Love in the LaboratoryWhy are some couples’ relationships more successful, satisfying, and longer-lasting than others’? Is it that their souls were fashioned to fit together just so, or is it a matter of pheromones and glands? Poets, songwriters, and lovers themselves have pondered this question since the dawn of time.

Maybe it has to do with how they relate to each other.

Anita Vangelisti, Ph.D., a professor of communications at the University of Texas, Austin, and her team gathered together 71 unmarried heterosexual couples, put them in separate rooms, and gave them 10 minutes to resolve a disagreement via computer chat while each voiced their thoughts about the interaction (and their partner) out loud. The researchers took careful notes and compared what the couples messaged to each other with what they said into a tape recorder (imagine one participant typing “But you never want to visit my family” while vocalizing “he’s such a jerk; he makes me see his awful parents all the time”).

After crunching the data, the researchers were able to chart “relationship satisfaction as a function of actors’ assertion (±1 standard deviation), partners’ assertion (±1 standard deviation), and the interaction between actors’ assertion and partners’ assertion.” In plain English, some of the insights they gleaned were:

  • Partners’ tendencies to express thoughts emphasizing anger and frustration were negatively linked to individuals’ satisfaction.
  • The more thoughts about dominance (who holds the upper hand in the relationship), the lower the relationship satisfaction.
  • Satisfied partners are more likely than dissatisfied partners to respond to each other during conflict in constructive or accommodative ways.
  • When one person thinks about making excuses or denying his or her role in the conflict, the other partner was likelier to be unhappy in the relationship than those whose partner did not “stonewall.”
  • People in unhappy relationships were more likely to be inflexible in their thinking and more interested in changing the subject of discussion.

A lot of this can be filed under the same category as “habitual criminals express disdain for the law” or “suicidal people report that they are dissatisfied with their lives.” Maybe you don’t need a Ph.D. or a laboratory or a set of research protocols to figure a lot of this out, but the published study Couples’ Online Cognitions During Conflict: Links Between What Partners Think and Their Relational Satisfaction did offer one important insight into “the dyadic influence of partners’ vocalized cognitions on their relational satisfaction”:

It’s not what couples are, in other words, but what they do. When one partner in a happy pair is upset about something, the other tries to understand why, instead of simply reacting in kind.

When one partner expressed a relatively high number of thoughts involving emotion or understanding and the other expressed a relatively low number of such thoughts, couples tended to be more satisfied than they were when both partners expressed either a high or a low number of such thoughts. The incongruence…may be indicative of their ability to focus jointly on a particular issue…that is, satisfied couples may be able to coordinate their thoughts so that one partner considers emotional issues while the other contemplates how to process those issues—or so that one partner thinks about how to understand the other’s stance while the other considers how to explain his or her stance. Dissatisfied partners…who both concentrate on emotion or understanding may have been thinking about their own emotion or understanding rather than considering their partner’s perspective.

When all is said and done, it comes down to empathy and compassion. Loving couples don’t seek the upper hand; they seek to understand and support each other.

It’s not what couples are, in other words, but what they do. When one partner in a happy pair is upset about something, the other tries to understand why, instead of simply reacting in kind. In unhappy relationships, in contrast, each partner pays more attention to his or her own emotions or understandings than to those of the partner. If attraction remains a mystery, the secret of mutual happiness is much less elusive.

When all is said and done, it comes down to empathy and compassion. Loving couples don’t seek the upper hand; they seek to understand and support each other. According to The Dhammapada, “Better than a thousand hollow words,” the Buddha said, “is one word that brings peace.”

Unhappy couples who are looking to strengthen their relationships can take hope. With mindfulness and compassion, thought patterns can be changed; bad connections can be rewired.

Click here to see Rose’s tips for healthy and happy relationships

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