Have you ever wondered what makes marriage work? I mean really work. About 40% of marriages end in divorce while another 20% report that while they have no plans to separate, they are not happy together. Do you ever wonder how the other 40% do it? Is it magic? Luck? Or maybe chemistry? The correct answer would be: “None of the above”. And that’s good news, because whatever they are doing is nothing that you & I can’t do as well. And while it isn’t always easy, it’s simplicity is downright surprising. In a word, it really boils down to friendship. Across the board, successful relationships enjoy each others company most of time.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Thanks for that Sherlock. That’s a brilliant insight.” While it may indeed seem to be overstating the obvious, the real trick is in making it happen. Is it actually possible to “learn to like” someone or to behave in a way that causes the sense of fondness in relationship to be preserved, even enhanced? There is research available to us today that suggests this is not only possible, but in fact that successful couples do exactly that everyday. Now, I should warn you, if you are looking for that one magic bullet, home run move that will bring the zest back into your marriage, you may find yourself in for a long and frustrating search. On the other hand, if you are prepared to do the little things on a daily basis that keep a relationship refreshed and among the magic 40%, you may have stumbled across an invaluable secret.
The Gottman institute in Seattle Wa. has discovered through research conducted over the past 30 years, that successful relationships share some significant patterns that contribute to a sense of fondness and friendship. One of the key ingredients to achieving this, the Gottman’s found, was a high level of connecting. But you may be surprised at what this actually looks like on a day-to-day basis. Their research clearly shows that the intense and heart throbbing scenes portrayed on the Silver Screen are actually not what makes romance cook. Rather, it’s simplicity and sense of the ordinary is quite stunning.
Here’s what I am talking about: Have you ever been lost in the paper, or just having a mindless moment? You were vaguely aware that somewhere in the background your wife was talking to you. Something about laundry, soccer and orange slices. It’s not really about the soccer. Gottman calls it a “bid for connection”. It’s one partner reaching out to the other and simply looking for acknowledgment. You may be surprised to learn that how you respond to those everyday “bids” goes a long way in determining the quality of your relationship. A comment as simple as “Oh soccer. And I was hoping to sleep in” sends a message of mindfulness and connection. The results are likely to be a warm-hearted chat that, when they happen as a matter of practice, become the building blocks of friendship.
But what happens if you keep your nose in your paper and leave her words to drift into the background? She is likely to feel a surprisingly deep level of hurt and bitterness. This is where the research revealed something else surprising. Almost without exception the one keeping his or her nose in his paper so to speak, means no ill will. Maybe you’re tired or distracted or maybe you just didn’t think a response was warranted. But the failure to reply was a really big deal.
It happens to the best of us. Earlier this week I was sitting at the table with my family at the tail end of dinner. I was looking at emails on my Blackberry while my wife was telling me about her day. I heard every word she was saying, when all of the sudden her tone changed and she asked me what I was doing anyway. Was I even listening to her? “Ya, I was listening” I assured her. “I answered you”. My teenagers chimed in “no dad, you never said anything.” Can you believe those kids? I give them rides everywhere and they sold me out in one second! I put my Blackberry away and talked to my wife.
The research has shown that it takes is as little as 3 consecutive failures to respond to bids for connection before a person gives up and retreats. Thus begins a cascade of confusing isolation and loneliness that tears mercilessly at the fabric of a relationship. The real tragedy here is that most times the perpetrator has no clue what just happened. We’re just wrapped up in thought, or just don’t understand the impact of our failure to reciprocate conversation.
As devastating as the failure to respond to a bid for connection is, reaching back is surprisingly simple. This week, when your partner makes a seemingly inconsequential comment, make eye contact. Say something. Grunt & nod. Whatever you do, don’t let it look like you didn’t hear them. At the end of the week, take note of how your relationship feels different.
MA; RCC and Director
Henry provides couples therapy in Kelowna and has been working with Marriages & Families since 1991. This includes 10 years as a foster parent, helping couples prepare for and enrich their family experience, and 25 years of private practice as a couples & family therapist. His wealth of experience and professionalism provide you and your family with the care and direction you need in order to achieve your relationship goals.