When my brother was getting married, I inundated him with the science of happily married couples. I wanted to give him a guide to not making the mistakes I had made. My “best woman” toast was very nearly a litany of advice.
It was a bit much for him. “Why would I listen to my DIVORCED sister when it comes to managing my marriage?” he once teased, trying (in vain) to shut me up.
Well, given what I’ve learned about happy marriages, I think there a few good reasons to listen to me—more on that in a minute—but first, I gotta be straight with you: I was not particularly good at being married the first time around. I picked a terrific person—my ex-husband is a great guy—who was totally wrong for me in just about all the ways that count.
I try to practice what I preach, and that means practicing some things that I definitely haven’t mastered yet (like using non-controlling language when I ask my kids to do things).
This is how people get good at things: They challenge themselves to the point of failure. Athletes do it. Entrepreneurs do it. Personally, I’m working on being a gold-medal parent and spouse. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t lost some races along the way. I made a few key mistakes in the ten years I was married to my children’s father, from which I’ve learned a lot.
But the main reason to take my relationship advice is that it really isn’t MY advice. Everything I write about is based not on my opinion, or even my experience, but on what scientific studies tell us. I’m still amazed by how insular academia is; there is so much great research out there that doesn’t make its way into real people’s lives—except for you, because you are reading this blog.
Here is one of my favorite things that researchers have noticed that happy couples do: They yell things like “WHOO-HOO!!!” when their partner shares good news.
There are two key pieces of advice to take away from that finding. The first is that when you have good news, share it, because it will make you happier. This is Savoring 101: Positive emotions are amplified when we share them with others.
The second piece of this advice concerns how to respond to good news from your partner, and it’s a key to making your relationship happier.
When your partner shares positive news with you, you don’t actually have to whoop or cheer, as my mother and I are prone to do, but you do need to respond enthusiastically. It isn’t enough to be positive and loving —but not particularly emotive—with your partner. Your response to good news needs to be active. Silent support doesn’t count in this realm.
Another bonus is that enthusiastic responses—such as a partner who says “I’m really happy for you!”—make people feel even better about the event or news that they are sharing, and it puts the sharer into a better mood.
Couples who make a big deal celebrating positive things in life score higher than others on intimacy and relationship satisfaction. They are also less likely to break up.
So pop open a bottle of champagne when that hard-earned promotion comes, take a walk together to celebrate a particularly wonderful day, jump up and down a little—and hug—when your partner reaches their exercise goal.
And what about when things go wrong and the news isn’t so good? Still, be very responsive. Make sure that your partner feels understood, that their abilities and opinions are valued, and that you’ve made them feel cared for.
I’ve learned that small tweaks in the way we behave with our partners can make all the difference in the world. What small tweaks have improved your relationship? What types of things do you celebrate, and how do you do it?
Gable, Shelly L., Gian C. Gonzaga, and Amy Strachman, 2006, “Will You Be There for Me When Things Go Right? Supportive Responses to Positive Event Disclosures”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91 (5), 904–917.
Gable, Shelly L., and Natalya C. Maisel, 2009, “The Paradox of Received Social Support: The Importance of Responsiveness” Psychological Science, 20(8), 928-932.
Parker-Pope, Tara, 2010, For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage, New York: Dutton.