Many studies have shown that marriage – or any intimate relationship – is an important source of life satisfaction. But what does happiness look like with your significant other when conflict is inevitable or even frequent?
We have been led to believe that a happy couple
– knows each other well without needing to say a single word.
– does not fight.
– resolves all their differences even if they do.
– enjoys lots of romance.
– lives happily ever after following true love’s kiss.
But read on to get a digest of insights offered to us by actual research on marriage longevity.
The Magic Relationship Ratio for Happy Couples
Drs John Gottman and Robert Levenson teamed up to conduct longitudinal studies of married couples in the 1970s to find out what made them stay together.
They could predict, with over 90% accuracy, that if the couples interacted with each other in negative ways more than they do in positive ways, they would end up in divorce. Even when the ratio of positive-to-negative interactions is 1:1, the couples tended to be unhappy and were on the brink of splitting up for good.
Most significantly, Gottman and Levenson discovered that happy couples with healthy marriages have a 5:1 ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions. This means that for every one negative feeling or interaction during conflict, they also must have at least 5 positive interactions to overcome the emotional power it holds.
This ratio recognises, and reminds us, that the existence of conflict does not necessarily mean a marriage is unhappy or doomed. Happy couples experience conflicts, but they invest energy and time to repair aspects of the relationship which are frayed or damaged in several (in fact, 7!) ways.
To build a flourishing marriage, we’d like to share two key attitudes one can adopt, which are aligned to the first two principles Dr Gottman proposed in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (1999).
“Curiosity is one of the great secrets of happiness.” — Bryant H. McGill
Be continuously curious about your spouse. Husbands and wives sometimes forget that they share a deep friendship and are often also best friends. Before you became a couple, you were friends. Your curiosity drove you to know each other more and eventually become intimate. In fact, studies have shown that curiosity in relationships makes communication productive, strengthening the emotional intimacy that couples enjoy.
This accords with Gottman’s first principle to making marriage work: enhance your love maps. A love map is “that part of your brain where you store all the relevant information about your partner’s life,” he defines. It consists of knowledge about your spouse, including their thoughts, feelings, opinions, preferences, quirks, fears and dreams.
When you were first getting to know each other, practically everything was interesting. But your love maps got outdated or neglected – understandably – as you experienced momentous life changes, such as the arrival of your first child and a promotion at work. However, outdated love maps mean you are living with someone who is no longer who he or she was when you first met, which can lead to misunderstanding or even mistrust between partners.
The solution is to update your love maps by continually being curious about your spouse. Pay attention to the little details of their lives. Keeping the love maps current and clarifying them means you are discovering new things about your spouse, which will lead you to explore your relationship in novel ways. It’s like courtship every day!
There was a period of time my wife and I quarreled over lights! Whichever room she went to, she will turn on the lights even in the day time. I will remind her to turn them off when she leaves the room. After a while, I lost my patience as she did not heed my advice! We have had good amount of arguments on the importance of turning on or turning off lights! Then, I began to be curious why this happened – it’s so trivial right? I learnt that because of her high myopia, she needed more light to see than I do. And she learnt that I was trained when I was young to turn on the lights only at night. We updated our love maps and we never quarrel over lights again!
Want a fun way to update your love maps? Download Gottman’s Card Decks app here
“Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.” —Henri Frederic Amiel
Gratitude’s definitely the right attitude. Studies have shown that being grateful towards one’s partner contributes to a healthy marriage and influences us to invest more time and effort into making the relationship satisfying.
Start by saying “thank you” on a regular basis for small favours or acts of kindness your spouse does, and it could stop you from taking them for granted and help you appreciate them more.
This agrees with Gottman’s second principle for making marriage work, which is to build fondness and admiration for each other. Try a variation of these affirmations today to convey affection and approval:
“Thank you for helping with the housework today.”
“I appreciate how you make time for dinner with my parents.”
“I love it when you hug me every morning before heading off to work.”
Or better yet, actually take action:
❥ Help with the housework to acknowledge the amount of work she or he has been handling.
❥ Make time for dinner with the in-laws, to show how you respect her or his relationship with them.
❥ Hug your spouse and display affection every morning before heading off to work.
Forget enormous bouquets, expensive gifts or a new gadget when you want to show how grateful you are. All you need is to do something simple and sincere that expresses it directly. Be your partner’s number one fan and let him or her know that through action.
– – –
To sum up, happy couples
‣ remember that love is in the details they observe and remember
‣ nurture genuine appreciation of their better halves.
We hope these small acts which demonstrate your curiosity about your partner’s life and your gratitude towards him or her can help make your relationship withstand tests and last long.
Written by: Timothy Thong, Counsellor, Fei Yue Community Services
Gottman, John M, and Nan Silver. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.
Palmer, Kandace R. (2018) “The Expression of Gratitude as a Contributor to Marital Strength,” Intuition: The BYU Undergraduate Journal of Psychology. Vol. 13:2. Article 3.
Todd B. Kashdan, John E. Roberts 2004. Trait and State Curiosity in the Genesis of Intimacy: Differentiation From Related Constructs. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 2004 23:6. 792-816.