4 Secrets to Successful Relationships

Divorce is expensive. On average, the cost of going through a divorce in the United States is around $20,000.

I can think of a lot of ways to invest twenty grand that doesn’t involve lining the pockets of lawyers or our legal system…

The flip side is that weddings are expensive too.

In fact, the cost of getting married is almost double that of filing for divorce. However, as I’m sure a lot of you know, lasting relationships typically pay dividends.

In his book titled The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships Dr. John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, had this to say about some of the benefits to strong relationships:

A study of people living in Alameda County, California, found that people who had close friendships and marriages lived longer than those who didn’t. This was true independent of such factors as diet, smoking, and exercise. Another study, of 2,800 men and women over age sixty-five, showed that those with more friends had a lower risk of health problems and recovered faster when they did develop them. In addition, a study of 10,000 seniors at Yale University showed that loners were twice as likely to die from all causes over a five-year period as those who enjoyed close friendships.

It’s no surprise humans need relationships to survive. What’s unclear is how good relationships can become great and what causes some relationships to falter?

Dr. Gottman’s research has focused on answering these tough questions. In his lab, he and his team have videotaped and studied the conversations of many couples. What they discovered was there are 4 secrets to successful relationships.

So what exactly do successful couples talk about?

Dr. Gottman’s findings suggest nothing too different than what you and I talk about with our partners every day.

“But after many months of watching these tapes with my students, it dawned on me. Maybe it’s not the depth of intimacy in conversations that matters. Maybe it doesn’t even matter whether couples agree or disagree. Maybe the important thing is how these people pay attention to each other, no matter what they’re talking about or doing,” says Gottman.

This key insight led to the first of four successful relationship secrets.

Successful Relationship Secret #1:
Bids

Gottman says, “A bid can be a question, a gesture, a look, a touch—any single expression that says, ‘I want to feel connected to you.’ A response to a bid is just that—a positive or negative answer to somebody’s request for emotional connection.”

Think about when you get home from work and your wife asks “how was your day?” Your literal answer is not what she’s after.

The same goes for when you’re networking and you hit it off with someone. Before you part ways, oftentimes someone will initiate a bid in the form of “we should grab lunch sometime…”

This is not a call for you to pull out your calendar and start coordinating availability. This person is simply looking for reassurance that you enjoyed the time you spent talking and getting to know them enough that you’d be willing to see them again.

I think we all understand this on some level. But where Dr. Gottman’s research gets interesting is when we start looking at the different ways you can respond to a bid. This leads us to the next secret.

Successful Relationship Secret #2:
Turns

Whenever a bid is presented, you have three possible turns (read: ways you can respond).

For example, if a friend says “That’s a cute dog.”

You can “turn toward” the bid:  “Yes! I was thinking that too.”

You can “turn against” the bid:  “Seriously? That’s the ugliest dog I’ve ever seen.”

You can “turn away” from the bid: You don’t respond. Instead you say “Let’s go. We’re going to miss our reservation.”

Gottman’s research finds that: Children who habitually turn toward their playmates form friendships more easily. Siblings who turn toward one another early on are more likely to stay close for life. Coworkers find it easier to collaborate on projects. Married couples and other pairs have fewer conflicts. Turning toward leads to fewer conflicts, because the partners in a relationship are having the conversations they need to have—the conversations where they demonstrate their interest and concern for each other.

It should be obvious that turning toward bids as much as you can is what strengthens relationships. When you turn against or turn away from bids, you weaken your relationship. The strength of a relationship is really just the sum of turns with all the small bids happening every day.

Dr. Gottman warns though that habitually turning away can eventually destroy relationships. “Even if the bidder doesn’t act hurt or angry at the moment his or her bid is rejected, there seems to be some internal mechanism that keeps score. By watching relationships over time, my colleagues and I have seen that the dismissed bidder typically gets fed up. He or she starts complaining to and criticizing the person who turns away, leading to a pattern of attack and defend. And once this attack/defend pattern becomes ingrained in a relationship, it can start a downward spiral of interaction that eventually ends in the dissolution of that bond.”

Successful Relationship Secret #3:
Learning How to Decode Bids

The good news is you don’t have to become a mind reader. People in good relationships mess up decoding bids 20% of the time. In The Relationship Cure, Gottman says: We learned, for example, that husbands headed for divorce disregard their wives’ bids for connection 82 percent of the time, while husbands in stable relationships disregard their wives’ bids just 19 percent of the time.

The secret to decoding bids is figuring out what are the common bids you hear from the people around you whom you care about the most. Make a list. It’s easier to recognize these bids once you’ve identified them and figured out some ways to address them (think: turn toward).

If you can tackle the most common bids being thrown at you every day, you’ll come out miles ahead.

“That’s how it is once you begin to recognize the many idiosyncratic ways that people can make and respond to bids for connection,” says Gottman. “If you can see past a person’s anger, sadness, or fear to recognize the hidden need, you open up new possibilities for a relationship. You’re able to see your coworker’s sullen silence as a bid for inclusion in decisions that affect his job, for example. Or you can recognize that your sister’s agitation says she’s feeling alienated from the family.”

The final key to building strong relationships is mastering the art of conversation.

Successful Relationship Secret #4:
Remember CDF (Curiosity, Depth, Feelings)

Whenever you’re having a conversation with someone, remember those three words.

Curiosity is asking open-ended questions or asking for advice. Once you ask, make sure you listen.

Depth is going beyond surface-level questioning. Instead of saying how was your day today? Ask about what gets that person up in the morning? What are their aspirations and dreams?

Feelings are moving away from fact-based conversations. Ask about how something made someone feel. Get to know a perspective of the world other than your own.

Remember these 3 words in any conversation and you’ll start to build deeper connections with family, friends, and coworkers.

Better relationships start with your ability to recognize bids. Dr. Gottman leaves us with this summary:

The key is to look for and celebrate those moments in which you connect with another person on a feeling level. Such moments usually begin by noticing an emotional expression as a bid for connection. You hear something a person says, or you see a facial expression or gesture, that reveals their happiness, sadness, anger, fear, contempt, or disgust. Once you notice it, you let this person know with your words, expressions, or gestures that you understand how they’re feeling. Your demonstration of understanding provides a bridge for emotional connection and paves the way to a deeper, more meaningful relationship.

Those are the 4 secrets to building strong, long-lasting relationships. Follow Dr. Gottman’s advice and you’ll live a long and rich life.

To a longer and richer life,

Nilus Mattive

Nilus Mattive
Editor, The Rich Life Roadmap

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