Home All Two Bits of Wisdom about Long-term Relationships

Two Bits of Wisdom about Long-term Relationships

written by Kathryn Britton 12 November 2010

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, 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. Her Sit Write Share website has resources for writers. Kathryn's articles are here.

Cutting the Wedding Cake with My Uncle's sword

Cutting the Wedding Cake with My Uncle's sword

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 Conflicts

After nearly 30 years

   After nearly 30 years

We 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.

Sharing Music

Sharing Music

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.

Lillian and Dick Callen, shortly after wedding in 1918

Lillian and Dick Callen, after 1918 wedding

So What?

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.

Lillian and Dick Callen Golden Wedding

   Lillian and Dick Callen
   Golden Wedding in 1968

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

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Senia 12 November 2010 - 9:57 am


Thanks for these family-related ideas, especially before the holidays. That is such a great picture of you and your husband with the SWORD!!! for cutting the wedding cake. Very cool.

I was wondering: What would be some typical examples of approach goals? What be some of avoidance goals? Also, do you know (I’m not sure if this was part of the research) whether a person can hold both an avoidance and an approach goal at the same time, in the same domain?

Thanks, and best of the weekend,

GerryB 12 November 2010 - 1:50 pm

My wife an I will be married 30 years this coming January 2011. I am going to think about how this article holds true or not to my own experience. Well done!

Jeremy McCarthy 12 November 2010 - 4:50 pm

I recently went to my fiancee’s grandparents’ 70th wedding anniversary. When I asked Granny what the secret was to being together for 70 years, she said, “well first, you have to live that long.” 🙂

But then she said the real secret was “tolerance.” I thought this was somewhat sad (was hoping for a more positive answer) but I think they grew up in a time when you stay together even if you are not necessarily happy. Thanks for an interesting article.

Helga M Genannt Matzko 12 November 2010 - 5:05 pm

What a lovely article and CONGRATULATIONS! Yes, the wisdom one gains being married for a long time becomes even more valuable as we continue. My husband and I are married for 56 years – happy, healthy, and fruitful.

I do not want to minimize some of the difficulties that life or we, ourselves, brought to this point – there were many. However to assess what we could learn from these situations, made us stronger and persevere. Could we appreciate our life together if it had been easy only? I don’t think so.

I am still working as a coach and therapist in my own Gestalt Institute and love it.

We enjoy our travels – our curiosity is insatiable. We love classical music, art, opera, reading, gardening, our 4 children and 11 grandchildren.

Thank you for writing on the topic; it’s great.

Kathryn Britton 12 November 2010 - 6:04 pm


An approach goal might be planning to do something fun that you’d enjoy doing together (e.g., we’d enjoy dancing or hiking) — or working on ways to grow closer to each other. An avoidance goal might involve avoiding certain topics of conversation because they always cause friction, or having lots of headaches.

I don’t remember seeing anything in the article about whether high levels of approach and avoidance goals could coexist in the same people at the same time. Does one tend to push out the other? I can certainly imagine low levels of both coexisting at the same time. I’ll see if I can find out.

The sword was a nice touch, no? My father died when I was two — he was a Navy pilot and his plane was lost at sea. So I asked my uncle, a retired Navy officer, to give me away. He asked me what I wanted him to wear. I said, your uniform would be great. Somehow I hadn’t remembered that the dress uniform means a sword! My father, two uncles, and a brother went through the Naval Academy, so it had family significance.


Kathryn Britton 12 November 2010 - 6:07 pm

Thanks for the flower. When you think it over, if you come up with something else that you and your wife do that has made a big positive difference, we’d love it if you came back and told us about it.


Kathryn Britton 12 November 2010 - 6:10 pm


What’s sad about tolerance? It might be her way of saying, “Learn to live with and respect the perpetual conflicts.”

Also, after 70 years, that might be as much as you have energy to remember. That’s a lot of shared history — probably plenty of ups and downs as well. Too much to telescope into a few words.


Kathryn Britton 12 November 2010 - 6:41 pm

Congratulations to you, and thank you for sharing your experiences.

Shared history is really important. But you make a good point — a shared history with only ups, no downs, probably wouldn’t create the mutual knowledge that becomes strong bonds. I wonder if there’s research out there about that? You mention traveling. Isn’t it the case that difficult experiences make the best stories?

You are blessed to share curiosity for the same things. I think we are as well.


Senia 14 November 2010 - 12:54 am


What neat details about the sword!

Yes, I can see what you mean by those approach and avoidance goals.


alexandra 28 November 2010 - 6:43 pm


Congratulations on your upcoming anniversary! My parents celebrated their 25th anniversary last month and my grandparents celebrated their 40th anniversary several months ago. As a college student, the majority of my peers have parents who are divorced, and I am always interested in observing the ways that my parents and other couples have been able to “make it” while others haven’t been as fortunate.

You mention that these ideas are not specific to marriage. While in the future I will be interested in employing these ideas in order to ensure that my marriage is a long and healthy one, I am currently more interested in my long-term friendships. In your opinion, what are the absolute most important things involved in making sure that a friendship becomes and/or stays long-term? I’ll be graduating next semester and am concerned about protecting and helping growth in some of my most treasured friendships.

Thanks so much!


Kathryn Britton 29 November 2010 - 10:21 am

This Thanksgiving, I exchanged emails with 1 high school friend, 3 college friends, a graduate school friend, and a friend I met when our sons were in preschool together. This afternoon, I’m meeting 3 friends from my last place of business to go for a catch-up walk (3 guys). Some of them, I’d worked with for more than 20 years. That sets the context for my answer to your email.

I don’t think I can settle on one most important thing, but keeping the ideas of this article in mind, here are a few things that I think contributed to my enduring friendships:

Making an effort to stay in touch. I visit two high school friends practically every time I go out to Seattle. I write my high school English teacher. I try to make it to San Diego or Boston to see my college roommates whenever I’m traveling even vaguely close by.

Every time we get together, there’s an opportunity to build more shared memory, to have shared positive emotions, and to grow in understanding. One thing that quite amazes me is that some friends, I can get together again after several years and it’s just like yesterday. My daughter experienced that last summer at her first college reunion. All differences of experience, relative status, and achievement seemed to melt away, and they were back connected as they had been 5 years ago. Some of that can be attributed to the threads they had thrown across the distances in the intervening years.

Appreciating differences. It’s so fascinating to watch how people make different choices and then how their lives turn out. It is just as fascinating to see the way people deal with major major challenges. Among my friends, there are are several children with major health issues. Differences don’t turn into “perpetual conflicts” quite as much with friends — after all, a friend’s choice doesn’t have to affect my life as much as my husband’s choices will. But the differences are still there.

Well, that’s what occurs to me on a Monday morning right after Thanksgiving. I am so thankful to live a connected life.

  • Reply
    Caitlin 29 November 2010 - 3:56 pm


    Thank you for writing an article that brings such clarity on lasting relationships. I think everyone could learn something about developing more profound connections with family, friends, and partners. Reading your article made me consider relationships in my personal life and wondered if this knowledge could help educate people in abusive or unequal partnerships with others. I am new to approach and avoidance goals but I have realized that my behavior of high approach and high avoidance have made me prone to these types of hurtful relationships. Do you think therapy or coaching of some sort regarding approach and avoidance could be beneficial to people who are too high in both categories? Or maybe I should begin by asking if you think having high levels on both accounts could lead to being a type of “doormat” for others? Thank you again for all of your wisdom on the subject and congratulations on accomplishing such a dedicated relationship.

    Best wishes,

    Kathryn Britton 30 November 2010 - 6:22 pm

    I always hold my breath when I publish something about marriage because I don’t want to imply that abusive relationships just need to be endured or can be fixed easily.

    Your questions are interesting. Is there a “too high” combination that makes people prone to hurtful relationships? Can one be too high in Approach motivation? Do either or both of these relate to being a doormat?

    I don’t know what the research says — or whether anyone has studied these questions. I’ll keep my eyes open.

    My sense, though, is that approach motivations come from an expectation of positive emotions. After a number of negative experiences, one would expect those expectations to go down. But people aren’t always logical in their expectations.

    Good luck finding helpful nourishing relationships.



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