The Science Behind Happy Relationships
By Sarah Treleaven
June 26, 2018
When it comes to relationships, most of us are winging it. Weíre exhilarated by the early stages of love, but as we move onto the general grind of everyday life, personal baggage starts to creep in and we can find ourselves floundering in the face of hurt feelings, emotional withdrawal, escalating conflict, insufficient coping techniques and just plain boredom. Thereís no denying it: making and keeping happy and healthy relationships is hard.
But a growing field of research into relationships is increasingly providing science-based guidance into the habits of the healthiest, happiest couples ó and how to make any struggling relationship better. As weíve learned, the Science
of love and relationships boils down to fundamental lessons that are simultaneously simple, obvious and difficult to master: empathy, positivity and a strong emotional connection drive the happiest and healthiest relationships.
Maintaining a strong emotional connection
ďThe most important thing weíve learned, the thing that totally stands out in all of the developmental psychology, social psychology and our labís work in the last 35 years is that the secret to loving relationships and to keeping them strong and vibrant over the years, to falling in love again and again, is emotional responsiveness,Ē says Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist in Ottawa and the author of several books, including Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.
That responsiveness, in a nutshell, is all about sending a cue and having the other person respond to it. ďThe $99 million question in love is, ĎAre you there for me?íĒ says Johnson. ďItís not just, ĎAre you my friend and will you help me with the chores?í Itís about emotional synchronicity and being tuned in.Ē
ďEvery couple has differences,Ē continues Johnson. ďWhat makes couples unhappy is when they have an emotional disconnection and they canít get a feeling of secure base or safe haven with this person.Ē She notes that criticism and rejection ó often met with defensiveness and withdrawal ó are exceedingly distressing, and something that our brain interprets as a danger cue.
To foster emotional responsiveness between partners, Johnson pioneered Emotionally Focused Therapy, in which couples learn to bond through having conversations that express needs and avoid criticism. ďCouples have to learn how to talk about feelings in ways that brings the other person closer,Ē says Johnson.
Keeping things positive
According to Carrie Cole, director of research for the Gottman Institute, an organization dedicated to the research of marriage, emotional disengagement can easily happen in any relationship when couples are not doing things that create positivity.
ďWhen that happens, people feel like theyíre just moving further and further apart until they donít even know each other anymore,Ē says Cole. That focus on positivity is why the Gottman Institute has embraced the motto ďsmall things often.Ē The Gottman Lab has been studying relationship satisfaction since the 1970s, and that research drives the Instituteís psychologists to encourage couples to engage in small, routine points of contact that demonstrate appreciation.
One easy place to start is to find ways to compliment your partner every day, says Cole ó whether itís expressing your appreciation for something theyíve done or telling them, specifically, what you love about them. This exercise can accomplish two beneficial things: First, it validates your partner and helps them feel good about themselves. And second, it helps to remind you why you chose that person in the first place.
Listen to the brain, not just your heart
When it comes to the brain and love, biological anthropologist and Kinsey Institute senior fellow Helen Fisher has found ó after putting people into a brain scanner ó that there are three essential neuro-chemical components found in people who report high relationship satisfaction: practicing empathy, controlling oneís feelings and stress and maintaining positive views about your partner.
In happy relationships, partners try to empathize with each other and understand each otherís perspectives instead of constantly trying to be right.
Controlling your stress and emotions boils down to a simple concept: ďKeep your mouth shut and donít act out,Ē says Fisher. If you canít help yourself from getting mad, take a break by heading out to the gym, reading a book, playing with the dog or calling a friend ó anything to get off a destructive path. Keeping positive views of your partner, which Fisher calls ďpositive illusions,Ē are all about reducing the amount of time you spend dwelling on negative aspects of your relationship.
ďNo partner is perfect, and the brain is well built to remember the nasty things that were said,Ē says Fisher. ďBut if you can overlook those things and just focus on whatís important, itís good for the body, good for the mind and good for the relationship.Ē
Happier relationships, happier life
Ultimately, the quality of a personís relationships dictates the quality of their life. ďGood relationships arenít just happier and nicer,Ē says Johnson. ďWhen we know how to heal [relationships] and keep them strong, they make us resilient. All these clichťs about how love makes us stronger arenít just clichťs; itís physiology. Connection with people who love and value us is our only safety net in life.Ē
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