Reseachers John and Julie Gottman, couples researchers and founders of the Gottman Institute in Seattle,Washington, have studied couples for decades. John Gottman runs the "Love Lab" at Seattle University, where he and his researchers are able to observe and collect data about how couples communicate, argue, do repairs, and express affection to each other. They are able to track biological feedback about each individual while they are interacting with their partner.
Gottman's research gives us some valuable information about what unhappy and happy couples do differently.
Four traits predict break-ups, and Gottman named them the four horsemen of failed relationships.They are:
1. Criticism: attacking your partner's personality
2. Contempt: putting your partner down
3. Defensiveness: not being able to take in your partner's concern, but attacking them instead
4. Stonewalling: shutting down and shutting your partner out, rather than discussing concerns
Couples who do these behaviors, in certain combinations, are more likely to head towards divorce or a break-up. All couples do these behaviors at times, but developing your skills for listening to your partner, not just reacting and getting defensive, can really turn things around.
A good couples therapist can teach you how to fight fairly, stay respectful of each other, listen more fully, and frame requests appropriately so you can be successful. For example, I ask couples not to frame concerns with "you always" or "you never." Those starting points trigger a cascade of negatives from your partner, and don't help you find win-win solutions. Being a couple takes teamwork.
What about some good news? Happier couples tend to be more positive in their interactions, with a ratio of 20 to 1 positive to negative comments in normal interactions, and 5 to 1 when arguing. Try to increase the positive, encouraging, and supportive comments you make to your partner. Point out what you like about what they do. Researcher Terri Orbuch with the Early Years of Marriage Project at the University of Michigan found something similar, that 67% of happy couples report that their partner often makes them feel good about themselves, while only 27% of unhappy couples reported the same.
Doing pleasureable activities together helps couples enjoy each other more. The most common cause of divorce is "growing apart," not infidelity or domestic abuse. Working on the soft side of your relationship, including positive conversations, mutual encouragement, shared pleasureable time together, expressing appreciation specifically, and staying connected physically are the real glue in a happy marriage.