Thriving Relationships//

We’ve Been Studying Couples for 40 Years — Here’s What We Learned About Improving Your Odds of Lasting Love

It’s not chance. It’s choice.

Tifonimages/ Getty Images
Tifonimages/ Getty Images

Every great love story is a never-ending conversation. From the first tentative questions we ask as we get to know one another, to the nail-biting discussions of trust and commitment, to the most profound heart-to-heart explorations of our love, our pain, and our dreams, it’s the quality of our questions and our answers that allow us to continue learning and growing with one another through the years.

And when conflict comes, as it inevitably does when we weave two lives together, it’s our commitment to being curious rather than correct that allows us to turn toward instead of away from one another in the moments of disagreement. Whether you and your partner are talkative or quiet, the words that pass between you, as well as the expressions and gestures that accompany those words, will define and determine your relationship.

A true love story isn’t a fairy tale. It takes vulnerability and effort. The reward is that you love your partner more on your 50th anniversary than you did on your wedding night. You can stay in love forever. It can seem as if the success or failure of a marriage or long-term relationship is no more certain than a coin toss.

In the United States, we hear that more than half of all marriages end in divorce. In Portugal, the number is 70 percent. With second marriages in the U.S., the divorce rate rises to 65 percent, and for third marriages the divorce rate climbs to 75 percent. Those are bad odds. And those are just the folks who call it quits.

What about the couples who stay together in a state of quiet desperation, discontent, and dullness? Before you throw your hands up in despair, know that there is also hope. While the expectations for marriage and partnership have never been higher, and the challenges have never been greater, it isn’t a coin toss. It’s not chance. It’s choice.

We now know what couples can do to improve the odds. For 40 years the Gottman Love Lab has been studying how to win at love. In the lab in Seattle we have obtained synchronized observational, self-report, and physiological data from couples, and we have analyzed our data using advanced mathematical methods. After observing thousands of couples, we now know the areas in a couple’s life that cause the most struggle. We can tell you with confidence what separates the masters of relationship from the disasters. And we can lead you through the eight essential conversations that will give you the best chance at creating your own happily ever after.

Successful long-term relationships are created through small words, small gestures, and small acts. A lifetime of love is created every single day you are together. Getting to know your partner doesn’t end the minute you return the moving van and are sharing dresser-drawer space, or the minute you say “I do.” It never ends. You can spend a lifetime being curious about the inner world of your partner, and being brave enough to share your own inner world, and never be done discovering all there is to know about each other.

It’s exciting. It’s daunting. And it’s one of the greatest life adventures you can take. Trust us, we know. We’ve been married a long time; more than 30 years for John and Julie, and more than 25 years for Doug and Rachel, and we’re still discovering new things about each other, still surprising each other, and more in love than we’ve ever been.

That doesn’t mean our relationships are perfect. Sometimes we fight. Sometimes we’re rude or insensitive. Perfection is not the price of love. Practice is. We practice how to express our love and how to receive our partner’s love.

Love is an action even more than a feeling. It requires intention and attention, a practice we call attunement. And the big secret to creating a love that lasts and grows over time is simple. Make dedicated, non-negotiable time for each other a priority, and never stop being curious about your partner. Don’t assume you know who they are today, just because you went to bed with them the night before. In short, never stop asking questions. But ask the right kind of questions.

We are not talking about yes-or-no kinds of questions. The questions we are talking about are called “open-ended” questions. These questions are invitations whose answers aren’t just a word or two. They are how you generate intimate conversations that let your partner share what is really on their mind and in their heart. These conversations will let you understand why your partner believes what they believe, does what they do, and is who they are.

Open-ended questions lead to conversations that will make you fall in love, or help you decide to make a long-term commitment, or keep you in love with the person you have chosen to spend your life with. This book will show you how to have the conversations that lead to intimacy, to awareness, and to a deep and meaningful understanding of one another — the ways you’re the same and the ways you’re different.

This is what will allow you to be a relationship master, and not a disaster. We’ve organized those conversations into the eight topics that matter most to relationships — trust and commitment, conflict, sex, money, family, fun and adventure, growth and spirituality, and dreams. We’ve structured these into eight dates for you to go on, and provide step-by-step exercises and open-ended questions to ask one another on each date.

These dates are a template, and yes, we want you to go on all eight dates, but we also want you to make dating each other something that never ends. We want you to be 95 years old and still going on a date — even if it’s just to the living room. We don’t want you to ever stop exploring your partner and your relationship, your beliefs and your fears, and your hopes and dreams for the future. We don’t want you to ever stop talking with each other, and learning, and growing.

Decades of research show that the great relationships — the masters — are built on respect, empathy, and a profound understanding of each other. Relationships don’t last without talk, even for the strong and silent type. This book will help you create your own love story by giving you the framework for the eight conversations you and your partner should have before you commit to each other, or once you’ve committed to each other, as well as throughout the years, whenever it is time to recommit.

That might happen when you have a baby, when one of you loses a job, during a health crisis, or when the relationship has begun to feel stale. Because this is for sure: Happily ever after doesn’t mean there are no challenges or conflict.

You can’t be in a relationship and not have conflict. Not if you’re doing it right. Life always shows up with all its stresses and strains and crises, and how you manage these together can ultimately make or break you (which we’ll explore more in the conflict date). Happily ever after simply means that both partners are known, valued, accepted for who they are and who they are becoming.

The goal is to be able to love your partner more deeply each and every year you’re together.

Excerpted from Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by John Gottman, Julie Schwartz Gottman, Doug Abrams, Rachel Carlton Abrams. Copyright (c) 2019 Workman Publishing. All rights reserved.

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