Lisa, an elementary school teacher from Ambler, Pa., came home from work one day and said to her husband, “Honey, guess what? I landed that summer teaching position I wanted!” “Wow, congratulations!” he replied. “I know how hard you worked to get that job. I am so happy for you! You must be really excited.” The way Lisa’s husband reacted to her good news was also good news for their marriage, which, 15 years later, is still going strong; such positive responses turn out to be vital to the longevity of a relationship.
Numerous studies show that intimate relationships, such as marriages, are the single most important source of life satisfaction. Although most couples enter these relationships with the best of intentions, many break up or stay together but languish. Yet some do stay happily married and thrive. What is their secret?
A few clues emerge from the latest research in the nascent field of positive psychology. Founded in 1998 by psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, this discipline includes research into positive emotions, human strengths and what is meaningful in life. In the past few years positive psychology researchers have discovered that thriving couples accentuate the positive in life more than those who stay together unhappily or split do. They not only cope well during hardship but also celebrate the happy moments and work to build more bright points into their lives.
It turns out that how couples handle good news may matter even more to their relationship than their ability to support each other under difficult circumstances. Happy pairs also individually experience a higher ratio of upbeat emotions to negative ones than people in unsuccessful liaisons do. Certain tactics can boost this ratio and thus help to strengthen connections with others. [To measure your positivity ratio, see box on page 52.] Another ingredient for relationship success: cultivating passion. Learning to become devoted to your significant other in a healthy way can lead to a more satisfying union.
Let the Good Times Roll
Until recently, studies largely centered on how romantic partners respond to each other’s misfortunes and on how couples manage negative emotions such as jealousy and anger—an approach in line with psychology’s traditional focus on alleviating deficits. One key to successful bonds, the studies indicated, is believing that your partner will be there for you when things go wrong. Then, in 2004, psychologist Shelly L. Gable, currently at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and her colleagues found that romantic couples share positive events with each other surprisingly often, leading the scientists to surmise that a partner’s behavior also matters when things are going well.
In a study published in 2006 Gable and her co-workers videotaped dating men and women in the laboratory while the subjects took turns discussing a positive and negative event. After each conversation, members of each pair rated how “responded to”—how understood, validated and cared for—they felt by their partner. Meanwhile observers rated the responses on how active-constructive (engaged and supportive ) they were—as indicated by intense listening, positive comments and questions, and the like.FetiveLow ratings reflected a more passive, generic response such as “That’s nice, honey.” Separately, the couples evaluated their commitment to and satisfaction with the relationship.
The researchers found that when a partner proffered a supportive response to cheerful statements, the “responded to” ratings were higher than they were after a sympathetic response to negative news, suggesting that how partners reply to good news may be a stronger determinant of relationship health than their reaction to unfortunate incidents. The reason for this finding, Gable surmises, may be that fixing a problem or dealing with a disappointment—though important for a relationship—may not make a couple feel joy, the currency of a happy pairing.
In addition, couples who answered good news in an active-constructive way scored higher on almost every type of measure of relationship satisfaction than those who responded in a passive or destructive way. (Passive replies indicate a lack of interest, as in changing the subject, and destructive responses include negative statements such as “That sounds like tons of work!”) Surprisingly, a passive-constructive response (“That’s nice, honey”) was almost as damaging as directly disparaging a partner’s good news. These data are consistent with an earlier study showing that active-constructive responders experience fewer conflicts and engage in more fun activities together. These individuals also are more likely to remain together. Active-constructive responding shows that a person cares about why the good news is important, Gable says, conveying that you “get” your partner. Conversely, negative or passive reactions signify that the responder is not terribly interested—in either the news or the person disclosing it.
Thankfully, life affords many opportunities to respond supportively to optimistic announcements: Gable, along with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, reported in 2005 that, for most individuals, positive events happen at least three times as often as negative ones. And just as responding enthusiastically to your partner’s good news increases relationship satisfaction so does sharing your own positive experiences. In a daily diary study of 67 cohabiting couples published in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology in 2010, Gable found that on days when couples reported telling their partner about a happy event they also reported feeling a stronger tie to their partner and greater security in their match.
Power of Positive Emotions
One of the benefits of reveling in the good times is a boost in the positive emotions of both members of a couple. A decade ago positive psychology pioneer Barbara L. Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that positive emotions, even fleeting ones, can broaden our thinking and enable us to connect more closely with others. Having an upbeat outlook, she argues, enables people to see the big picture and avoid getting hung up on small annoyances. This wide-angle view often brings to light new possibilities and offers solutions to difficult problems, making individuals better at handling adversity in relationships and other parts of life. It also tends to dismantle boundaries between “me” and “you,” creating stronger emotional attachments. “As positivity broadens your mind, it shifts your core view of people and relationships, bringing them closer to your center, to your heart,” Fredrickson says.
When a person’s positive sentiments outnumber negative feelings by three to one, that individual reaches a tipping point beyond which he or she becomes more resilient in life and love, Fredrickson found. Among individuals in enduring and mutually satisfying marriages, ratios tend to be even higher, hovering around five to one, according to research by world-renowned marriage expert John Gottman, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington.