Building a Marriage That Lasts

What relationship ingredients are essential for lasting marriages? Three basic qualities promoted by marriage counselors, religious teaching and earlier generations are now confirmed by science to be essential to a happy home.

The Science of Lasting Love

Psychologist John Gottman has spent forty years studying marital relationships. As reported in The Atlantic he and his wife Julie founded The Gottman Institute in 1986 with the mission of aiding couples in building lasting, loving marriages. Dr. Gottman and a colleague launched a long term study in which they interviewed newlywed couples. They had these couples wired with physiological sensors similar to lie detector equipment, measuring breathing, blood pressure, sweat and heart rate as they were interviewed. The research team then followed up on the couples six years later to check on the health of their marriages.

The data showed that couples who interacted in unhealthy ways, showed signs of “fight or flight” physiological responses–increased heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, sweat–even if outwardly they projected calm. The more pronounced the sensory responses, the more likely the couples were to have unhappy marriages, even divorce.

Couples who interacted in healthy ways were not only outwardly calm but inwardly as well. Their responses to one another were based on trust, were intimate and affectionate, even when they disagreed. These couples handled their inevitable differences in healthy, positive ways.

Healthy couples interacted with one another in relaxed, affirming ways. Unhealthy couples remained in a nearly constant state of readiness for conflict, waiting for the next attack to come.

The research team labeled the members of the healthy category as “masters” and the unhealthy group as “disasters”.

Bidding for intimacy

In a follow up study in the 1990s, Dr. Gottman created a restful setting like a bed and breakfast, brought couples in to spend time relaxing, cooking and being entertained in order to observe their behavioral cues indicating healthy and unhealthy relationships. One such behavioral characteristic was a telltale clue Gottman labeled as “bids”.

Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.

The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.

The article goes on to say that when one spouse seeks to engage the other through such a “bid”, how the other responds is a glimpse into the relationship. If the responding spouse acknowledges bids positively, or as Gottman called them “turned toward bids” and this is consistent with how he or she responds, then the relationship is likely healthy. If, instead, the responses are indifferent or even express annoyance, or “turned away bids”, it provides an insight into a deteriorating relationship.

It is important to remember that the object of the bid itself is not the crucial issue. What matters in these interactions is that one spouse is asking the other, “do I matter to you? Do you value me and do you value our relationship?” The answer is summarized in the how the other spouse responds.

The Gottmans found that they could predict with 94 percent accuracy the long term prospects for the marriage based on these observations. The article summarizes the key ingredient to the relationships:

Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity; or contempt, criticism, and hostility?

“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”