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How long does it take to predict whether or not a marriage will succeed? One year? Two years?
How about 15 minutes? In the 1970s, Dr. Gottman and Robert Levenson performed a series of studies on the difference between happy and unhappy couples. To do so, they videotaped couples attempting to resolve a conflict in their relationship for 15 minutes.
At the end, they reviewed the tapes and predicted which couples stayed together and which ended up divorced. Nine years later, they followed up with the couples. Their predictions were over 90 percent accurate.
So much can be gleaned from such a small sample of time. In only 15 minutes, the researchers gleaned how healthy (or unhealthy) each couple’s relationship was and then projected what they saw into the future. From this, you’re probably wondering: What was the difference between the happy and unhappy couples?
Before we get into that, let’s broaden the scope further and look at the role all relationships play in our lives.
How the Media Impacts Our Real-Life Relationships
Think back to a movie you saw recently about someone living an ordinary life. It could involve a regular person with a regular job in a rom-com or any feel-good movie. Bewilderingly, the main character spends very little time at work or doing any sort of mundane activity.
Instead, the person’s usually out and about town, sharing a beer with buddies or clinking cosmos with friends. Everyone appears to be great friends. Maybe there’s one particular person who acts as the pillar of support, the best friend. They’re always available, always up for any occasion that presents itself.
The group of friends always appear regularly, ready to lend a supporting ear to the protagonist’s woes. Their loyalty is steady and unwavering. Even if there are conflicts or disagreements, ultimately things get patched up and everyone’s relationships continue to sail smoothly.
While this caricature of relationships seems nice, it also undermines the complexity of human relationships. Sure, socializing is fun. But it’s only fun when you’re surrounded by company you enjoy.
When you’re bombarded with images of crowds congregated together at a restaurant, concert, or party, there’s pressure in real life to surround yourself with lots of people as well. You hold onto people regardless of your feelings about them or the role they play in your life. There’s a notion that if you stick to it, these relationships can and should last forever.
What If It Isn’t Forever?
Think about it. If we change as individuals over time, why should it be a given that the people we associate with remain a constant? Like a lobster shedding its old shell, we wear a certain version of ourselves for a period of time, then gradually let go to embrace a newer version.
People from a former stage in our lives don’t always fit into our current stage. And maybe we don’t fit into their current lifestyle. We each get taken to different paths that influence us in different ways, so that when our roads intersect again, things don’t feel the same as before.
Maybe you met someone because you attend the same school or work at the same company. You bump into one another in the hallway and decide to stop and chat. Or it’s the end of the day so you and everyone else head out for a meal and drinks to celebrate the end of a long day.
Yet when you finish school or leave the company, that person’s nowhere to be found. Maybe the place you both happened to be in was the glue that held you together. Now that you’re elsewhere, there’s little in common.
If so, that’s okay. Sometimes relationships are formed out of convenience. Sometimes they’re formed because you both had a common goal. Just because you once knew someone doesn’t mean you’re obligated to touch base for the sake of it.
When you continually keep in touch with someone out of obligation, it drains you. And when someone doesn’t add in any way to your life, then they subtract. The person’s presence feels like deadweight, dragging you down physically and emotionally.
It’s not necessarily that the other person is toxic. The person might even be genuinely nice. Simply put, the two of you have little in common. You don’t share the same values, interests, and goals, so there’s little to share.
As a result, your conversations end up feeling like they skim the surface. The topics hover around the same old questions of how things are going and the usual updates on each other’s lives, with an underlying a sense of basic politeness. When you spend time with the person, it feels like they eat away at your time and energy.
If you’re in a situation like this, then stop trying so hard. You can tell when someone isn’t interested in hearing what you have to say. Do you find yourself mentioning a topic you’re incredibly passionate about, only for the other person to react with a blank expression?
Maybe as you explain something, the other person’s eyes glaze over or they look like they’re ready to bolt at any second. Not only does the person not contribute with comments, but the person doesn’t have any follow-up questions. Over time, it feels like there’s little left to say.
When the topics you’re interested in aren’t of interest to the other person and vice versa, then the two of you are on different wavelengths. It doesn’t mean you have to cut the cord immediately. Like two pieces of floating sea ice, you’ll feel the drift happening on its own, slowly but surely.
And really, that’s okay.
How to Foster the Relationships That Matter
Drifting away from someone with whom you have little in common isn’t bad. In fact, it’s a good thing. It means you can dedicate more time to the things and the people who add value to your life.
Who’s worth keeping around then? As you might guess, the person supports you in your life somehow. The individual helps you grow, become better, and it feels good to have the person around.
The two of you might happen to sync into the same life stages, with all its problems and triumphs. For example, maybe the two of you are entering a career in the same industry, or you moved to a new country and met fellow expats from your native homeland. Maybe you have kids the same age.
More often than not, the feeling of kinship is mutual. Personally, I’ve found that people who are draining or even toxic usually exit on their own accord. On the flip side, people who I enjoy spending time with or make my life better often feel the same.
Now, let’s get back to the research that determined which couples would last. What separated the happy couples from the unhappy couples? Researchers found that the difference was the ratio of positive to negative interactions. The “magic ratio”, as they call it, is 5 to 1.
For every negative interaction, there must be at least five or more positive interactions in order for a happy relationship to exist. Unhappy couples have fewer positive interactions to balance out the negative. When the positive-to-negative ratio is 1-to-1 or less, the relationship is close to reaching its end.
This ratio echoes the principles of loss aversion, where the pain of loss is greater than the joy of a gain. In order to feel neutral overall, we need to have at least twice as many gains to compensate for the same amount of loss. It’s a delicate balance, and if we’re not careful, things can tip over easily.
So what did the researchers deem as negative interactions? Negative interactions centered on dismissing or criticizing the other person’s thoughts or feelings. Actions included arm-crossing, eye-rolling, sarcasm, or putting the other person down.
Positive interactions, on the other end, helped to repair the relationship and bring it back up during conflict. Actions included listening to the person’s perspective, appreciating them, looking for things to agree on, being helpful, or finding ways to laugh together.
No matter what role someone plays in your life, you will have to put in the effort if the person is important to you. That means paying attention to how you interact with the person and bringing more positivity into the relationship. It doesn’t mean you won’t ever disagree, but you do so through thoughtful discussion and while maintaining a mutual level of respect.
Relationships are a two-way street. A lot of the time, we mirror back to the other person how that person treats us. Maybe we use biting words, sarcasm, or refrain from sharing because the other person treats us that way too.
Intuitively, we sense the other’s lack of enthusiasm towards investing time and effort into the relationship, so we lack the enthusiasm to take initiative. We might not be fully conscious of how we feel or the rationale behind our actions. These feelings can take a while to bubble up to the surface.
But eventually, you put the pieces together.
Sometimes, You Need to Let Things Be
Remember, all relationships are malleable. They ebb and flow as you and everyone else changes with time. Even when the other person is a continual presence in your life, the nature of your relationship will evolve.
If it feels like you’re trying to drag someone to spend time with you, or you’re the one being dragged, then it’s best to just let things be. There’s no need to force something that’s not happening. You’ll only feel worn out or even unappreciated if you’re the one trying to push things.
And for the ones that are in your life, be kind. Be respectful. Be positive. It takes a lot to build up a person and your relationship with them, and so little to tear it down. Take some time to appreciate the person’s presence, and treat it like you would a plant in your garden – with patience and care.