Three Secrets for Compassion in Relationships That Last
Only 30% of people who get married continue to have happy, healthy marriages.
What are the qualities of successful relationships? Over forty years of research on healthy relationships, pioneered by the work of John Gottman and Robert Levenson at the University of Washington, has pinpointed three factors: A climate of trust, curious engagement, and the discipline of kindness and generosity. Gay or straight, rich or poor, with or without children, couples are either Masters or Disasters based on these three qualities.
Masters are those who are happily together at least six years after getting married. Disasters are those whose marriage has broken up or who are chronically unhappy.
The Three Secrets for Compassion in Relationships
Here are three secrets that happily married couples know and practice. These secrets all have do with the practice of compassion in relationships, or “struggling with” your partner.
Secret 1: A Climate of Trust
When having conversations, even about the most mundane things, Disaster couples show physiological arousal, a fight-or-flight response with heightened heart rate. It’s as if they are expecting a battle to break out, probably because most previous conversations degenerated into a win-lose contest. This is a sign of drama, where both participants are playing a drama role with the end goal of struggling against each other to feel justified. Their conversation is adversarial and destructive.
Masters, on the other hand, show calm connection, regardless of the topic being discussed. The attitude and emotional climate is one of “You’re OK, I’m OK.” They stay engaged with one another, avoiding judgment, attack or blame. Consequently, they do not expect a battle and are more emotionally and physically comfortable.
Creating a climate of trust is about Openness. Here’s a link to learn more about openness and how to build this muscle in your relationship.
Secret 2: Curious Engagement
In a relationship, partners frequently make what Gottman calls “bids” for connection. Maybe one partner is watching the weather and says to the other, “They are predicting icy roads this weekend.” This signal is looking for a response from the other person. How the partner responds strongly predicts whether the relationship will last.
Disaster couples respond to bids with a lack of curiosity. They either passively acknowledge the bid with statements such as “OK,” actively dismiss the bid with comments like, “Stop bothering me, I’m trying to read,” or ignore the bid completely. Any of these responses shows a lack of interest in what the other person finds important.
Masters respond to bids for connection with genuine curiosity. They give their partner full attention, ask questions, and take an interest in learning. An example might be, “When is the ice supposed to start? I wonder how this will affect our trip tomorrow.”
Curious engagement is about Resourcefulness, a second quality of compassion in relationships. Here are some tips to build your Resourcefulness muscle.
Secret 3: Discipline of Kindness and Generosity
Do you expect your partner to mess up? Do you anticipate they will let you down? Or do you give them the benefit of the doubt, looking for positive qualities and behaviors to affirm? This dynamic, called “contempt, criticism and hostility vs. kindness and generosity,” is the strongest predictor of successful relationships.
Disaster couples have developed habits of ignoring and dismissing each other, looking for reasons to criticize and complain, and anticipating negative intentions in one another. Gottman found that people who are focused on tearing down their partners miss a startling 50% of the positive behaviors in their partner, and see a lot of negative things that aren’t even there.
Masters search out and affirm the positives in each other. They assume positive intentions, look for reasons to celebrate, and focus energy on what’s going well. This type of optimism requires discipline, commitment and hard work. It doesn’t happen by chance, and it won’t magically maintain just because you fell in love and said your vows. It can only be sustained with daily effort.
Contrary to what most people might believe, Masters are more capable of expressing healthy anger and working through it because of their commitment to kindness and generosity. Assertive, non-attacking anger is a critical skill for successful relationships.
The discipline of kindness and generosity is about Persistence, the third quality of compassion in relationships. How can you build your Persistence muscle? Here are some tips.
Want to learn more about compassion in relationships that last? How do you practice compassion in relationships? Check out Ty Tashiro’s book, The Science of Happily Ever After.