Researchers can tell if a couple is destined for divorce just by the way they argue.
One thing I love about my parents’ relationship is that they’re always teasing each other. Even when they argue or there is an undercurrent of tension, they’re always making these little jokes. They’re familiar, the same jokes they’ve said for years, but we kids still laugh at them because we recognize them for what they are — small moments of connection between our parents, little flashes of their abiding affection for each other.
There’s actually a name for this phenomenon, and it’s one of several ways that have been scientifically proven to strengthen a relationship:
Back in the 1970s, Dr. John Gottman and his research associates asked couples to solve a conflict in their relationship in 15 minutes while they watched. After studying the tapes and following up with couples nine years later, they were able to predict which couples would still be together and which would divorce with over 90 percent accuracy. How? They argue that the difference between happy and unhappy relationships comes down to the ratio of positive to negative interactions, namely five to one. So, for every negative interaction during conflict, a happy marriage has five (or more) positive interactions. “When [couples in happy marriages] are talking about something important,” Dr. Gottman says, “they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections.”
This doesn’t come naturally to all couples, obviously. Particularly in marriages where personalities tend to clash instead of complement, it can take a serious act of will to accept good-natured teasing in the midst of an argument. But it’s one of the most important things a couple can do in order to maintain their emotional connection.
There’s another important way you can strengthen your relationship, and it also happens to be something my parents are particularly good at. This one requires less willpower and more old-fashioned elbow grease — sharing the chores.
I know, I know. It’s super lame to spend all day at work and then come home and have to work more. But that’s just the way life is — living it requires work, and living it happily with the person you love requires making sure they’re happy, too. And that means sharing the work — even on weekends, even on holidays, even after long days at the office. If your spouse is constantly on their feet while you’re relaxing, I guarantee you they’re not happy … and you’re likely to spend some time later hearing about it. Wouldn’t it be more relaxing in the long run to pitch in for a minute so you can relax together?
After all, a relationship is really about togetherness. Not just living together, having kids together, and managing the money together — it’s about being a team. One of my friends once said that she is her husband’s team and he is hers. That image stuck with me, because it’s so simple but so profound. A recent study has proven that supportive team-like dynamics like this are vital to relationship success.
So what do teammates do? They work together, learn together, clean up together. They cheer each other’s triumphs and feel each other’s losses, and they encourage each other to keep trying, to be better, to work harder. But they do it by working right alongside each other. A good teammate doesn’t sit at home watching Netflix while everyone else is working out. A good teammate knows that the success and happiness of the whole team depends on each person pulling their weight, sharing the load, and working together.
So if you’re working on strengthening your relationship in the new year, a good way to start is by revamping the way you think about it. It’s not so much a give-and-take between the two of you or a series of infinite compromises, though those things happen. But they happen best when you’re thinking less about what you’re putting into or getting out of the relationship and more about the health, happiness, and well-being of your spouse. They’re your team, after all, so start being theirs.