The Fundamentals of a Strong Relationship
by Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D.
Good relationships aren’t optional, and they aren’t what we do after we take care of everything else. Good relationships can determine who lives and who dies: One meta-analysis found that social relationships were more predictive of warding off mortality than quitting smoking or exercising. But it wasn’t just the presence of other people that mattered, it was the presence of supportive others—toxic relationships may be worse than no relationship at all.
In uncertain times, relationships matter even more. When the world is chaotic , we turn to our partners for security and stability. In a clever series of studies, Sandra Murray of the University at Buffalo and her colleagues found that on days when Google searches for terms like “terrorism,” “recession,” “global warming,” “racism,” and “protest” were high in people’s zip codes, they were more likely to turn toward their closest relationships to satisfy their need for security, acceptance, and love. The world is certainly uncertain right now. A global pandemic, economic recession, and sociopolitical turmoil have been heaped onto all of our usual problems. But times of uncertainty can also represent opportunities for growth. Forced out of our usual routines, we can reassess and remember what is important. With global uncertainty, investing more in our relationships is a safe, practical, and healthy choice. We need love now, more than ever.
So how do we do it? First, we need to be open and honest with the people we care about. We need to share our thoughts and feelings with them. We need to ask for their support rather than always trying to go it alone. And we need to tell them what we appreciate about them.
Second, we need to be there for our partners. We need to listen and acknowledge what they are feeling. We need to provide support for them in both good times and in bad. We need to do it in ways that are helpful. And we need to allow ourselves to feel appreciated by them.
Third, we need to give each other a break. No one gets it right every time. We need to forgive the small grievances. We need to let it go when the other person makes a mistake. And we need to promise to learn from our own mistakes and try to do better next time.
To achieve this, we can start with a simple step: paying attention to each other again. Eminent relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman have tracked couples for decades, and one of their key findings is that partners make bids for each other’s attention. These bids can be small, like sharing an anecdote from the day or a gentle touch on the way past each other. Or they can be big, like asking for help solving a work problem or requesting a weekend away together. These bids go into an emotional savings account and add up to define a relationship’s bottom line. Are we reaching out to our partners throughout the day? Are we responding to their bids? Or have we stopped paying attention to each other? Couples who are thriving create and respond to these bids, and these small investments add up and help them overcome harder times. But couples who are struggling tend to ignore them.
A demanding world makes investing in our relationships—taking the time to talk and listen and to create and respond to bids—all the more difficult. Whether we are juggling work and family demands or stuck at home in the midst of a quarantine, stress, lack of sleep, and other outside forces can make it difficult to be the best partner we can be. We’re quicker to start a fight over an empty milk carton in the fridge or to see our partner’s late night at the desk as an insult.
Researchers haven’t figured out yet how to prevent outside forces from affecting relationships, but being aware of their presence, creating rules to minimize their influence, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt are helpful steps in the right direction. When I was a sleep-deprived new mother who kept starting late-night fights, I finally made a rule for myself not to bring up any contentious topics after dinner. Six years later, I still regret it any time I break that rule.
Many of us spent the spring at home with our families. My colleagues and I surveyed nearly 2,000 people to ask how sheltering in place had changed their relationships. Not surprisingly, couples reported that they’d become more irritated with each other. But many also reported that they were spending more quality time together and were, overall, more satisfied with their relationships: The busyness of everyday life had been somewhat stripped away, allowing them to truly be together again. People told us about exercising and cooking together and starting new hobbies. They were doing activities they hadn’t thought about before, or that they never felt they’d have time to try.
I’m curious to see how these couples are doing when we follow up with them this fall. Will they have made a lasting change to how they live their lives together? For better and worse, we adapt quickly to new situations. This means that even pandemic life soon becomes normal to us, but it also means we are likely to fall back into our old habits once life resumes its hectic pace. To fight this, we must make a new habit of paying attention. We can do this by asking ourselves each night: Did I pay attention today? Did I talk to my partner and say what I was thinking? Did I listen when my partner was talking? I urge us all to try it for a week and see what happens.
Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at the University of Michigan who researches interpersonal relationships and well-being.