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The science behind healthy relationships

Posted on 03-20-15 in Behavioral Health

The science behind healthy relationships

When it comes to relationships, science has contributed a lot. It determines what traits make us more attractive and why. It has even told us what makes certain “bedroom-related acts” more bonding between partners. Now, scientists have discovered the recipe for a lasting relationship. Several studies have produced findings that agree on two main behaviors effective in making lasting, happy and healthy relationships: kindness and generosity. Social scientists have been studying marriages since the spike in divorce rates starting in the 1970s. One result of this trend in divorce rates was psychologist John Gottman’s creation of the Gottman Institute — a center devoted entirely to helping couples build and maintain loving, healthy relationships based on scientific studies.

In 1986, Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson began collecting their most critical data. The researchers brought newlywed couples into the lab and watched them interact with each other while measuring each subject’s blood flow. Couples were asked to discuss specific details about their relationship such as how they met, a major conflict they had faced or were facing as a couple and a positive memory they shared.

When Gottman and Levenson followed up with these couples six years later, they found clear differences between the couples who were happy and still together, the “masters,” and those who had split or were together but chronically unhappy, the “disasters.” While, masters presented a low physiological arousal level around their respective partner, disasters showed all the signs of being in fight-or-flight mode. The deciding factor was how warm and affectionate the couple’s behavior was toward each other even when fighting. Where masters created a climate of trust and intimacy, disasters were always ready to attack or be attacked.

Gottman and Levenson measured this by observing which couples “turned toward” or “turned away” from  requests for affection. Couples who engaged in each other’s interests and “turned towards” bids for a response bred an atmosphere of support, kindness and generosity. However, those couples who didn’t engage in this behavior, who “turned away,” would breed hostility, criticism and contempt. The disaster couples who were separated after six years were found to have turned towards each other’s bids for affection only 33 percent of the time while master couples turned towards each other’s bids 87 percent of the time.

Gottman and Levenson were able to determine that healthy and long-lasting relationships were dependent on partners treating each other with kindness and generosity. Partners who actively provide kindness and generosity build a culture of respect and appreciation. Saying “thank you” and looking for qualities to appreciate in a partner are effective ways of expressing kindness and generosity  in a relationship.

A later study conducted in 2006 by Shelly Gable measured how young adult couples responded to good news a partner’s life, an activity of shared joy that factors into how couples show kindness. Their responses were measured and divided into four categories: passive, destructive, active destructive, passive constructive and active constructive. Partners who gave passive destructive responses ignored the positive news. Those who gave passive constructive responses would acknowledge the event but in a halfhearted or underestimated way. Active destructive responses meant that the partner would diminish the news. Lastly, active constructive responses meant that partners engaged wholeheartedly in the good news.

These findings all boil down to this: actively treat each other with generosity and kindness rather than neglect and hostility to breed an environment of love, safety, trust and compassion. Once this loving environment is created, in most cases, the relationship can last.

Understandably, forming a healthy, loving environment can be hard if one or both partners is suffering from a mental health disorder or a substance abuse problem. These issues take a person away from who they truly are, making them hostile and often damaging to the relationship. Finding treatment for these issues can help return both partners back to the process of treating each other with kindness and generosity rather than hostility, fear and bitterness. To learn more about treatment for mental health disorders or treatment for substance abuse you can visit or call 866-524-5504 for more information. Do it for yourself and for your relationship.

Contributed by Sovereign Health Writer, Brianna Gibbons