Our understanding of emotions keeps growing thanks to scientific research. This includes the work of Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at U.C. Berkeley. He has investigated the topic of what makes us happy and also examined relationship satisfaction. From this research, he developed some ideas we can all follow in order to increase our happiness and improve the quality our relationships.
Idea #1: Smile!
While the act of smiling itself does not cause you to be happy, the more often you smile the happier you can be. Keltner and other researchers wanted to test that belief by looking at, of all things, yearbook graduation photos! They compared yearbook photos of graduating women to determine whether they could predict future happiness just from the facial expressions of the women in these pictures.
The results, amazingly, found that the quality of one’s smile did, in fact, predict future happiness! They concluded that those who had a warmer smile had increased rates of happiness and contentedness 20-30 years later. This should be reason enough for you to smile more!
Idea #2: Laughter
In his book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, Keltner described how laughter is a key component in business affairs, flirtatiousness, and even in the quality of relationships. He referenced research that found that the absence of laughter actually predicts the end of a relationship. In the early stages of marriage, partnerships tend to end due to incompatibility issues. However, the absence of laughter tends to doom marriages when the partners have been together for a long time.
Laughter has a calming effect and softens the blow when couples are in conflict or coping with challenging life circumstances. Keltner states that:
“We often think laughter is not that consequential. We tell people not to laugh. Life is serious, but there may be no more serious antidote to living and no greater path to finding wisdom, than laughter.”
Idea #3: Touch
Research shows that even small amounts of touching between people can make a big difference in the feelings of connectedness with one another. Touching also promotes a sense of cooperation with others. In one study, the more physical contact between members of an NBA basketball team (such as high-fives), the better the team played at the end of the season compared to the beginning. It does intuitively make sense that touch makes a difference in relationships by promoting the sense that you are both on the same side and that you care about each other.
Idea #4: Teasing Your Partner
Playful teasing is another habit that promotes and contributes to relationship longevity. It was found that the more satisfied couples were in their relationship, the more skilled they were at teasing each other. Teasing helped predict how happy couples were six months later after the study. In addition to laughter, teasing in a playful, good-natured way during disagreements helps to soften the conflict between partners. It is also a predictor for how long couples stay together. Although fairly obvious, it should be noted that mean-spirited teasing is not helpful and can definitely damage relationships. Stick to well-meaning and playful teasing!
Keltner and other researchers are finding that some of the keys to happiness and relationship satisfaction are significantly influenced by these types of “little things” or behaviors we follow. By doing the little things such as smiling and laughing more, as well as touching and teasing, partners can make a big difference in the quality of their relationships. For those struggling in their relationships, the lesson here is to go back to basics. We can slowly increase happiness and relationship satisfaction. Although these actions are simple, they can have powerful and rewarding consequences.
There are tons of blog posts and articles out there that claim to provide the magic formula for creating satisfying and long-lasting relationships. Some focus on keeping your passion alive or finding the secret to love. However, few of these claims are supported by scientific research. One important exception is research conducted by John and Julie Gottman and their focus on what makes relationships work.
Masters vs. Disasters
Initially, in 1986, the Gottmans’ research involved newly married couples answering questions while connected to devices that monitored their heart rate, respiratory rate, and sweat production. The questions were about their wedding and their time together as a couple. The Gottmans then waited six years to interview these couples again and determine whether or not they were still together and why.
The Gottmans formed two categories of couples for this research:
1. Masters: These were couples stayed together for the six years between the first and second set of interviews.
2. Disasters: These included couples who were no longer together or who were chronically unhappy but still remained married.
Why These Two Categories?
The Gottmans discovered, after reviewing their data, that the Masters had been calmer than the Disasters during their interview. The Masters had lower heart rates, respiratory rates, and produced less sweat than the Disasters. The Gottmans interpreted this to mean that the Disasters had lower levels of trust and intimacy with one another when discussing their relationships and their weddings.
The Vacation Experiment
A few years later, the Gottmans published another study. This project involved having newlywed couples simulate living in an apartment that was set up for laboratory monitoring. The couples acted like they were on a 3-day weekend vacation. The researchers not only monitored the couples’ physiological responses, but also looked at their observable behaviors. They wanted to identify what behaviors might lead couples towards becoming either Masters or Disasters.
The researchers were able to identify two traits that did, in fact, help them predict which couples would become Masters or Disasters:
While concluding that the absence or presence of these two traits are significant may not seem shocking to many, their research showed that simply being kind and generous is not all that is necessary to become a Master Couple.
Seeking Each Other Out
Master Couples provide a lot of time and attention to each other. They also emotionally seek out their partner, which is what the Gottmans refer to as “turning towards” one another. These couples typically seek their partners out when they are having a significant emotional reaction or experience. This is opposed to those couples that push their partner away or look to a third party for comfort. Master Couples are also able to meet their partners’ emotional needs most of the time, while Disaster Couples do so much less frequently.
Perhaps even more importantly, Master Couples actually search for opportunities to express gratitude towards their partner. Disasters, in contrast, do the exact opposite and frequently look to criticize or point out a partner’s mistakes. When Masters notice a mistake, they typically don’t bring it up or don’t make a big deal about it.
Becoming a Master Couple
So what can couples do to be more like Master Couples? Here are some ideas:
- Look for opportunities to express gratitude.
- Be aware of your partner’s needs.
- Ask how to support your partner.
- When you are struggling with something difficult, reach out to your partner for emotional support.
- Don’t forget to be kind and generous to each other.
Unfortunately, when couples are in established relationships, these tips are easily forgotten in our busy lives. Couples, though, can still avoid becoming Disasters by making sure to practice kindness and generosity daily with their partners. Over time, this will lay the foundation for a more loving, caring, and successful marriage.
It’s now 2017 and technology is everywhere. Forget “fast,” everything is about NOW in the instantaneous era of the digital age. With new technology and apps we have more ways to communicate and connect online. It’s a fascinating time, but there’s also a downside to technological advancement. That’s because there are truly many ways that technology can hurt our relationships.
A New Word for Ignoring Each Other
I wrote about this phenomenon two years ago, but I am now seeing a new trend. It’s called “phubbing” or snubbing someone by being on your phone. Addiction to technology can be so powerful for some that they can lose any sense of balance between their online and offline worlds. As if there aren’t enough relationship killers as it is (financial conflict, poor sex life, parenting disagreements, etc.) cell phone use also negatively impacts the way partners relate to each other.
Research into Phubbing
A recent study wanted to look at how damaging phubbing is to relationships. Basically, the researchers wanted to look at how frequently a romantic partner is distracted by their device when it’s around them. The average person checks their phone once every 6 ½ minutes. That’s a staggering 150 times a day!
In another study conducted by James Roberts & Meredith David, 175 adults who were in romantic relationships were surveyed. They were asked to answer a questionnaire and complete a “phubbing scale.” This measured how often they felt snubbed by partners who were using their devices. They also answered questions about whether the device is a source of tension in the relationship. Additionally, the researchers surveyed the couples about the quality of their connections.
Not surprisingly, these devices are having a negative impact on relationships and contribute to other relationship issues, such as parenting conflict. Partners being snubbed also reported having more conflict over devices than those who experienced less snubbing. Also, the more conflict couples experienced over the use of electronic devices the more negatively they rated their relationship satisfaction.
Explanations for the Phubbing Phenomenon
The authors discussed two different possible ways that phubbing is hurting relationships:
1. The Displacement Hypothesis: This explanation states simply that devoting time on one’s phone or device leaves us with less time to spend with our partner. The device basically reduces meaningful time with each other and therefore negatively impacts our contentment in our relationship.
2. Smartphone Conflict Theory: The thinking here is that the device itself becomes the source of conflict which decreases relationship satisfaction.
The bottom line is that our smartphones have the potential to inflict real damage on our relationship. However, we do have the ability to avoid falling into this technology trap.
What Can Couples Do?
Couples can preventatively take the following steps in order to avoid electronic devices from damaging your relationship:
- Discuss the situation with your partner regarding the presence of the device when with one another.
- Understand how it negatively impacts each of you.
- Come up with guidelines that clearly define acceptable situations for device use- and when to avoid technology.
- Decide on a consistent schedule when you agree to have technology-free blocks of time.
- Agree that certain places in the home are device-free (such as the bedroom).
- If unclear, you can always check-in with your partner about using a device when they’re around.
- Regularly participate in activities together that don’t require technology.
- Give yourself a cut-off time for technology use in the evening.
Ignoring your partner is not a new concept. Yet, with the advent of the smartphone we have created a portable and powerful device that pulls our attention away from our partner and into our own digital worlds. These technologies improve communication, but they also have the potential to create real problems in relationships.
Couples can avoid these pitfalls by communicating to one another what is acceptable (and unacceptable) regarding technology use. Couples can benefit by engaging in joint activities without any devices and focus on simply being present with one another in the “real world.”
It’s generally accepted that premarital education programs help clients learn skills that are beneficial and contribute to the overall health of relationships. There is also some research that suggests premarital counseling helps prevent divorce as well.
Premarital counseling is frequently conducted through programs affiliated with a particular faith or religion. Often religious leaders will require the couples attend some counseling before they officiate their wedding. However, this requirement doesn’t exist for couples that aren’t affiliated with any religious institution and are choosing to get married. Research shows that premarital counseling can be beneficial even when not conducted in a faith-based setting.
What follows are the benefits of premarital counseling:
Benefit #1: Truly Ready
Counseling can ensure that both partners are truly ready for marriage. If, during counseling, a couple chooses to postpone getting married, consider that a success. Why? Because it means both partners are making sure they are on the same page before making such a huge commitment.
As a therapist, I would never tell a couple whether to get married. Alternatively, I can “hold up the mirror” to their relationship issues and help the couple explore key aspects of their relationship that have the potential to be troublesome. This helps couples make better life decisions.
Benefit #2: Practicing Communication
Another benefit of counseling? It teaches and models healthy communication for couples. Many couples take years to learn effective communication skills and others never learn them at all. Why not practice effective communicating before choosing a lifelong commitment to another person, instead of learning on the fly?
Benefit #3: Addressing Underlying Issues
Most couples have some form of ongoing issues in their relationship. John Gottman refers to them as perpetual problems. While never completely resolved, the healthiest couples learn to finesse or “massage” these problems. Thus, they are workable in the relationship. However, for some couples, those issues may simmer for years or cause significant resentment to develop in the relationship. Premarital counseling can help couples get a handle on these problems before they marry.
Benefit #4: Know Thy Mate
Counseling is an opportunity for partners to get to know each thoroughly. If for some reason they uncover some significant incompatibility issues, it’s far better to learn about them ahead of marriage. However, it’s more likely that premarital counseling can simply help couples better understand each other’s perspectives and establish a compromise on their preferences with certain issues. Here are some big ones:
- Children: Does each partner want children? It’s a common topic for therapy.
- Where do we want to live? In the city, suburbs, or country?
Benefit # 5: Reduce Chances of Divorce
Couples who participate in counseling greatly reduce the possibility of divorce. Marital satisfaction increases as well. Of course, there is no 100% guarantee of anything in life, but couples can tip the odds in their favor for a happier and sustainable marriage by participating in premarital counseling.
Benefit #6: Have a Plan for Your Marital Future
Premarital counseling helps couples to reflect on their vision for their married lives together. By ensuring that they are on the same page together, couples can better handle “roadblocks” that come up during their marriage.
Benefit #7: Premarital Counseling Should Include Individual Counseling
Why have individual counseling when we are talking about couples counseling? Of us are often working on a personal issue that can be better explored in individual counseling. It helps us better understand who we are as individuals and allows us to be at our best in our most important relationship.
Premarital counseling is not simply for couples who have opposing viewpoints or disagreements. It’s also for those couples without any obvious problems at all. Therapy can help couples identify these potential problems and address them effectively. This can help ensure that they can have a healthy and happy relationship that will last for many years to come.
Financial disagreements can not only be damaging financially, they often expose deeper relationship problems. When it comes to harmful relationship problems, conflict over finances is right at the top of the list. There is even some research showing that compared to all types of conflict, financial disagreements are the top predictor of divorce. However, by discussing financial issues with one another and communicating effectively, couples can not only build trust with each other, they can also prevent sabotaging their relationship by following these tips.
Tip #1: Start Early!
Ideally, before marriage, couples should sit down and have conversations about finances. The earlier the better! By doing so early on, couples can identify any trouble spots and, if necessary, consult with a financial advisor and/or couples therapist.
Tip #2: Communication Tools
In order to prevent any financial differences from negatively impacting your relationship, it is essential to develop the tools to communicate effectively. These communication tools will serve you well in many other aspects of your relationship.
Tip #3: Personal Financial Philosophy
You can use these conversations as a basis for identifying and communicating your own financial philosophy. Are you a thrifty person or do you spend freely? Do you make quick decisions when it comes to money or do you like to research all your options first? Often our approach to money comes from our upbringing. A financially challenged childhood might cause you to spend money very conservatively. However, if you had a more comfortable upbringing, you are likely to treat money differently.
Tip #4: Your Partner’s Philosophy
Once you understand your own perspective on money, it would be helpful to understand your partner’s financial philosophy. Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Both of you need to make sure that your philosophies when it comes to money are going to be mostly compatible.
Tip #5: Develop Financial Goals
Where do you see yourselves as a couple financially in 5, 10, or even 20 years? What do you anticipate are your shared goals, such as:
- Owning a house?
- Raising a family?
- Saving for college tuition?
- Retirement plans?
Once you have established your goals, you can begin working towards them. Remember, the sooner you figure this out, the better!
Tip #6: Talk about Your Finances
Make these discussions a regular occurrence. Decide what works best for you as a couple. One conversation per week, or perhaps once a month is sufficient? However you decide to do it, consistent financial discussions will help you to keep on top of matters as well as look ahead to anticipate possible future problems.
Tip #7: Spending Limits
Communicate and jointly decide with each other your appropriate spending. This is the amount of money that you allow each other to spend without requiring additional discussion or approval.
For instance, you may not need to discuss with your partner a $50 purchase at the grocery store. On the other hand, spending $3000 on a mountain bike would, for most couples, require additional conversations before making a purchase! Remember, making a large purchase without communicating to your partner is a form of financial infidelity. Since you know you won’t get their approval, doing it anyway can quickly erode trust in your relationship.
Tip #8: Avoid Financial Secrets
Another form of financial infidelity is keeping secret financial problems or issues from your partner. It can create significant trust issues, which, if left unaddressed does negatively impact other aspects of your partnership as well.
Tip #9: Make the Most of Your Resources
You don’t have to do this alone! Take advantage of resources in your community that can help you and your partner. For monetary issues, a reputable financial advisor can help get your finances on track. For relationship problems, consult with a couples counselor who can teach you the communication tools you need to be successful as a couple.
Don’t let financial disagreements destroy your relationship. Couples can work to avoid these problems by following the above tips, as well as working with both a financial advisor and couples counselor. Together, you can lay the groundwork for a relationship that is not only fiscally sound, but also emotionally secure.