Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
In about two months, my husband I will celebrate our Pearl Anniversary (30 years). While we haven’t yet shown the stamina of my grandparents’ generation — my maternal grandfather and 4 of his brothers celebrated their Golden Weddings (50 years) and my paternal grandparents celebrated their Diamond Wedding (60 years), I think we can claim some stick-to-it-iveness.
Fortunately for us, it has gotten easier and more rewarding with practice. Why is that? That’s what I’d like to explore here, based on work by John Gottman and other psychologists who have studied relationship excellence.
These ideas are not specific to marriage. They can also be important for other long-term relationships with friends, partners, children, siblings, and parents.
Situational versus Perpetual ConflictsWe recently heard John and Julie Gottman speak at a small conference for MAPP graduates. John talked about how he and Levinson started studying marriages without any preconceived notions about what they’d find. They observed first, then looked for patterns, then formulated hypotheses, then tested them, then Gottman used them to formulate principles that can inform marriage therapy.
For example, they’ve observed that 69% of the conflicts that married couples face are perpetual conflicts that will never be resolved. How do they know? They studied a set of marriages over a 4 year period and coded the conflicts they observed. To their surprise, only 31% of the problems were specific to a given situation. The rest were associated with basic differences in personality or differences that are closely tied to each partner’s concept of who he or she is as a person. But guess what! Getting a different partner doesn’t free you from perpetual conflicts. You just trade in one set and get back another.
My husband and I have our set of perpetual conflicts, including a different pace of arguing, possibly attributable to our different MBTI types. I’m an Extravert — I think out loud and with a lot of words. He’s an Introvert — he thinks his point of view over very carefully before he opens his mouth. I’ve learned to say my piece and shut up and wait. I’ve watched the second hand go around a clock at least 5 times waiting for him to tell me what he thinks. What a lesson in patience! It’s also a way to show I respect the way his mind works.
Approach versus Avoidance Goals
Impett and colleagues recently published a paper about 3 studies where they looked at romantic relationships in terms of approach versus avoidance goals:
Whereas approach social goals direct individuals toward potential positive outcomes, such as intimacy and growth in their close relationships, avoidance social goals direct individuals away from potential negative outcomes, such as conflict and rejection. (p. 1)
I think it is possible to be low or high in both approach and avoidance goals simultaneously.Their work builds on prior work by Gable and others, extending it by looking at the interaction between the goals of both members of the dyad, looking at satisfaction over longer periods of time, and exploring the role of positive emotions.
They hypothesize that “whereas it may only take one partner to be high in approach goals for partners to experience satisfaction in the moment, it likely requires that both partners be high in approach goals for the relationship to flourish over time.” This reminded me of one of Gottman’s results, “Marriages will work to the extent that men accept influence from, share power with, women,” although Gottman did not find that women accepting influence of men to have the same predictive power. Take a woman high in approach goals and a man open to her influence, and you have good conditions for marital success.
Here are some of the outcomes of the three studies described in the paper. There was too much going on to describe all the outcomes here.
- People who were high in approach goals experienced greater relationship satisfaction both in the moment and over time; people high in avoidance goals experienced a decline in relationship satisfaction over time.
- Having a single member of the dyad high in approach goals can keep the relationship satisfaction high for a short time, but over the longer haul, both partners need to be high in approach goals for the relationship to thrive. In contrast, it takes only one member to have strong avoidance goals to bring relationship satisfaction down.
- Experiencing more positive emotions on a daily basis does appear to be part of the explanation for the association between approach goals and higher relationship satisfaction. This reminded me of Gottman’s suggestion that having a solid history of positive every-day moments between conflicts contributes to the ability to have positive emotions during conflict. Positive emotions help people soothe themselves and each other, reducing the negative arousal that makes it hard for people to hear each other during conflict.
Gottman comments that perhaps marriage therapy has been excessively focused on helping people learn how to handle conflict well. It is also important to look at the way they spend time together between conflicts.The research by Impett and colleagues certainly supports this view, showing that it is also important that each partner develop strong approach goals, striving for greater intimacy and shared positive experience, not just avoiding unpleasantness and conflict.
In addition to our share of perpetual problems (around which we’ve developed a lot of humor), my husband and I have lots of things we enjoy doing together, including a shared and wide-ranging curiosity about science, history, art, and wine as well as a frequent drive to drop everything and hug. We hope that will carry us to our Golden Anniversary and beyond.
Gottman, J. (1999). The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy (Norton Professional Books). W. W. Norton and Company. Search inside.
Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (2000). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. New York: Three Rivers Press. This book is an excellent idea for a wedding present.
Gottman, J., Schwartz Gottman, J., & Declaire, J. (2007). Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage: America’s Love Lab Experts Share Their Strategies for Strengthening Your Relationship. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Impett, E. A., Gordon, A. M., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., Gable, S. L., & Keltner, D. (2010, July 26). Moving Toward More Perfect Unions: Daily and Long-Term Consequences of Approach and Avoidance Goals in Romantic Relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0020271
Algoe, S. B., Gable, S. L., & Maisel, N. (2010). It’s the little things Gratitude as a booster shot for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 17, 117–133. Note: I ran out of words before getting a chance to discuss this article, but it seems very relevant. Perhaps someone else will write about it.
I have also written several articles in my own blog about marriage, including reflections on what I’ve learned from Carol Dweck and Marcus Buckingham on the subject.
Most pictures courtesy of Kathryn Britton from her collection of family photos. Dick and Lillian Callen were her maternal grandparents.
Young Love: Sharing Music, a moment in time courtesy of Chris Willis