What Makes A Good And Strong Marriage?

Science says, and not me, that marriages last due to two basic traits – kindness and generosity

The year is 2015 and we are robots. Well, not literally, but you get the drift. The world has become smaller, thanks to social media, but what has that done to us? Only made us go further away from each other in real life—quite an irony, isn’t it? Real relationships are crumbling, we are busier than ever, 24 hours are seeming less and divorce rates are only going up.

What happened to those carefree times? The fairytale romances and marriages that not so long ago were cherished by our grandparents? It all seems like 200 years ago, a tale of the yore—something we can only lovingly look back and sigh—but studies prove that there is more to this than what meets the eye.

In the light of the recent high profile divorce of Bollywood superstar Hrithik Roshan and his childhood sweetheart Suzanne Roshan, I couldn’t help but sit down and start thinking about this topic. Happy marriages in today’s day and time might seem like the four leaf clover—something that everyone knows of but only a handful have actually seen it—but let’s not get disheartened so fast. Even though we won’t get a piece of the Ryan Gosling type of romance from The Notebook, researchers say we can at least have a healthy and happy marriage if we keep two basic traits in mind—kindness and generosity.

According to IndiDivorce, the divorce rate in India is 1.1% as compared to USA’s 50% of marriages turning into breakups. It means 1 out of 100 Indian marriages end up in a bitter divorce. They further state that in 2006, Bangalore, the IT hub of India saw 1,246 cases of divorce being filed in the court pertaining to the IT sector exclusively. The rate in Mumbai has shot up to 4,138 in 2007 while cities that are known for their cultural and social values like Kolkata and Chennai, are not far behind.

As per psychologist Ty Tashiro’s book, The Science of Happily Ever After, (which was published earlier this year), of all the people who get married, only 3 in 10 remain in healthy, happy marriages. Social scientists first started their research on this back in the 1970s where the psychologists decided to bring the couples into the lab to observe them and determine what the ingredients of a healthy, lasting relationship are. Out of all the researchers in that experiment, psychologist John Gottman studied thousands of couples for the last 4 decades to figure out what exactly helps a marriage tick.

In 1986, Gottman set up “The Love Lab” with his colleague Robert Levenson at the University of Washington, and they started to bring newlyweds into the lab and watched them interact with each other. They hooked the couples up to electrodes and asked them to speak about their relationship—stuff like how they met, a major conflict they were facing together, and a positive memory they had. As they spoke, the electrodes measured the subjects’ blood flow, heart rates, and how much they sweated. The researchers then followed up with the same couples exactly after 6 years to find out if they were still together. From that extensive data they gathered, Gottman separated the couples into 2 major groups: the masters (who were still happily together after 6 years) and the disasters (who had either broken up or were extremely unhappy in their marriages).

When they collected the data of these people, what they discovered was that the disasters looked calm during the interviews, but their physiology, measured by the electrodes showed that their heart rates were quick, their sweat glands were active, and their blood flow was fast. Gottman concluded that the more physiologically active the couples were in the lab, the quicker their relationships deteriorated over time. These people, even when they were talking about pleasant or boring facets of their relationships, were prepared to attack and be attacked. In short, they weren’t exactly relaxed or comfortable while being with each other. The masters, on the other hand showed low physiological arousal and actually felt calm and connected together, which translated into warm and affectionate behavior, even when they fought.

Now what we all can learn from this particular study is the fact that, no couple is perfect by default—it takes immense hard work and comfort level to make a marriage work. The masters aren’t perfect by default—they had just beautifully created a climate of trust and intimacy that had made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable with each other.

In the end, it boils down to 2 major things—do two people bring out kindness and generosity with each other, or contempt, criticism, and hostility? Contempt is something that tears the best of relationships in shreds—it was found in that research that people who are focused on criticising their partners miss a whopping 50% of positive things their partners are doing and they see negativity when it’s not there. People who criticise their partners not only kill the love and respect in the relationship but it also turns out as a death knell in the long run.

Kindness, by contrast, helps couples thrive together and in fact, gets them closer. It is basically a validation that yes, I love you, I care for you and I understand you. According to the study, masters believe kindness to be a muscle—it can grow stronger with exercise and that a good relationship naturally demands a lot of hard work. For example, if your partner expresses a need, and because you’re tired, exhausted, sleepy or distracted, you just say ‘umm hmm’ and go about with what you’re doing, in the long run this will make your emotional connection with each other wear away. You might think that you need to be kind when you guys are happy, but that’s not true, kindness is most needed during the time of a conflict, at that time if you let contempt or meanness take over, then the situation can go totally out of control. So yes, exercise kindness often with each other.

Generosity, on the other hand, doesn’t always have to be monetarily involved. It isn’t all flowers and chocolates, although those are great too! Generosity means being generous about your partner’s intentions and not assuming stuff or jumping to conclusions. For example, if your wife is late for a date and you’re kept waiting for a few minutes, rather than being grumpy and aggressive, just ask her politely why was she late. For all you know, maybe she had stopped by one her way to buy you a gift, and now when she is trying to give it to you, she finds you in a sour mood. Won’t that spoil everything and make her feel bad? The ability to interpret your partner’s intentions charitably can soften the sharp edge of conflict and save many relationships.

There may be a hundred other reasons why you might face ups and downs in your marriage, but often it is because kindness takes a backseat. In a modern day urban relationship, with so much pressure to deal with—including both the careers, children, in-laws, friends and other responsibilities—couples may put less effort into their relationship and let the petty grievances they hold against one another tear them apart. But if you keep kindness and generosity in mind, a happily ever after won’t seem like just a fairytale.

It is a big irony that me, of all people, is writing this feature, considering I fought with my man like less than 5 hours ago and I’m being all passive-aggressive about it, but researching and writing this article has changed me in a little way. It made me introspect and I hope it does the same for you. I’m going to go and make a call to him right now. Afterall, happily ever afters still do exist. Raising my sangria glass to that one!

(Note: This post of mine was originally published in Yowoto on 8th April 2015)

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