Relationships are most important. The rest of life, work and your self-study or self-play, serves your relationships. What you are is the product of what your attention has been trained onto through your life; who you are is the product of who you spend your time with. Neuroscience has confirmed that: your brain learns how to be you from the people around you. Hence, much as you learn, say, English among English speakers you acquire beliefs, opinions, behaviours and rules from your unique community. The self is an inevitable construction, then, weaved by other people more than the self’s owner. At the level of weaving neurons, we are socially encoded. We feed off validation, confirmation, and learning. This is why so many desire celebrity: humans want to be celebrated, valued.
All this considered, along with the fact loneliness predicts death more than alcoholism, obesity, and smoking, means relationships do matter most. And explains why romantic love can turn so painful. Painful for the 48% who divorce each year in the UK.
Because we are what other people make us into, being dislodged from love is an ultimate crisis of self; a Break-Up is a literalised metaphor for a tearing apart, a separation of identities. (I have written on different loves, and on the biology and philosophy of love, before here & here). And no one wants that pain to happen, needlessly, again. That is why learning and predicting a good relationship is advisable.
And it can be predicted, by Professor John Gottman to a confidence interval of 94%. Within five minutes of being with a couple, Gottman knows if they will stay together, or break up. It sounds like mentalist or Sherlock Holmes quackery but it is legitimate. Mathematically minded Gottman studied psychology at MIT and Harvard.
He explains he predicts from how a couple tells in body language and words their life narratives. If there’s a train of fond memories where they respected each other’s milestones and discuss changing each other, they will endure; if not, likely they will break. And the number who resolve to marry to solve rather than to celebrate—is, he says, unsettlingly high.
I’ve found 94 percent of the time that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage’s history are likely to have a happy future as well. When happy memories are distorted, it’s a sign that the marriage needs help.
His book, The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work clarifies what ruins marriages and what makes a marriage thrive, statistically. For one thing, his findings refute the compatibility model of love—where two people fit one another from the start. 69% of relationship issues never end, so accepting them rather than resolving them is key. Quite obvious when you think about it:
Most marital arguments cannot be resolved. Couples spend year after year trying to change each other’s mind – but it can’t be done. This is because most of their disagreements are rooted in fundamental differences of lifestyle, personality, or values. By fighting over these differences, all they succeed in doing is wasting their time and harming their marriage.
The couples who succeed in marriage do so by looking at their partner with flaw accepting compassion—not at a self who decides to annoy because of any choice, but because of who they, and you, are as people. Which is a result of contingency, not malice.
Differences do not ruin marriages: failing to accept differences, does. Here’s Gottman again:
These couples intuitively understand that problems are inevitably part of a relationship, much the way chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older. They are like a trick knee, a bad back, an irritable bowel, or tennis elbow. We may not love these problems, but we are able to cope with them, to avoid situations that worsen them, and to develop strategies and routines that help us deal with them.
As with polymath economist Herbert Simon’s decision-making theory, where each choice is a form of more or less sacrifice, no choice is 100 percent correct. Be it in a career or a partner, you are choosing a set of neverending problems. The couples that made it work came up with ways to deal with those difficulties, rather than futilely try to prevent or fix them. Pessimism in love is essential, for optimists try to change and adapt when there are limits to that. A conversation will never change the years of experience and biases a partner has; bad habits, in your mind, will remain. And if they get angry often it’s because while we sound in our heads like we are being affable, to them they hear anger in turn. “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear” that matters.
An important part of working through arguments is to not make it about them as a person, but about the behaviours in-themselves. No one wants to feel judged, so address a mistake itself rather than the person behind it. Gottman advises that you say, you feel it’s right they do the dishes for a change, rather than “you never do the dishes because you’re are lazy, dumb, piece of ****”
Criticising like that will only make them less likely to comply, and both of you become less happy. Criticism—but not necessary complaining—is what Gottman calls one of the Four Horsemen of the Marriage Apocalypse.
The other three horsemen are stonewalling, defensiveness, and contempt:
1, Stonewalling poisons relationships. Choosing to ignore the other person or give them the silent treatment or give up on an issue to the point you do not talk, is a preamble to breaking up—being able to communicate in spite of not wanting to is why you are together. Refusing to communicate signals to them you do not want them, or a partnership in your heart of hearts. Even if your heart of hearts does, and it’s your mind which is confused and angry.
2, Contempt poisons relationships. “name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt – the worst of the four horsemen – is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her.”
3, Defensiveness poisons relationships. “Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’ Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly.”
We all have mood fluctuating bodies and personality annoyances which make us hard to live with—if we think of living with ourselves for as long as we have, we can understand just how hard it can be. Afterall, no one can mind read. Why expect them to understand you when you struggle to understand yourself? (If you think you understand yourself, you really are most liable to expect too much.)
A good way to treat a partner (or anyone) well if they are in a mean downturn mood is to consider them as just that: in a downturn mood, and as a human. A body reacting rather than a free agent choosing to be mean; and as a grown-up child misattributing, say, office frustration—not malicious anger—to you.
Romantics out there may read his advice, and think it silly. We may know his advice intuitively yet fail to put it into practice. And you are more likely to put into practice with a word laid out plan, like Gottman’s, than thinking you know how to have a good relationship. Number backed advice is better than preference backed advice, or – as nice as it sounds – following the thoughtless heart. Being pragmatic and strategic about practising being contently dissatisfied and having an adequate relationship (not ‘good’ or ‘best’ which are corrodingly comparative) is the path to lasting marriage. Marriage after all is a contract: you trade and restrict freedoms to do as you want for freedom from your – regrettable, mistake making – future self.