their studies, Gottman’s research team usually collects a lot of data. They recruit couples to come into their research center and subject them to a wide range of tests that include questionnaires and video and audio recordings. 

Participants are often hooked up to devices that record their physiological responses such as blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension. A key part of the procedures involves a conversation between the two members of the couple in which they discuss a topic that’s been a point of disagreement in their relationship. 

In essence, Gottman asks them to engage in conflict—to have at least a bit of an argument. A typical Gottman study involves collecting all of this data and then waiting—in some cases several years.

After this time interval, some of the participants are still married. Others have divorced. 

The research team then analyzes their data to see if anything in those records was consistently present for the still-married couples that was not for the now-divorced couples. They also do the reverse.

As it turns out, several things are present for the divorced couples that are only rarely present for the still-married couples. The important factors are a few key features of how they argue, which Professor Vishton will share in tomorrow’s article.

Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.