One of the questions forever nagging humankind: What makes a good marriage good?
In seeking the elusive answer, researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have consulted the experts: couples in fabulously high-functioning, happy marriages. The field research has included narrative-type interviewing with newlyweds and long-married couples; engaging in "Candid Camera"-type antics, such as filming a couple in a raging fight; and inviting couples for a videotaped stay at the "Love Lab," where they hang out in a studio apartment and do whatever they please over the course of 24 hours.
What researchers have gleaned is that couples with the most successful unions are experts at repairing the marital bond when someone commits a blunder. These couples use everyday moments to reconnect with one another, said John Gottman, a University of Washington psychologist who runs the lab, trains clinicians and conducts couples workshops.
"Everybody screws up in marriage," said Gottman, author of several books on marriage, including "The Seven Principles of a Happy Marriage" (Crown, 2000). "The masters of successful marriages, and we have studied them across the ages, repair their marriages with panache. The basis of effective repair is in these everyday small moments in which people connect. It turns out that these people make bids for connection with their partners either noticing them or responding in a kind of prickly, irritable way."
Bids for connection might include listening when your spouse is talking or brightening when he or she enters the room; reading the Dilbert comic she points out (even though you'd rather finish reading the front page first) or inquiring about the book your spouse is reading at bedtime. The small stuff matters. It works as an emotional savings account, said Gottman, and it says: "I really care about you." Couples who have successful marriages connect about 40% of the time they are together, according to research conducted by Gottman and his colleagues.
Gottman said that he has also studied nonverbal bids for connection, small gestures such as turning toward your spouse, turning away or not turning at all. "It tells someone, 'I am really there for you,' " Gottman said.
In looking at the phenomenon, Gottman said that if one spouse turns away, the probability of the spurned spouse "rebidding" for connection is nil. "If their partner turns away, they kind of crumple and won't ask again in that time frame."
University of Washington research psychologist Sybil Carrere conducted intermittent oral interviews with 95 Puget Sound-area couples, starting when they were newlyweds and continuing through seven to nine years. She found that happily married couples described the relationship as central to their lives.
They functioned, she said, a little like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, perfectly in sync. They knew their spouse's inner longings, dreams and goals intimately, they finished each other's sentences, remembered every detail of their courtship, wedding and marriage, and showed a profound caring for one another that was essential to resolving conflicts.
"We have found that couples have the same fight over and over again even after 50 years of marriage," said Carrere, whose study is forthcoming in the Journal of Family Psychology. "Successful couples know how to take care of each other even during fights. They stop paying attention to trying to win the argument and they start trying to take care of their partner's feelings. They stop trying to defend their very reasonable behavior and say, 'I think I hurt your feelings.' "
Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.