John Steinbeck on Falling in Love: A 1958 Letter
Gottman wanted to know more about how the masters created that culture of love and intimacy, and how the disasters squashed it. In a follow-up study in 1990, he designed a lab on the University of Washington campus to look like a beautiful bed-and-breakfast retreat. He invited 130 newlywed couples to spend the day at this retreat and watched them as they did what couples normally do on vacation: cook, clean, listen to music, eat, chat, and hang out. And Gottman made a crucial discovery in this study-one that gets at the heart of why some relationships thrive while others languish.
Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: He’s requesting a response from his wife-a sign of interest or support-hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.
The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that.
People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t-those who turned away-would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with overt hostility, saying something like, “Stop interrupting me, I’m reading.”
These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow-up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in 10 of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of 10, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs.
By observing these types of interactions, Gottman can predict with up to 94 percent certainty whether couples-straight or gay, rich or poor, childless or not-will be broken up, together and unhappy, or together and happy several years later. Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity or contempt, criticism, and hostility?
“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in an interview, “which is this: They are scanning social environments for things they can appreciate and say ‘thank you’ for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”
“It’s not just scanning environment,” chimed in Julie Gottman. “It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.”
A Modern Guide to the Love Letter
Contempt, they have found, is the No. 1 factor that tears couples apart. People who are focused on criticizing their partners miss a whopping 50 percent of positive things their partners are doing, and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who give their partner the cold shoulder-deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally-damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them kill not only the love in the relationship but also their partner’s ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships.