Have you ever played the game where you guess which of your friends in relationships are going to stay together?
It’s not a habit to be proud of, but most of us have found ourselves, perhaps with our friends or partners, idly criticizing the couples around us:
- “She always gives him shit when she’s tired. You can tell it really annoys him.”
- “He’s totally unromantic and never does anything thoughtful.”
- “You can tell that she resents his mum trying to help with the new baby.”
And maybe the flaws we identify are real. Often though they tend to reflect our own prejudices and pet peeves as much as anything else. We think to ourselves, “I would hate to be with someone like that. How can he/she stand it?”
This is why most of us are pretty bad fortune tellers when it comes to love. Yet there is a researcher who claims he can predict future relationship success: John M. Gottman, the executive director of the Relationship Research Institute, claims that just 3 hours with a couple is enough for him to predict whether they will stay together in the next 3-5 years with more than 90% accuracy.
As he explains in an interview with The Harvard Business Review:
‘It sounds simple, but in fact you could capture all of my research findings with the metaphor of a saltshaker. Instead of filling it with salt, fill it with all the ways you can say yes, and that’s what a good relationship is. “Yes,” you say, “that is a good idea.” “Yes, that’s a great point, I never thought of that.” “Yes, let’s do that if you think it’s important.” You sprinkle yeses throughout your interactions—that’s what a good relationship is. This is particularly important for men, whose ability to accept influence from women is really one of the most critical issues in a relationship.’
That might sound like it mirrors one of those sexist tropes some bore will repeat in the pub: “Secret to marriage? Just say yes to whatever the wife asks”. Har-de-har.
But I wonder how many couples actually heed this advice? What if we made it a game, or a mission? How many times could you say yes to helping your partner if you really tried?
As Gottman goes on to say, the worst thing we can do is shut our partner down:
‘Marriages where the men say to their partners, “Gee, that’s a good point” or “Yeah, I guess we could do that” are much more likely to succeed. In contrast, in a partnership that’s troubled, the saltshaker is filled with all the ways you can say no. In violent relationships, for example, we see men responding to their wives’ requests by saying, “No way,” “It’s just not going to happen,” “You’re not going to control me,” or simply “Shut up.”
When a man is not willing to share power with his wife, our research shows, there is an 81% chance that the marriage will self-destruct.’
I suspect even a modicum more conscientious effort in this would improve couples’ happiness enormously. Think of how often we hear the complaint:
- They don’t care about my opinion.
- She doesn’t respect my ideas.
- He just ignores me and does what he wants.
Maybe we can endure such feelings when they occur in one moment. But it’s never about one moment. If all the relationship science I’ve studied over the years agrees on ONE thing, it’s that frequency matters. More yes’s, more compliments, more sexual attention, more ‘I love you’s”, more favours, more appreciation. Everything we do to lift up our partner and smooth their path along through the world goes toward making them feel fulfilled, heard, understood and loved.
Naturally this could be confused with having no backbone. But good judgment in this area will mean ensuring sure that one person’s needs don’t get consistently prioritized over the other’s. That’s where choosing the right person in the first place comes in (you need someone who will say yes back to you, after all).
I’m sceptical of any idea that’s touted as a panacea to “solve relationships”, and certainly Gottman isn’t presenting this as one of them. Just like the pursuit of happiness, there is never one secret. There are many. But finding ways to say yes more to opinions, suggestions, concerns, and open pathways for the person you love (assuming your effort is reciprocated), doesn’t sound like a bad place to start.