Becoming Masters of Love
by Emily Macke
Learning to love appears to be a popular topic. The Atlantic published an article on the subject, “Masters of Love,” in June 2014, and it still remains one of the top ten most popular articles on their website.
To explore how couples can love authentically, author Emily Esfahani Smith outlines research from psychologist John Gottman, who has spent the past four decades studying marriages.
In 1986, Gottman set up “The Love Lab” with Robert Levenson at the University of Washington, where the two colleagues watched newlyweds’ interactions. The couples were asked about their relationship – how they met, current conflicts they were facing, positive memories they had – all while hooked up to electrodes to monitor their physiological reactions (heart rate, blood flow, amount of sweat, etc.).
Six years later the couples were contacted to see whether or not they were still together. Gottman found that the “masters” and the “disasters” were separated by their physiological reactions during their newlywed interviews.
“Masters” – those who had happy and lasting marriages – remained calm while speaking and had low physiological arousal. Smith writes, “It’s not that the masters had, by default, a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.”
“Disasters,” on the other hand – those who were no longer together or were in chronically unhappy marriages – had highly active physiological responses monitored by the electrodes, even when externally they appeared calm during the newlywed interviews.
“The problem was that the disasters showed all the signs of arousal—of being in fight-or-flight mode—in their relationships,” Smith explains. “Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger. Even when they were talking about pleasant or mundane facets of their relationships, they were prepared to attack and be attacked.”
Gottman’s research continued with a new set-up in the 1990s. He designed a lab at the University of Washington to resemble a bed and breakfast and then invited 130 newlyweds to spend a day there, while he observed their interactions.
The spouses would make requests for connection from each other, which Gottman calls “bids.” Smith uses the example of a husband who is a bird enthusiast, pointing out a beautiful bird to his wife. Her response is critically important. Gottman says there is a choice of “turning toward” or “turning away.” The wife can either express interest in what her husband finds interesting and engage that, or she can ignore or belittle him (or vice versa).
Gottman found that couples who divorced within six years only “turned toward” their spouse’s bids three times out of ten. Those who were happily married responded positively 87 percent of the time.
“There’s a habit of mind that the masters have,” Gottman explained in the interview, “which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”
“It’s not just scanning environment,” said John’s wife Julie Gottman, also a psychologist. “It’s scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or scanning him for what he’s doing wrong and criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.”
John Gottman explained how “masters” and “disasters” communicate their frustrations differently while fighting. “Disasters will say ‘You’re late. What’s wrong with you? You’re just like your mom.’ Masters will say ‘I feel bad for picking on you about your lateness, and I know it’s not your fault, but it’s really annoying that you’re late again.’”
A key component to being a “master” instead of a “disaster” is kindness. Taking a cue from Gottman’s research, couples can ask themselves whether they are more focused on criticizing or praising one’s spouse.
Other dimensions of kindness include “turning toward” a spouse’s “bids” for connection instead of neglecting the spouse’s needs. Assuming positive intentions behind a spouse’s actions instead of looking for the negative is another aspect of kindness.
Shared joy is another element of kindness whose importance Gottman’s research underscores. Responding strongly and positively to the good news of one’s spouse is a trait possessed by the “masters.”
The Atlantic’s piece, while an explanation of findings related to marital happiness, is also an invitation to love. Smith’s explanation of kindness offers a call to every spouse to love more fully:
There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.
About the author
Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Education Coordinator at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her Master’s in Theological Studies at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and her undergraduate degree in Theology and Journalism at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Emily shares the good news of the Catholic faith through writing, media appearances and speaking opportunities, which she has done on three continents. She and her husband Brad live in southeast Indiana.