How to Make Your Relationship Work: The Science and the Fiction

Published on: December 5, 2014

Filled Under: Featured, Marriage & Family Counseling

Views: 10771

Recent research into the mechanics of successful relationships has identified a few simple factors that are the ‘make it or break it’ skills of unions that thrive versus unions that dive, regardless of gender, race, age, or legal status of the relationship. Do you want to have a happy, lasting relationship with a significant other?  Try learning how to exercise your “Kindness Muscle.” Kindness equates to being generous with your time, your attention, and your temper.

The latest love scientists include the well known researchers John Gottman and his wife who have spent forty years studying the factors that make relationships work or warp. The Gottmans and others have identified a few specific behaviors that can forecast the future about a relationship. Kindness, generosity, positivity and being responsible about your own feelings, in the presence of a certain redefined “spark” are enough to make a relationship happy and enduring.


Kindness in this context is based on an attitude spouses have toward each other. If a member of a couple believes that they are likely to be attacked by their partner, the interactions in the relationship become marked by high levels of fight or flight symptoms, which have been measured in laboratory experiments. The markers of fight or flight include things like higher heart rate and the presence of a higher concentration of stress hormones in the partners’ blood. When these markers reach a level of chronic elevation so that activation is the normal state for the relationship, destruction of the union is a likely eventuality. Here’s a simple way to restate this kindness definition: If you feel like you’re always mad at your significant other, or that your significant other is always mad at you, that’s the opposite of having the kindness factor present in your relationship. Partners who have a positive attitude about each other create a zone of safety that allows a level of peacefulness and above all, calmness, to exist between them. That calmness helps partners to see the best in each other instead of preparing them to expect criticism. When one partner is kind to the other, the level of kindness and calmness in the relationship tends to increase. When kindness and calmness increase, the partners tend to be a lot happier in the relationship.


Generosity in the context of what contributes to a long, happy relationship means that when one partner makes a request for connection, the other partner acknowledges it. Gottman calls this type of asking for attention a “bid.” Imagine a wife who is busy planning meals for the week while her husband is watching the news on TV. If hubby sees a story that excites him and says, “Hey honey—come see this!” he’s making a bid for connection. If wifey comes to see what all the excitement is about, she has returned the bid for attention. Couples that stay together happily return each other’s bids for connection nearly twice as much as unsuccessful couples. This is where the generosity part comes in. It can be inconvenient to return the bids. Do it anyway. It pays off. Couples whose relationships are characterized by returning bids for connection 8 or 9 times out of 10 describe greater trust, intimacy, pleasure and comfort together than couples missing this ingredient.


Anyone can be a critic. It’s easy to notice what someone else is doing that you don’t like or that you think you can improve. If you have this habit of noticing your partner in a criticizing way…this could be a great opportunity for you to practice being selfish instead of generous. In other words, keep it to yourself. Attitude is contagious. Wouldn’t it be better to spread a positive attitude than its opposite? Relationships thrive on kindness, attention and benevolence. Partners who resent each other or harbor contempt for each other treat each other with hostility. The opposite is just as true. When you express gratitude toward your spouse, when you do things that you know they like…for no reason other than “just because,” when you treat your significant other with respect, when you allow yourself to feel happy and grateful that this person is in your life…like you did when you first got together… your relationship blossoms. Tell the person you love thank you whenever you get the chance. Give your spouse a compliment. Notice the good qualities in your husband, wife or lover and mention them out loud to each other. Expect the best. Actively enjoy each others’ successes, triumphs and achievements. That’s called “capitalization” in a relationship, what Lauren Friedman describes as “:responding enthusiastically to each other’s good news,” which has been recognized in the research as a “frighteningly accurate picture of whether or not things are going well.”3 Partners who pay attention to the positive aspects of their relationships, talk to each other about those positive things and who express gratitude for those positive things, have happier, more enduring relationships.


Taking responsibility for your own emotions is an adult competency that falls in the category of simple but not easy. Significant others who are able to relate to each other without blaming each other for their unhappiness, dissatisfaction or anger are in a different category from partners who accuse each other of causing negative emotions—and it’s a very good category to be in if a long, happy relationship is your goal. Blaming your significant other is a defensive strategy designed to help protect you from feelings of humiliation or vulnerability. It’s also a death sentence for relationships, building resentment and contempt along with psychological distance. The kind of responsibility that’s being described here is the culmination of the kindness, generosity and positivity talked about above. When you take responsibility for your own exaggerated reactions to your partner’s moods and actions, when you learn how to keep yourself reasonably calm during your disagreements and when you work in a deliberately constructive manner toward cooperating with your significant other for the sake of arriving at mutually agreeable solutions to the problems you experience together, you are acting in a responsible way that contributes to your personal development as well as to the success of your relationship. This is a strategy that will reap benefits in every arena of your life.


Research has also found glue that’s better than romantic attraction for keeping couples together over the long haul. Compatibility has a new definition. Similar levels of the willingness to agree with each other, similar ability to manage stress and worry, and similar level of interest in doing new things are three components of compatibility that stand up to examination in the laboratory5. These three things, plus some amount of physical attraction, along with efforts to be kind, generous, positive and responsible are a formula for long term relationship health.


  1. Smith, E. E., (2014). Retrieved on December 12, 2014.
  2. Smith, Emily Esfahani (2014). The Atlantic. November 9, 2014 Retrieved on December 9, 2014.
  3. Friedman, L. (2014) Retrieved on December 28, 2014.
  4. Barker, E.(2014) Barking up the wrong tree. Business Insider, 2014.12.10. Retrieved on December 28, 2014.
  5. Berl, R. (2014) A scientific approach for making a relationship last forever. U.S. News and World Report, 2014.1.21. Retrieved on December 28, 2014

For more information about what makes relationships healthy, happy and hardy, contact Dr. Miriam Blum.

Read more: The Atlantic: Masters of Love.

2 Responses to How to Make Your Relationship Work: The Science and the Fiction

  1.' Hannah D. says:

    I think I must have read this article through 4-5 times already. I often think about the ‘bid for attention’ concept. What a difference this has made for both me and my husband!

    It shifts the paradigm for interaction from responding with just the head to responding with both head and heart in the game. The results are profound.

    • Miriam Blum says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. This is such a simple behavior–you can do it any time! The results are elegant: powerfully bonding, affirming and healing. It gives a new dimension to the meaning of mindfulness. I hope future blogs can be as useful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.