In her "Atlantic" article "Masters of Love," author Emily Esfahani Smith shares the science-based secrets to creating long-lasting, fulfilling relationships; and the answer is simple: kindness and generosity.
Smith shares what researchers have discovered; and not surprisingly these attributes carry over into all aspects of life; from school and work to neighborhood and church.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman studied thousands of couples over several decades. They categorized them into two groups — the "masters" and the "disasters." Their findings were that small but significant kindnesses created an aesthetic of reciprocal caring. When one of the "masters" partners made a "request for connection" their partner validated it by positively responding or interacting. The example used was the husband, seeing a bird and saying to his wife, "Look at that bird," was asking for a connection with her in the hope that she would support him by being interested or affirming his interest. When she chooses to "turn toward" his request instead of "turning away," it increased the trust and intimacy of the relationship. The masters had the habit of turning toward one another's requests. The disasters ignored the requests or responded minimally by continuing to do whatever they were engaged in — texting, reading the paper, etc., or by responding with a hostile, "Don't bother me; I'm busy."
The "disaster" couples showed the physical and emotional signs of "fight or flight." Their bodies and minds were prepared for an attack or retreat rather than a positive interaction. And the corresponding statistics were astounding; the master couples "turned toward" the other's requests 87 percent of the time and were still married after six years. The unfortunate disasters only responded positively 33 percent of the time.
The Gottmans predict marital success by observing what spirit the couples bring to the relationship: the successful generosity and kindness, or the hostility, criticism and contempt that poison relationships.
They described a critically important talent of scanning a relationship environment and partner for signs of what they are doing right, and not for reasons to criticize. The masters found ways to respect the partner and show appreciation. In unhealthy relationships, the responses included ignoring the positives and giving a "cold shoulder" or responding minimally, making the partner feel unvalued, worthless or invisible. Not only does the love die in these disaster relationships, but so does physical well-being; those involved often fall ill to viruses and cancer.
Kindness breathes love and health into a relationship. Some people are intrinsically kind, while others have to work at it. The kindness that acts as a glue for bonding people together can be thought of as a muscle; the more you exercise it, the stronger a trait it becomes in you. But kindness does not mean that you are not honest in your communications. Expressing disappointment or hurt does not create a negative environment when you choose to explain why you are hurt or angry, instead of launching an attack. Dr. John Gottman said, "A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it's executed poorly. So appreciate the intent."
Another invaluable trait is the ability to share and rejoice in the positives in each other's lives. Psychological researcher Shelly Gable found that partners (and this is applicable to any human interaction) respond generally in four ways.
In the article, Smith illustrated the responses by describing one partner receiving excellent news; she was admitted to her top choice for medical school. The partner then has multiple choices of responses:
A passive destructive response would be to ignore the event, and maybe share his own triumph, as is sometimes experienced with highly competitive people.
Active destructive responses are the most damaging responses, as they diminish the other's success. For example, he would ask if she could really handle all of the studying medical school entails, or comment on how expensive it is.
Or he may give a passive constructive response: "That's great, honey," as he continues to text his friend on the phone.
Ideally, the interaction will be active constructive. He will stop what he is doing, give his full attention, offer sincere congratulations, sharing the joy and engaging in meaningful questions about the event. This shows kindness and increases the quality and healthy intimacy of the relationship. Gable and her colleagues found that the only difference between the couples who were still together and the ones who had broken up was the presence of active constructive responses.
Smith concludes that the stresses and distractions of life — from children to career, illnesses, finances, friends, etc. — and the breakdown of kindness can tear couples apart. If the levels of satisfaction begin to drop in a marriage or other relationship, the spirit of kindness and generosity continues to guide a couple toward continuity and success.