When it comes to relationships, most of us are winging it. We’re 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. There’s 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 — and how to make any struggling relationship better. As we’ve 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.
“The most important thing we’ve learned, the thing that totally stands out in all of the developmental psychology, social psychology and our lab’s 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,” 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. “The $99 million question in love is, ‘Are you there for me?’” says Johnson. “It’s not just, ‘Are you my friend and will you help me with the chores?’ It’s about emotional synchronicity and being tuned in.”
“Every couple has differences,” continues Johnson. “What makes couples unhappy is when they have an emotional disconnection and they can’t get a feeling of secure base or safe haven with this person.” She notes that criticism and rejection — often met with defensiveness and withdrawal — 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. “Couples have to learn how to talk about feelings in ways that brings the other person closer,” says Johnson.
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. “When that happens, people feel like they’re just moving further and further apart until they don’t even know each other anymore,” says Cole. That focus on positivity is why the Gottman Institute has embraced the motto “small things often.” The Gottman Lab has been studying relationship satisfaction since the 1970s, and that research drives the Institute’s 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 — whether it’s expressing your appreciation for something they’ve 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.
When it comes to the brain and love, biological anthropologist and Kinsey Institute senior fellow Helen Fisher has found — after putting people into a brain scanner — that there are three essential neuro-chemical components found in people who report high relationship satisfaction: practicing empathy, controlling one’s feelings and stress and maintaining positive views about your partner.
In happy relationships, partners try to empathize with each other and understand each other’s perspectives instead of constantly trying to be right. Controlling your stress and emotions boils down to a simple concept: “Keep your mouth shut and don’t act out,” says Fisher. If you can’t 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 — anything to get off a destructive path. Keeping positive views of your partner, which Fisher calls “positive illusions,” are all about reducing the amount of time you spend dwelling on negative aspects of your relationship. “No partner is perfect, and the brain is well built to remember the nasty things that were said,” says Fisher. “But if you can overlook those things and just focus on what’s important, it’s good for the body, good for the mind and good for the relationship.”
Ultimately, the quality of a person’s relationships dictates the quality of their life. “Good relationships aren’t just happier and nicer,” says Johnson. “When we know how to heal [relationships] and keep them strong, they make us resilient. All these clichés about how love makes us stronger aren’t just clichés; it’s physiology. Connection with people who love and value us is our only safety net in life.”