By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
We know that love feels great. But, probably the most essential question is, how do we make love last? And the answer here might surprise you. For a long time, within the field of psychology, the assumption was that couples who really understood each other—who had an accurate understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses—would experience happier and longer-lasting relationships. But, that did not happen.
Minimizing the Bad
Interestingly, in couples, people who see each other in an overly positive way, more positive than the partner sees themselves, tend to be happier. So, couples who see their partners as smarter, prettier, nicer, funnier, and so on, than the partners see themselves, experience higher levels of satisfaction. How does holding these biases lead to greater satisfaction? One explanation is that overlooking, or minimizing, the bad helps minimize conflict.
So, partners might focus on what’s good about their partner (they’re generous and trustworthy) and ignore the bad (they’re stubborn or messy). They also give their partners the benefit of the doubt. So when they do something rude or insensitive, they assume they had a bad day at work or didn’t get enough sleep, not that they are a thoughtless jerk.
People in happy relationships are also remarkably good at turning faults into virtues by putting seemingly negative behaviors in the best possible light. So, stubbornness becomes conviction. Stinginess can become frugality.
In short, as Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was advised on her wedding day, “In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf”.
However, an important caveat about positive illusions, which are generally a good thing, is, if such biases lead you to overlook real and fundamental flaws. A 2008 study found that for people in relatively bad relationships, those with more severe issues and negative behavior, ignoring those issues allows problems to worsen over time.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Patterns of Fighting in Relationships
And this brings us to the most important factor influencing relationship satisfaction—how couples manage conflict.
John Gottman, a psychology professor at the University of Washington, has conducted a series of studies examining how couples fight and how particular patterns of fighting predict divorce. His method is both very simple and extremely complex. He brings married couples into his lab (often referred to as the ‘love lab’) and asks them to discuss a contentious topic for 15 minutes. This interaction is videotaped, and then researchers record not what they fought about, but how they fight.
Then, he follows up with these couples over time to see if they’ve stayed married. His researcher team is able to predict with greater than 80% accuracy which couples stay together and which do not.
The Four Predictors of Divorce
So then the next interesting question is what are the predictors of divorce? Gottman’s team found four signs: criticism, meaning complaining about some core characteristic of their partner or their relationship; contempt, meaning acting as if sickened or repulsed by their partner; defensiveness, meaning protecting themselves and justifying their own behavior in some way; and stonewalling, meaning emotionally withdrawing, refusing to participate in the conversation, and shutting down.
All four of these signs are bad and are associated with an increased likelihood of divorce. Of these, which is the very worst? Contempt.
Thus, the conclusion he draws is clearly that it’s not how much couples fight, but how they fight, that is a crucial. It is not only a predictor of happiness in a relationship but also of whether the relationship will last.
The Magic Ratio
Moreover, Gottman found that even when discussing a problem, happy couples had far more positive interactions—laughing, teasing, and showing affection for one another—than negative interactions—criticism, anger, defensiveness. In fact, for every negative interaction, happy couples had at least five positive ones, the magic ratio.
This finding is really important, because what it tells us is that happy couples do fight; the goal is not avoiding all conflict. But most of their interactions are positive, or as Gottman describes it, couples that have a ‘magic ratio’ of five to one.
A big secret to lasting love is, therefore, to balance out the bad with far more good.
Increasing Relationship Satisfaction
Psychologists have observed often that physiological arousal caused by any source, from walking across a shaky bridge to going on exotic dates, can lead to attraction and play an important part in relationship formation. But, creating arousal itself can also help maintain and even increase relationship satisfaction for couples in long-term relationships.
Thus, couples who do new and exciting things together—attending live concerts or plays, going skiing or hiking—report higher levels of satisfaction with their relationship than couples who do pleasant but familiar things together—going out to dinner or a taking in a movie.
So, if one wants to rekindle feelings of romantic love in their relationship, they need to find ways to inject some novelty—take a cooking class, spend a day riding roller coasters at an amusement park, travel to a new place. Doing novel and exciting things with your partner clearly isn’t enough to save a relationship with fundamental problems, but it just might move a relationship from merely okay to great!
Common Questions about Managing Conflict
Couples who see their partners as smarter, prettier, nicer, funnier, and so on, than the partners see themselves, experience higher levels of satisfaction.
John Gottman’s team found four predictors of divorce: criticism, meaning complaining about some core characteristic of their partner or their relationship; contempt, meaning acting as if sickened or repulsed by their partner; defensiveness, meaning protecting themselves and justifying their own behavior in some way; and stonewalling, meaning emotionally withdrawing, refusing to participate in the conversation, and shutting down.
Couples who do new and exciting things together—attending live concerts or plays, going skiing or hiking—report higher levels of satisfaction with their relationship than couples who do pleasant but familiar things together.