What's the magic formula for a long lasting relationship (like Ellie and Carl in Pixar's movie Up)? Science says generosity and kindness rule.
For over 40 years, psychologist John Gottman studied thousands of couples in a quest to figure out what makes relationships work. In 1986, he set up a “The Love Lab” at the University of Washington where scientists hooked newlyweds up to electrodes and asked the couples to speak about their relationship, how they met, a major conflict they were facing together, and a positive memory they had. As they spoke, the electrodes measured the subjects' blood flow, heart rates, and how much they sweat they produced. The researchers sent the couples home and followed up with them six years later to see if they were still together.
From the data they gathered, Gottman separated the couples into two major groups: The masters and the disasters. The masters were still happily together after six years. The disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages. The more physiologically active the couples were in the lab -faster heart rates, more active sweat glands - the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time.
The problem was that for the disasters, having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger. Even when they were talking about pleasant or mundane facets of their relationships, they were prepared to attack and be attacked. This sent their heart rates soaring and made them more aggressive toward each other.
The masters, by contrast, showed low physiological arousal. They felt calm and connected together, which translated into warm and affectionate behavior, even when they fought. It’s not that the masters had, by default, a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.
So how do you create such a climate of trust?
Gottman said masters respond to their partner's requests for connection, what he 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.
These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.
“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained, “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.”
Contempt, they have found, is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder—deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally—damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner's ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships.
Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.
If your partner expresses a need,” explained Gottman's wife Julie, also a psychologist, “and you are tired, stressed, or distracted, then the generous spirit comes in when a partner makes a bid, and you still turn toward your partner.” In that moment, the easy response may be to turn away from your partner and focus on your iPad or your book or the television, to mumble “Uh huh” and move on with your life, but neglecting small moments of emotional connection will slowly wear away at your relationship. Neglect creates distance between partners and breeds resentment in the one who is being ignored.
The hardest time to practice kindness is, of course, during a fight—but this is also the most important time to be kind. Letting contempt and aggression spiral out of control during a conflict can inflict irrevocable damage on a relationship. “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger,” Julie Gottman explained, “but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and angry, and that’s the kinder path.”
A lot of times, a partner is trying to do the right thing even if it's executed poorly. So appreciate the intent." - psychologist Ty Tashiro
The truth is, we’re not very good listeners; we don’t know (and are not taught) how to listen to each other, at least not in a manner that truly nourishes us on a deep and spiritual level, and makes us feel heard, understood, or loved, says Nancy Colier, at website Psychology Today. This is a summary of her post:
If there is one ingredient that determines whether or not a relationship will be successful, that ingredient is listening—the degree to which each partner feels listened to and truly known. Couples that can listen to each other in a satisfying way usually succeed, while those that can’t usually fail. Ultimately, we can only feel loved to the degree that we feel listened to.
I recently had a session with "Jon" and "Joan" (not their real names). Joan began by saying that she felt her experience could never be “just heard” by Jon—listened to and absorbed, without any interpretation, solution, judgment, defense or attack. She described how Jon was unable to hold a space for or really be with what she was living—without doing something with it or to it. Jon responded that holding a space for her feelings was not something that should be expected of him. Her request was unreasonable in his eyes, because a husband should not have to sit by silently and listen to what his wife is not receiving in the relationship—not without speaking up for himself, expressing his opinion, and providing some explanation.
He then told his wife that what she really wanted (whether she knew it or not) was to control the relationship and him, as she "always did." Joan, without responding to his interpretation, repeated the same yearning—to be listened to with simple openness and non-judgment. Jon responded to this second attempt by telling Joan that her experience was false, that he did in fact listen to and hear her, even if she couldn’t feel it, and that she should examine why she couldn’t feel his kindness and interest. Joan then repeated her longing one more time, almost verbatim. This time Jon’s response was to express how totally alone he feels in the relationship, and how Joan has no interest in hearing what is truly important to him.
What happened between Joan and Jon is not gender specific nor is it specific to romantic relationships. What this couple demonstrated is a human problem: We constantly reject each other’s experience. It’s what we are taught to do. Listening to Joan that day, I felt as if I were watching an airplane desperately trying to find a place to land. Rejected by all control towers, her experience was to be left floating, unheard, unloved, with nowhere to touch down, nowhere to be welcomed home, no place to just be.
The problem, really, is that what we are asking for is not what we actually want, but rather what we have been conditioned to believe we are allowed to ask for. We don’t really long for anything to be done with or about our experience. We have probably already been inundated with countless well-intentioned and wise suggestions, from others and ourselves, on what we should do about our experience, and why we are having it. Really, we just want our experience to be heard, listened to, understood, and cared about. We want someone to know how it is for us in this moment, in this life, and to keep us company in our experience—exactly as it is.
The hardest thing in the world (or one of them anyway) is to listen to someone we care about (and even someone we don’t) talk about an experience that sounds painful—and not step in to help, offer suggestions, or try to fix it. The second-hardest (not necessarily in this order) is to listen to someone describe a problem that they (or we) believe we are responsible for—and not defend ourselves. And rounding out this trio is to listen to someone describe a problem for which we believe they are to blame and have created, and not try to convince them of their responsibility.
By seemingly doing nothing (but truly listening), we are allowing the other to discover what they need to discover, creating and holding the space in which their problem can uncover its own solution (which is rarely anything we could have come up with). By being willing and courageous enough to do nothing with and to another’s experience, we are actually doing the most profound thing of all.
In addition, while it can be very difficult to refrain from defending ourselves when we feel we are being blamed (or are to blame). By simply holding a space for another’s unhappiness, we establish ourselves as one who authentically cares, who wants to and is brave enough to know the other’s experience (even if it is about us). Making the other feel loved, through our deep and present listening, is the only way to create a safe enough place from which the other can assume the responsibility we want them to assume.
The next time you are listening to someone, see what it feels like to commit to being present, to just listening, without offering any interpretation about what the other person is living, or suggesting any way to fix it. See if you can simply be with their experience as it is. The next time you are sharing an experience—particularly if you are being bombarded with ideas for what to do or why it is the way it is—kindly ask the other person if they can listen to you without suggestions, and just hold a space for what you are describing.
It may feel like an awkward request, but if the other person can truly offer you this, it will be well worth the discomfort of asking. Notice how it feels for you to be heard and absorbed in this way. We need to relearn what helping really means, and what we actually need and want from each other, and for ourselves—the presence that we truly crave. Simultaneously, we need to be able to recognise and voice our real longing—to be known deeply, really listened to, and not fixed.
This experience, at its core, is love.
Another year, another resolution. Maybe it will be to lose weight, find a partner, quit smoking. But how about a way of changing the message you tell yourself? Removing your self-limiting programs may be the solution to happiness, molecular biologist Bruce Lipton told website Upliftconnect.
He said: "Our thoughts are not contained inside our head. When we have a negative thought, it’s not just a negative thought bouncing around in our head. It’s a broadcast. In the world of quantum physics, it’s an impulse that will return a similar response (The A string of my guitar activates the A string in yours, right?). What’s the relevance? There could be ten people out there – nine in a positive state of mind, one in a negative. If we send out a negative broadcast, who is going to pick it up? Not the nine positive people – they aren’t tuned to that frequency. Who is going to pick it up is the negative person. What happens if we activate a negative person with our negative broadcast? We bring them into our life!"
The challenge of catching ourselves in negative thought patterns is that “most of the time when we think, our conscious mind leaves the present moment. When we leave the present moment, our subconscious default programs kick in.” Dr Lipton estimates that 95% of our life we are running the default programs because “that is how much time we spend thinking. And most of these default programs are the disempowering, self sabotaging, limiting programs that we got during the first seven years of our life.”
According to Dr Lipton, the first step is to interrupt the pattern. That’s all fine and good, but with 50,000+ thoughts a day coming through each of our heads, the next question is, how can we possibly catch all the potentially negative thoughts and stop them from broadcasting?
It seems an impossible mission for the brain alone. “When we use our mind we rationalize and use calculations. One thought leads to and connects with the next thought and that’s fine except that if you have one error in your processing, one faulty thought, your end result answer will be faulty.” Fortunately there’s a greater power at play in each of our bodies, which has a broadcast capacity many times more powerful than that of our brain… It’s called the heart.
According to HeartMath Institute Director of Research, Rollin McCraty, (in his paperEnergetic Heart: Bioelectromagnetic Communication Within and Between People), “The heart is a sensory organ and acts as a sophisticated information encoding and processing center that enables it to learn, remember, and make independent functional decisions…” And the heart happens to generate the largest electromagnetic field in the body – about 60 times greater in amplitude than the brain. In Dr Lipton's words: “What’s different about the heart is that the heart doesn’t do calculations. The heart reads energy.” And it’s a language available to all of us."
The first language of communication is energy. Vibration. There’s a whole range of energy we as humans feel, but essentially there’s two kinds of vibes. There’s good vibes and bad vibes. Bad vibes take away your energy and good vibes enhance your energy. The vibes don’t tell us the words, they don’t tell us the details or rational thought. They just tell us if this energy is good for us or bad. When an animal feels bad vibes what do you think it does? It moves away. How does it know? Because its life is based on energy. You have energy, you gain life. You lose energy, you lose life. This is the primal communication form of everything from bacteria to humans.
Even though it might not always make sense in the moment, according to Dr Lipton, the heart path is the most direct path because the heart will always tell us where the energy is. “You can think about it all you want but when you come down to your final choice, put it in your heart and ask the question. Which one feels better? The one that feels better in your heart is already telling you the answer. Go with that one.”
The one time we all naturally keep our mind and heart in the present (often without knowing we are doing it) is when we fall in love.
"When we are having that love experience the conscious mind stays in front and that’s the moment of power. The moment we start thinking we go on autopilot and then we’re no longer driving the vehicle. You can feel it in your heart. If you are in a good place and you are in harmony and happy, you can feel it’s a really wonderful thing. But the moment you start to get into doubt and mistrust and fear you can feel that love and pleasure starts to disappear from your heart. You can feel it. It feels different," Dr Lipton said.
"So during the day the basic question is, are you living in a troubled state of mind (which means you are really just calculating from programs) or are you present to, immersed in the moment and therefore the joy of life?" In other words, “The challenges were still there, but they didn’t take away your energy or joy because you were fully in the moment, literally able to transcend them.”
All entries complied by osteopath Dr Wei Chua unless otherwise stated.