Happy vs. Unhappy Couples

The purpose of this article is to talk about friendship in marriage. But first, I need to tell you about the research of John Gottman at the University of Washington in Seattle. Gottman may be the most respected researcher on marriage in the world. For four decades now, John and his wife Julie have studied thousands of couples to understand the communication and behavior patterns of happy vs. unhappy couples.

The way it works is that couples are invited into an apartment where they live for a weekend. Cameras are set up throughout the apartment to record their interactions. Can you imagine? In addition, each person is hooked up to a halter monitor to measure their physiological responses (heart rate, blood pressure, and sweat output) during their interactions.

From this research Gottman has been able to separate out the happiest couples from the least happy. In fact, he can predict with over 90% accuracy which couples will divorce from watching just a few minutes of interaction. The purpose of his research is to teach couples the practices of the happiest couples. What do they do? What makes them different?

Positive Sentiment Override

Gottman (and his research teams) have concluded, from thousands of hours of studying happy and unhappy couples, that the most important ingredient of a happy relationship is “positive sentiment override.”

Positive sentiment override. What the heck does that mean? In simpler terms it means that the positive feelings outweigh the negative feelings in a relationship. In other words, happy couples have built up enough positive feelings towards one another that they are able to override or weather the inevitable storms of couple-hood.

Positive sentiment override doesn’t mean that these couples don’t have problems or conflict. Nor does it mean they always handle their conflicts well. They may not. It does mean that their positive sentiments (feelings) outweigh their difficulties. Interestingly, this is even more important than their ability to communicate and work out conflict in healthy ways.

Most marriage counselors take a communication approach to helping a couple. The traditional belief is that disagreements and conflict keep couples from enjoying each other. Therefore, the reasoning goes, if we teach them to communicate and help them work through their disagreements and areas of conflict, they’ll have a happy marriage.

But Gottman’s research says no. Certainly learning skills in communication and conflict resolution matters. But more important is knowing how to generate a pervasive undercurrent of positive feelings about one’s marriage and towards one’s spouse.

Friendship in Marriage

I like to think of this as friendship. Friendship = positive sentiment. Or you can do it the other way around, if you like. Positive sentiment = friendship. Either way, friendship and positive sentiment go hand-in-hand.

The point is that the positive feelings associated with friendship supersede our ability to work through problems and conflict. Not feeling friendship leads to anger, withdrawal, and depression. So, to build a happy marriage work first and foremost on your friendship. This is the long-term foundation of a happy and successful relationship.

So think about what friendship means to you. It may mean:

• Talking, frequently, about life
• Caring about another’s best interest
• Inquiring after another’s thoughts, feelings, and perspective
• Being there when things are tough
• Finding mutual interests
• Respecting another’s individuality
• Laughing and playing together
• Having a shared vision
• Walking beside each other through ups and downs

One thing that friendship doesn’t include is much judgment. Have you noticed that we tend to be pretty accepting and forgiving of our friend’s weaknesses. Our purpose, in friendship, is to take joy in their company.

How About You?

So, I want to invite you to consider your relationship. What is the status of your friendship with your spouse? How have you kindled your friendship in the past and what might you do to continually revitalize your friendship in the present?

Although we love the enchantment and excitement of the early days of a relationship, these feelings fade. A more mature relationship emerges as we build our foundation on friendship. But for most couples this doesn’t just happen spontaneously, especially as other burdens and priorities emerge to compete for their time.  Building friendship takes intent and deliberate action.

I’ll be sharing strategies for doing so in upcoming articles. In the meantime, I invite you to think about one thing you can do, beginning now, to strengthen the friendship in your marriage.

And a gentle plug for my marriage course that I launched just a few months back. The ratings are 4.9 on a scale of 5. Click here to learn more or enroll in this course at a great price.


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