When my husband and I started fighting after we became parents, two deceptively simple pieces of advice from couples' therapists, John and Julie Gottman, helped put us back on track.
The first is this: during the ordinary moments of life, they found, couples should have a 20 to one ratio of positive to negative interactions. Positive interactions can be the tiniest of gestures: a smile, making eye contact, nodding to show you’re listening, or a quick joke.
This ratio forced me to pay attention to the tone of our daily exchanges. How often were we actually being nice to each other? For the first week, I kept a loose count and I noticed that a dispiriting number of our communications were administrative. What time was our daughter’s birthday party? Did you buy shin guards for her soccer class? Well, can you go get them now?
Our feeble ratio of positives was a warning that we had to strengthen our daily bond by paying attention to what Gottman calls bids. When Tom is reading the paper, for example, he’ll say, “Hmm, that’s interesting.” This is a bid, a sometimes-subtle appeal for attention. If I reply, “Oh, what are you reading?” this response is what Gottman calls “turning toward” my partner – I have given him the encouragement he’s seeking. If I ignore his bid, I am “turning away” from Tom. It can be hard to take note of these bids – especially when kids seemingly lie in wait to unleash a volley of their own bids the moment they see you sit down. A spouse’s bidding can also be brushed off as needy or annoying, but often what they want is simply a quick connection: a brief chat, a smile, or a reassuring word.
In a now-famous study of newlywed couples, John Gottman found that these seemingly insignificant bidding exchanges have a huge impact on marital happiness. After a six year follow-up, he learned that the couples who'd divorced turned towards bids only a third of the time, while those that were still together turned towards bids almost 90 percent of the time.
I began to pay attention to and identify bids from Tom that might've slipped by me before. As it turns out, the guy is the human version of click bait:
Staring through binoculars at our neighbor’s apartment across the street: “Huh.”
Examining a coin from his pocket: “Now that’s something you don’t see every day."
Reading a magazine: “Hmm. Pretty incredible about eels.”
The second game-changer is this: look for the good in your partner and then build a culture of appreciation by pointing it out. I made an effort to really see Tom’s acts of caring, some of which normally flit under the radar – such as stocking a precisely arranged cabinet of seven sizes of batteries for Sylvie’s various toys. When he walks Sylvie and me across a busy crosswalk, he makes direct and uncomfortable eye contact with the driver waiting at the light because he read that this reduces a pedestrian’s chances of getting hit.
It’s not enough just to think good things, says Helen Fisher, the biological anthropologist. She states that giving your mate affectionate comments daily is beneficial for them, but also helps you by reducing cortisol, lowering blood pressure, boosting your immune system, and even reducing cholesterol levels.
How important is this habit? Researchers from the University of Georgia found that what separates marriages that last from those that don’t is not necessarily how often couples argue, but how they treat each other on a daily basis when they are not bickering. Expressions of gratitude were the “most consistent significant predictor of marital quality.” The power of a simple thank you, as it turns out, is considerable.
So I thank Tom whenever it occurs to me – for ordering our daughter a new striped backpack she didn’t need but desperately wanted or for bringing home a half dozen chocolate bars and conducting a family taste test for fun. I feel a little woo-woo advancing this “attitude of gratitude” yet is it any less strange that I politely thank Andre our UPS guy way more often than the person I married?
Touching regularly also makes a difference. Even a quick squeeze on the arm reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol and triggers the release of the brain chemical oxytocin, which promotes trust. Helen Fisher says that merely touching the palm or arm of someone raises your face and body temperature. (As she says, “People keep us warm.”)
I now make an effort to grab Tom’s arm when he walks by or sling my legs over his while we are watching a movie. Going further, I’ve made myself reach for his hand when a fight is looming, even if I’m so irritated that I’d rather pick up a live rodent. Soon enough, I calm down. It’s hard to holler at someone when they’re mere inches from you and the familiar contours of his hand remind me that this is the person I married, not the bogeyman.
How important is touch? In 2010, scientists from UC Berkeley studied and coded every physical interaction in a single game played by each team in the National Basketball Association, from chest bumps to high fives. They found that with few exceptions, the teams who touched the most won the most (at that time, it was the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers). Their conclusion: good teams tend to be more hands-on than bad ones.
Is there a more appropriate metaphor for relationships than that?
This essay is adapted from Dunn’s book “How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids,” published by Little, Brown.