Sharing in others’ good news and being open to criticism are key to better relationships, explains our positive psychology columnist, Chris Johnstone
Back in the 1960s, a popular approach to couples therapy involved using soft-foam rubber bats to hit each other. Partners would be encouraged to take turns voicing their resentments, using the rubber bats to physically express this. The idea was that by releasing suppressed anger, they’d clear the air and be freed to start anew.
Decades of research later, we now know this isn’t such a good idea. While naming our hurts allows issues to be recognised, battling over issues, even with rubber bats, brings a greater danger of fuelling hostility. So if ‘basho-therapy’ doesn’t work, what does?
It turns out that one of the best ways to improve relationships has lots to do with how we respond to good news. Psychologist Shelly Gable videotaped dating couples discussing recent events in their lives. She found that the way people responded to their partner telling them good news could either boost or weaken feelings of closeness.
Gable identified three types of response that had damaging effects: ignoring the good news; acknowledging it but with dampened enthusiasm; or, worst of all, pointing out reasons why the good news might really be bad news. Each of these dropped the level of trust and enthusiasm in the relationship.
If the partner showed interest and delight in the good news, however, this had the opposite effect. Couples with this response not only reported higher levels of satisfaction with their relationship, they were also more likely to still be together two months later.
There’s a saying that a friend is someone who looks over your broken fence and admires the flowers in your garden. When we look at friends or partners, we have choices about which aspects of them, or our relationship with them, we give our attention to. Do we focus on what’s going well and comment on that? Or point out the problems? While both have their place, research shows that the balance between them makes a huge difference to the quality of our relationships.
Through decades of close observation of couples interacting, psychologist John Gottman and his team mapped out factors important for relationship wellbeing. They found that expressions of fondness and admiration have a protective effect, helping build the trust and affection that give relationships staying power.
In contrast, couples whose conversations often included putdowns and statements of contempt were much more likely to break up. By identifying these and other predictors of relationship success or failure, Gottman’s team could study a 15-minute conversation between a couple, and then predict with over 90% accuracy whether they’d still be together five years later.
Alongside expressions of contempt, other markers of relationship danger were defensiveness or ‘stonewalling’ in response to criticism. A feature of healthier relationships (ie ones rated as more satisfying and that lasted over the study period of two decades) was openness and curiosity when concerns or criticism were raised.
If we know what’s important for the other person, we’re better able to take their preferences into account. Conflict can alert us to misunderstanding, it can be an opportunity to update awareness of what’s important to each other. But to learn from conflict like this requires openness and trust. All the appreciations and other positive comments help build the ground for this. That’s why, in successful relationships, people tend to give each other more positive than negative comments by a ratio of at least three to one.
So when your friend, partner or colleague next tells you something they’re pleased about, remember that positive news, and your response to it, gives you an opportunity to nourish closeness. If you can be glad that they’re glad, and show that, you give your relationship a boost.