According to scientific findings, lasting relationships come down to — you guessed it — kindness and generosity. Drawing on the research of the Gottman Relationship Institute, Emily Esfahani Smith (Masters of Love, The Atlantic, 6.12.14) writes that partners who show genuine interest in their partners’ joys are more likely to be happy together and content with their relationship. The following is a short, edited excerpt.
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In a 2006 study, psychological researcher Shelly Gable and her colleagues brought young adult couples into the Gottman Institute’s Love Lab (set up at University of Washington in 1986 to study the interactions of couples) to discuss recent positive events from their lives. They psychologists wanted to know how partners might respond to one other’s good news. They found that, in general, couples responded to each other’s good news in four different ways: passive destructive; active destructive; passive constructive; and active constructive.
Scenario: One partner has recently received the excellent news that she was accepted into medical school. She comes to her partner and tells him: “I got into my top choice medical school!”
Her partner ignores the event, or fails to acknowledge it, moving into his/her own business (“I also have some good news. My stocks finally went up!”).
Her partner acknowledges the good news, but in a half-hearted or understated way (saying something like, “That’s great, babe…” while texting his buddy on his phone).
Her partner diminishes the good news, or throws cold water on it (saying something like, “Are you sure you can handle all the studying? And what about the cost? Med school is so expensive!”).
Her partner stops what he is doing and engages wholeheartedly in congratulations (“That’s amazing! When did you find out? Did they call you? What classes will you take first semester?”). [A really masterful partner will take her out to dinner in celebration!]
The fourth response style, active-constructive, is the obviously the kindest. It is also the most generous. The receiver of the news allows his partner to savor her joy — making space for bonding even if he is preoccupied, busy or wanting to share something of his own. This sort of response — referred to by the Gottmans as a “turning toward” rather than “turning away” from a partner’s bid for attention, sharing, or connection — is a critical component of healthy relationships.
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In several of their studies, Gable and her colleagues determined that the couples who were able to engage in active-constructive responding, and to show genuine interest in their partner’s joys, were more likely to stay together over time. They also found that active-constructive responding was associated with higher relationship quality and more intimacy between partners.
There are many reasons relationships fail; chief among them is a breakdown of kindness and generosity. Couples who not only endure, but who live happily together through the stresses of raising a family and of long-term commitment, are generally guided forward by the spirit of kindness and generosity.