"All it takes is a particular show of kindness. Photo: Stocksy
Psychologist John Gottman, the renowned relationship expert who became famous because he could discern in less than an hour if newlyweds would make it, has recently published another study – this time, with his wife, psychologist Julie Gottman. And, it contains the answer to the question of the ages: what makes love last?
Well, gather 'round all you romancers because all it takes is a particular show of kindness and I'm not talking about the show you might receive via text from that guy you swiped on Tinder.
It goes like this. Say you look out your window one evening and see a huge full moon bobbing just above the horizon. Flushed with wonder, you turn to your partner and say "hey sweet cheeks! Isn't the moon beautiful tonight?" This, according to Gottman, is a "bid" – a request for a response that will hopefully lead to a small connection between the two of you – an understanding that, on this particular topic, you share the same worldview.
Your partner now has a choice to make – they can look up and say "wow! It is beautiful!" or something similarly agreeable. The Gottmans call this a "turning toward". (Seasoned improvisational artists like Tina Fey call it the part where you say "yes, and …" to keep a scene moving.)
Or, they can keep eye contact with their computer device and mutter "mm hmm", or worse, remain silent. That would be called "turning away". It seems mundane and insignificant, right? I mean, it's just a moon! But according to an article examining the study, the consequences are far-reaching.
"Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had "turn-toward bids" 33 per cent of the time. The couples who were still together after six years had "turn-toward bids" 87 per cent of the time."
You don't have to be Dr Phil to understand that when your bids for connection go consistently unmet, you stop trying. The article put it this way: "People who give their partner the cold shoulder – deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally… not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner's ability to fight off viruses and cancers."
The Gottmans go on to explain that the hardest time to turn toward a bid is when you're stressed or fighting. But it's during these times that it's especially important to do exactly that. By extending yourself, you're flexing the muscle of kindness – and kindness is the major predictor of a long-lasting relationship.
But that's not all. The other predictor of a long lasting union? Sharing joy. No, not laughing over a Parks and Recreation marathon or high fiving after a challenging hike, but the joy you share over each other's triumphs. Like a new job. A promotion. A compliment. 50 per cent off that dress. In fact, it's more important to be supportive during the good times than the bad.
But there are other interesting conclusions to take from this. The first is that women are – in the main – often told not to expect too much in these areas from their male partners. A book called The Five Love Languages, written by a conservative Minister and championed by other well-meaning conservatives and marriage prep courses, posits that men often communicate their love in different (non-verbal) ways – they'll mow the lawn, fix your computer, or pay for dinner to express their ardour. As long as you don't take it personally and don't draw them into an intimate conversation, you should be able to enjoy marriage. Because men are inherently bad at listening; they're not as good as women at multi-tasking. And, look, while focusing on a spouse's intentions goes a long way toward sustaining a relationship, according to the Gottmans if ordinary kindness – in the form of direct communication – is not built in, those other gestures can fall on fallow ground.
The second conclusion, dear Love Birds, can be extrapolated from the first. Ladies everywhere don't just believe these baseless myths – they actively relate to the idea that the only thing ruining their relationship is asking for too much intimacy from that guy who likes fixing stuff, not talking about it – geeeze! The message is clear – expect less and do more.
But the Gottmans don't talk about gender – they don't need to. The Gottmans based their findings on over four decades of scientific research. They have found that those small things that, traditionally, girlfriends and wives get upset about, are not a manifestation of pettiness or high maintenance or "nagging". But, rather, a set of mandatory skills required for not just a long-lasting marriage, but for every other relationship, (including friendship and parenthood) to be successful too.