"Don't be picky," "plan dates to keep love alive," "don't try to change his annoying habits." Wrong, all wrong. These eye-opening and incredibly useful ideas stand conventional wisdom on its head.
It's Good to Be Picky. Very Picky
Single women the world over will thank God for these two researchers: In a study of speed daters, Paul W. Eastwick and Eli J. Finkel, PhD, of Northwestern University, found that people who selected a large number of candidates for follow-up meetings were less likely to be picked themselves for another round. People who chose only a few contenders were more successful in getting attention and responses. It turns out that singles who show interest in every partner they encounter may come off not as eager and open but as just plain desperate.
"What's interesting about that is it actually differs from platonic liking," says Finkel. "In nonromantic contexts, if I like everybody, then everybody likes me back. After all, who doesn't like the guy who likes everybody? But in a romantic context, if I say, 'Yeah, she's hot! And she's hot...and she's hot...and that other girl over there is hot, too,' there's now hard statistical evidence that, in general, the women I meet will not find me sexually desirable."
Does this mean that grandmothers who've warned single women not to be too picky have been wrong? "I don't think your grandma meant, 'You have to go on dates with everybody under every circumstance,'" says Finkel. "But in a situation in which there are a bunch of eligible men, like a party, be selective." Finkel warns against interpreting this data as an invitation to sit home or play hard to get: "What you want to do is be easy for one person to get and hard for everyone else, which will increase the likelihood of that one person's liking you."
It's Not the Journey, It's the Preparation
What people look for in a marriage partner is another topic Finkel has investigated. "Basically they think, The sex is good, we love each other, we're good friends...," he says. "You'd go pretty far down the list before you'd get to 'We get in sync effectively.'" But he's learned that the ability to coordinate day-to-day tasks like shopping food and running errands is a crucial component of a couple's happiness.
"Married partners are co-managers, and as the marriage progresses, it involves more logistical organization, especially if kids come," he says. "If you're not in sync with your partner, research suggests, you'll find yourself depleted, exhausted, and less effective, and if the problems are serious enough, it's difficult to imagine the relationship continuing to function effectively."
A courtship affords few opportunities to engage in the sort of knotty tactical tasks that fill a marriage. To test a relationship, Finkel suggests that you "throw it into challenge, so that if there's a problem, you can develop a system. Expose it to stressful coordination experiences. Instead of watching TV together or doing something comfortable, take a road trip that requires a lot of collaboration. Put one person in charge of six things, the other in charge of six other things, and then ask yourselves, 'How well do we do these things?'"
Better to Celebrate than Commiserate
The way you respond to your partner's good news may be more important than how you react to his disappointments. Couples who celebrated each other's happy events (like promotions or raises) reported greater satisfaction in their relationship and were less likely to break up than those who offered support only during rough times, says lead study author Shelly L. Gable, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara.
She and her researchers videotaped 79 couples as they talked about negative and positive events in their lives, then categorized the partner's responses in four ways: active-destructive ("Are you sure you can handle that job?"); passive-destructive (silence, changing the subject); passive-constructive (an absentminded "That's nice"); and, the most helpful, active-constructive ("I'm so proud of you" or "I know how important this was to you"). The finding that praise boosted a relationship more than a sympathetic response to bad news surprised Gable—as did the results concerning passive support, like smiling vaguely, saying, "Great," and returning to your newspaper. "We assumed when we started this research that passive support would be good—not as good as active-constructive, but certainly not bad," she says. But time and time again, Gable's team saw that passive responses negatively affected relationship satisfaction.
So when your mate bursts through the door with good news, "make an effort to notice these events and act on them in some way," says Gable. A partner can sense false enthusiasm, so if you're not able to have a genuine reaction, she suggests asking questions about why he's so happy. "This will help him," she says, "because you're giving positive feedback, and it will help you because it gives you insight into what makes him click." She isn't saying couples need to celebrate every event with a five-course dinner; simple and sincere praise is enough. "It's the thought that counts," she says. "Although I'd never turn down a five-course dinner."
It Takes a Strong Woman to Be Needy
You'd think John Gottman, PhD, who founded the Gottman Institute (otherwise known as the Love Lab) with his wife, Julie, wouldn't make dumb mistakes in his own relationship. But he always remembers the time he harangued his busy wife for neglecting him: "I said, 'You're so emotionally unavailable; everyone else comes first; what is wrong with you?' And I found when I said that, she didn't want to spend time with me." He laughs. "So I learned from the couples we studied to say, 'You know, I'm getting that lonely feeling again. I just need more of you in my day.'" And it worked.
The trick was employing what Gottman calls a soft start-up, which involves telling your partner "what you need and giving them a way to succeed." His team had found that even in happy relationships, partners reciprocate anger with anger, so the easiest way to de-escalate a conflict was not to escalate it in the first place. For instance, instead of saying, "I'm sick to death of cooking dinner, you lazy slob," Gottman suggests telling your spouse, "You know, I'm sick of my own cooking. I think we need to go out to dinner, or have you take charge of dinner for a while."
Many Love Lab participants find it difficult to make themselves that vulnerable. "A lot of people feel shame about having a need," he says. "Our culture tells us that to be needy is to be weak, but it's really a tremendous strength to know what you need and to be able to ask for it." Beginning a conversation with what you need, rather than the more aggressive "You never..." or "You idiot," is a way to complain that's easier for your partner to hear and act on. "You can't listen to somebody if they're attacking you...well, maybe you can if you're the Dalai Lama," Gottman says. "Then again, he's not married."
60 Seconds to a Better Relationship
For the overworked, overcommitted, and all-around overwhelmed couples, Peter Fraenkel, PhD, has one piece of advice: "Don't try to schedule time together. Schedules are more work. And you don't need any more work."
Instead, Fraenkel, the director of the Center for Time, Work, and the Family at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, in New York City, tells couples to come up with a list of things they can enjoy together that can be done in less than a minute: telling a joke, one long kiss, etc. These 60-second pleasure points, as Fraenkel calls them, don't all have to be face-to-face. He even suggests using the tools that make many individuals feel overextended—a BlackBerry or cell phone—for private matters. Couples are encouraged to send a quick text message or e-mail links to a funny website or a restaurant review (and a note: "Let's do takeout from here tonight?").
He asks clients to each initiate three pleasure points a day. Couples report that this practice not only instills a better sense of connection throughout the week but, as Fraenkel says, "also greatly relieves each partner's concern that they could never find any time for the other." And it lowers the couple's expectations for a vacation—suddenly, they don't look at those two weeks in Bermuda as their only chance to connect but rather as a chance to lengthen those pleasure points, stretching that 60-second kiss into something more.
And Baby Makes...Trouble
In a series of studies over 13 years, John Gottman and his researchers observed couples from the first few months of marriage through the birth of a child. This year he announced that 67 percent of the couples in his studies experienced a drop in relationship happiness in the first three years of a baby's life (and were twice as likely to divorce).
Gottman stresses that it's crucial for couples to tackle major marriage problems before the infant arrives. Couples who did well became a team early on, he says. The successful men were easy to spot: They helped with housework and loved the way their pregnant wives looked (whereas supposedly funny comments like "She's a whale" were a warning sign). In his new book, And Baby Makes Three (cowritten with his wife, Julie), Gottman teaches couples ways to improve their teamwork.
Renowned child development expert T. Berry Brazelton, MD, is familiar with times when a child's behavior stresses her parents' relationship—usually when she is moving from one developmental stage to another. When parents prepare for these phases, he says they do better together. He also says that children naturally register their parents' reactions—for instance, Dad doesn't freak when I crawl to the stairs; Mom does—and when those responses contradict each other, children act out. Most parents, though, don't realize that this conflict can start as early as nine months. Like Gottman, Brazelton encourages couples to find a workable, united parenting style early on.
Coming Soon: A Divorce Vaccine
Marriage researcher James V. Córdova, PhD, has become haunted by a disheartening statistic: Fifty percent of couples who finish marital therapy get better (and stay better), but the other half either do not improve or relapse. "It's better than nothing, but not as good as we could be doing," says Córdova, an associate professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. The problem, he recognized, is that couples usually see a counselor when the relationship is already breaking down.
"We take care of our physical health by going in for checkups," he says. "The point is not to wait until you get sick but to keep you well." His team created the Marriage Checkup, a program he has tested twice before that's now part of a third major study being conducted over the next four years. The program starts with an hour-long series of questionnaires that rate satisfaction levels on fraught topics like sex and parenting.
"We give the couples feedback, the way a doctor would from a blood test or an X-ray," Córdova says. His early studies have shown that the majority of couples have reported a significant uptick in relationship satisfaction as well as higher intimacy levels. He hopes to devise a program that can be replicated across the country, using local therapists to give the tests and feedback. In the meantime, he recommends that couples ask themselves three questions every year: Does my partner feel safe being emotionally vulnerable with me? Does my partner feel accepted? When I feel that life is yanking the rug out from under me, can I go to my partner for nonjudgmental support? Answering no to even one can signal a fraying relationship. Córdova also tells couples to avoid one very toxic behavior: withdrawal. "It's the equivalent of bingeing on Twinkies," he says. "Talk—even confused, lost, sometimes frustrating talk—is always better."
You Can Change Your Spouse
For more than 15 years, Richard A. Mackey, professor emeritus at Boston College's graduate school of social work, studied heterosexual couples who have been married more than 20 years but have never seen a couples therapist. He found that the long-marrieds instinctively learned not to insist their partner make big behavioral changes. They asked for tiny modifications. (For instance, instead of saying, "Can't you stop being such a slob?" or "Will you ever learn to pick up after yourself?" they ask, "Can you put your clothes in the hamper?")
But what surprised him—and gives hope to anyone stuck in a small house with an unrepentant slob, control freak, pack rat, Star Wars figurine collector—is that over two decades of asking each other for small alterations, many spouses had nudged their partners into making significant changes without alienating them. This technique was particularly effective, Mackey says, when used on men.
From the June 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine