There is a researcher named Dr John Gottman who, after decades of researching relationship stability, can now predict with 94% accuracy which couples are destined for happily ever after, and which are destined for disaster. He can do this after just one day of observing a couple’s dynamics, and he can do this for any type of couple – straight, gay, mixed-race, same-race, poor, rich, old and young. By analysing their interactions, he can use certain key predictors to very accurately surmise whether the pair will still be in a relationship 6 years later, and whether that will be a happy relationship or not.

Mathematician Hannah Fry has taken it a step further and composed a mathematical formula based on Gottman’s research, which she discusses in her TED talk. The formula she came up with can predict how positive or negative a partner will be at the next stage of an interaction, and she expands on how mathematics is intertwined with romance in her book.

The Mathematics of Love (TED) by Hannah Fry

What both Fry and Gottman conclude is that relationships are built on the number of positive ineractions, and the threshold for annoyance at each other. Gottman found in his studies was that the very physiology of the couples gave away their relationship quality, and so betraying whether they were, in Gottman’s terms, “masters or disasters” at their relationship. The “disasters”, though appearing calm, were on high alert during their interaction with increased heart rate, secreting sweat glands, and other indicators of being in “fight or flight mode”. This means that their interactions were physiologically similar to a fight to the death, even when discussing mundane aspects of their relationship. The “masters” on the other hand, were relaxed, calm and trusting in the presence of their other half, and made no attacking statements of each other. Given that trust is hugely important from building intimacy and happiness in a relationship, it is no surprise that the masters were the ones who were together and happy 6 years later.

Fry said that on analysing data, she expected the couples with the highest tolerance for annoyance to be the successful ones. She predicted that her findings would indicate that couples who let the little things go and only brought up the large grievances would be the happiest. What she found was actually the direct opposite. Whilst she accurately predicted that a higher number of positive interactions was related to relationship success, she was surprised to find that couples with the lowest threshold for annoyance were the most successful. This means that they bring up every small thing as it happens, and work together to construct compromises and solutions to every problem. She says:

“In those relationships, couples allow each other to complain, and work together to constantly repair the tiny issues between them. In such a case, couples don’t bottle up their feelings, and little things don’t end up being blown completely out of proportion.”

Gottman elaborates on exactly what comprises a positive interaction. He describes “bids” where one person makes a request for attention, and that whether the other person “turns towards” or “turns away or against” these bids, this is hugely consequential for the overall success of the relationship. When the partner turns towards the bid, he or she actively participates, engages and shares excitement with their other half. One such example that he gives is this:

The husband, who is a keen birdwatcher, looks out the window and says “Oh look, a goldfinch”.

The wife, who is not a keen birdwatcher, has three general reply options:

1.       “I’m busy trying to read my book, stop interrupting me”

2.       “That’s nice dear, what shall we do for dinner later?”

3.       “Oh how lovely, are they common around here? Can I see?”

Option 1 is turning against the bid, whereby the bidder is made to feel bad for the bid, option 2 is turning away, whereby the bidder feels dismissed, and option 3 is turning towards, where the bidder feels encouraged and supported.

Whilst husband and wife was used as an example here, it would not matter if the roles were reversed, or if it were a same-sex relationship. What Gottman found was that in those couples who broke up, their average was 30% in turning towards each other’s bids, whereas in the couples who were still together 6 years later, 9 out of every 10 bids were met with turning towards. What it boils down to is that couples who are kind to one another are much more likely to last the distance.

For instance, Guttman also found that expectation of intention was important. When one partner assumes the other has good intentions in the event of failure of any kind, the outcome is much more likely to be a longlasting relationship. One example of this is if a wife is regularly late, the partner has 2 options for acknowledging their dismay:

Option 1: “You’re always late, what’s wrong with you?”

Option 2: “I’m sorry to bring this up again, but you running late to our date makes me feel unimportant to you”.

Option 1 implies contempt, superiority and no room for improvement, along with assumption of intent to be late and to be hurtful. Option 2 is honest, constructive and allows room for explanation and apology. Option 1 looks to create conflict, whereas option 2 looks to resolve it before it has even begun. The research found that for a vast majority of the time, each member of a couple has good intentions, and that assumption of bad intentions is so hurtful it can play a significant factor in a breakdown of relationship.

Gottman’s findings have been supported in other studies, such as one conducted in non-married 18-24 year-old couples. Those couples who reported a feeling of mattering were less likely to exhibit depressive behaviours, and to be more satisfied in their relationships. They also found other factors including sexual exclusivity, communication and conflict were key predictors for the emotional wellbeing of the participants.

So it turns out that collaboration, kindness and positivity in a relationship are the major factors that determine whether we feel valued and listened to, and whether that relationship is happy or destructive. The happiest couples recognise problems, put them to each other in a constructive way, fix them together and move on.

So how can I use this information to help create healthy relationships?

·         Practise kindness towards each other from the very beginning.

·         Assume good intentions from your partner, even when things have gone awry.

Choose thinking “he has forgotten to put the toilet seat down” over “why does he do this on purpose when he knows it annoys me”.

·         Turn towards your partner’s bids.

Choose variances of “How interesting, tell me more” over “This isn’t a topic that interests me so go away”.

·         Be actively engaged and respond positively to their successes.

Choose “I’m so pleased you got your promotion, you really deserve it” over “I suppose this means you’ll be working longer hours, I hope you can cope with the extra responsibility”.

·         Don’t allow resentment to build over small things: bring them up as they go along, and work together to fix them.

Choose “I need this from you” over “You are doing this wrong”.

·         Avoid contempt and statements that imply superiority when raising issues.

Choose “this behaviour hurts my feelings” over “this is what is wrong with your behaviour”.

This could apply to any relationship, not just partner-partner. Think about the last interaction with your best friend, sibling, child, parent or even work colleague, and ask yourself what kind of relationship it is that you’re building with them.

You can order online to buy Hannah Fry’s book The Mathematics of Love (TED)
or John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work

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