What Makes Relationships Work?

I recently came across two very useful pieces of psychological research.  Admittedly, a lot of psychological studies have little relevance or practical application to everyday living, but the findings of these two studies struck me as useful to couples in particular, but also relationships in general.

The first article is about the research of Matthew Fisher at Yale University.  He and his associates studied the consequences of two ways to argue–arguing to win and arguing to learn.  

Arguing to win is the typical way most people approach conflict.  The mindset and the aim are to change the other person’s mind by using whatever appears to be effective, whether it is persuading through logic/reason/facts, browbeating, emotional appeals, threats, or intimidation.  When arguing to win, both people believe there is only one objective truth, and theirs is the right one.  

Arguing to learn is different in every respect.  The mindset is that when encountering disagreement there is something to learn.  The aim is to use conflict as an opportunity rather than as a weapon.  When arguing to learn, both people approach disagreement with the belief they can always learn something new.  Consequently, they are open-minded and receptive, rather than close-minded and defensive.

Fisher discovered that people who argued to learn were happier and more creative than people who argued to win.  They also had more satisfying and stable social relationships.

The second article was a summary of a large body of psychological research by John and Julie Gottman on marriage.  These researchers have studied and counseled thousands of couples over at least two decades.  (Look up “The Gottman Institute” if you want to access their incredibly informative and helpful work.) 

What I read recently was their statement that two words consistently distinguished lasting marriages from dissolved marriages.  Those two words were “Thank you.”  Their point was that expressing gratitude and appreciation to each other was a key element to staying together.  I was a little surprised that something so simple as saying “thank you” was so powerful, but I have always known giving and receiving appreciation was one of three important elements in a happy marriage.  The other two elements, giving and receiving support and giving and receiving affection, combined with giving and receiving appreciation, create a three-legged stool that is remarkably stable and useful.

My best wishes go out to all of you who are struggling to make relationships work. It is rarely an easy task!  Perhaps keeping in mind these two straightforward outcomes from psychological research will make the challenge a little less daunting.   


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