John Betar and his wife Ann celebrated 81 years of marriage in 2013 and took home the title of America’s longest married couple. They eloped when she was just 17 and he was 21 years-old.
June will be here in just about a week and with that comes the busiest month of the year for weddings. You might even have a couple of wedding invitations stuck to your fridge. While nearly 13,000 couples will say “I do” in June, the number that stays married for the rest of their lives is going to be significantly smaller.
It’s a depressing statistic, but social science says that only around 3 out of 10 married couples will remain in happy and healthy relationships. We like to see love as the great conqueror, but often love has to deal with contempt in a relationship and doesn’t win out.
When social scientists first began studying marriage in the 1970s as divorce rates began to rise they noticed a trend with couples that stayed and couples that split. At the beginning of the marriage the scientists at the University of Washington hooked the couples up to electrodes and asked them about their partner, how often they fight, and what they liked about their partner. The scientists were able to predict based on the subject’s blood flow and heart rate during the questioning how the marriage would turn out after six years with 94 percent certainty. These subjects were separated into two different groups: masters and disasters.
While in the “Love Lab” as it was dubbed by researcher John Gottman and Robert Levenson they noticed that the disaster couples went into a fight or flight mode when asked about their partner and relationship, while the masters were much calmer and showed low physiological arousal
After studying some 200 couples over the course of 20 years, John Gottman was able to walk away having learned that the one key to a couple staying together “is that a lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship.”
The disaster couples seemed to view their partners and relationships with contempt and the masters looked at their partners with kindness. The researchers found that contempt was the number one thing that tore couples apart. People who focused on criticizing their partner missed out on the positive aspects of their partner and even created negativity and hostility when it wasn’t there. A common example of this was giving a partner the cold shoulder which in turn damages the relationship by making them feel invisible. Gottman noted that one of the first things to go in a doomed relationship is politeness.
The masters seemed to have lasting relationships because of two simple things: kindness and generosity. Of course practicing kindness when you’re running late for work because your partner forgot to turn the car headlights off and the battery is dead is easier said than done, but it’s critically important. Kindness doesn’t mean not expressing one’s anger, but choosing to do so in a productive manner rather than throwing hurtful spears at your partner.
Generosity also seemed to be the key spice to keeping a relationship happy. As nice as it is to receive a gift from a loving partner, it’s not what the researchers mean exactly by generosity. Simply making and accepting an offer to connect was a key trait between the master and disaster couples. For example a husband might have said to his partner look at this beautiful photo. He’s not just asking his partner to admire the photo, but offering up simply a brief moment to connect. As minimal as something like that is, Gottman noted that it proved to be a telltale sign of the relationship. The wife has a choice, take a brief moment to turn towards her husband or look away.
It’s common of course for any relationship to go throw peaks and valleys of satisfaction, especially when children, new jobs, moving or illness enter the picture. It’s the couples who continually make the effort though, to practice kindness and generosity towards one another that go the distance.
When reflecting on her marriage of 81 years, Mrs Betar said “It can be repeated and repeated. It is unconditional love and understanding”.