Forging, nurturing and sustaining an intimate relationship is and always has been hard work. Research increasingly suggests that kindness and generosity are key to success.
The statistics are grim: the vast majority of marriages fail. In fact, it’s rare for intimate relationships of any kind to stand the test of time. John Gottman and his colleagues at the Gottman Institute have spent much of the last 35 years researching the many reasons for this unfortunate circumstance. They’ve also been resolutely looking for the secrets of happy and fulfilling relationships that last. Recently, some articles have appeared in various trade magazines that summarize the more salient findings from Gottman’s research (e.g., Business Insider and The Atlantic). The findings indicate that there are really two very different kinds of couples: those who are “masters” of the art of maintaining stability, harmony, and longevity in their relationships and those who are “disasters” because of how they respond to the stresses and demands they face on a daily basis — a manner that only fosters unhappiness, contempt, and the eventual deterioration of any bond of love that once existed between the parties. It also seems there are two traits the “masters” of successful relationships possess that make all the difference for relationship health and survival: generosity and kindness.
Forging, nurturing and sustaining an intimate relationship is and always has been hard work. So it takes a certain temperament to even embrace the task successfully let alone carry it out with grace and dignity. And because conflict is such an inevitable part of life, how couples deal with the conflicts that arise largely determines whether their relationship will survive and thrive. Those who react to challenging situations with a more primitive “fight or flight” response are more likely to weaken and damage their relationship as time goes on than couples who’ve managed to cultivate a fair degree of calm and confidence that with the right level of resolve and cooperation between, all will eventually work out. In relationships that fail, couples too often “run” from each other or “attack” each other in a variety of ways when trials come. They blame instead of seeking to understand. They lash out instead of seeking to support. And sometimes they distance themselves instead of communicating. This inevitably fuels feelings of bitterness and, eventually, feelings of contempt.
Perhaps most crucial to the health of a relationship is how couples respond to each other. More particularly it’s how partners respond to the many subtle “invitations” each extends to the other to address the things they need the most from their union (e.g., affirmation, support, being heard, etc.). Relationship partners that respond to such invitations or “bids” from their partners with a generous spirit and then act in kindness generally succeed in strengthening the bond of love that can sustain a relationship through thick and thin. Not only that, such kindness and generosity of spirit is what builds a sense of true happiness and contentment within the relationship. Partners who are generous and kind to one another not only grow in their love for one another but also reap the benefits of a satisfying relationship. So the secret to a happy, healthy, lasting partnership seems clear: be kind, and be generous — which often also means being understanding and forgiving.
Of course, folks still marry. Most do so in the hopes of living “happily ever after” together. The statistics would argue the odds are against them. Marriage is one of many social institutions in genuine jeopardy of perishing (for more on this, see “Is Marriage Becoming a Social Relic?”). But Gottman’s research suggests the reason for this lies not so much with the institution or structure of marriage itself but with the personal characteristics folks might bring to the enterprise. This also helps explain why people who fail at marriage — or at any intimate relationship for that matter — tend to experience repeated relationship failures (See “What Do We Learn After a Marriage Failure?”.) Some folks just don’t seem to learn very much from their past failures, and that has a lot to do with the character traits they possess. The research is telling us that success in a relationship has less to do with the kinds of stresses and struggles a couple might experience and much more to do with the character qualities each person brings to the enterprise. The ability to exercise patience, give generously, respond to demands in kindness, etc. — these are virtues that have to be first cultivated in one’s own character and then put into active practice in a relationship if that relationship is to endure and be a source of happiness.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by