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More Perfect Unions

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By Dan Gordon '85

Published Oct 1, 2009 8:00 AM


art

Can love and relationships be studied as a science? William Proxmire thought the idea was laughable: In 1975, the then — Democratic senator from Wisconsin bestowed a "Golden Fleece" — Proxmire's trademark award spotlighting examples of frivolous government spending — on a National Science Foundation grant supporting research on love.

Love is so mysterious, the senator scoffed, that applying scientific methods in an effort to better understand it was a waste of time. What's more, he added, even if we could understand it, we were better off leaving it a mystery.

Turns out he was wrong on both counts.

"There is a huge body of research on how couples' relationships develop and change, and the scientific literature is increasingly clear on the best strategies for keeping these relationships strong," says Psychology Professor Thomas Bradbury.

Can You Relate?

The Relationship Institue at UCLA offers seminars that provide couples with practical information on how to keep their relationship strong and healthy. Visit relationship.ucla.edu.

Sit in on Professor Benjamin Karney's class, Communication and Conflict in Families and Couples, via YouTube.

Learn how the pair got started offering relationship advice.

Get five key tips from the relationship wizards from this article about their free session on campus.

As to why we should want to know? "Nothing — whether it's financial status, work life, physical health or anything else — is as closely correlated with overall happiness as being in a good relationship," adds Benjamin Karney M.A. '92, Ph.D. '97, associate professor of psychology and, like Bradbury, a contributor to the growing scientific literature on marriage and other intimate relationships.

With so many couples taking their relationship advice from non-scientific sources, including the endless supply of self-help books on the market, Bradbury and Karney took it upon themselves to create a venue for communicating research-based knowledge about what does and doesn't work. The Relationship Institute at UCLA, established in 2007, distills more than two decades of research by scholars on intimate relationships and translates it into practical tips that couples of all kinds and in any kind of partnership can use to strengthen their bond.

Typically, Bradbury and Karney say, relationships go south because of two related but distinct processes: an escalation of negativity and a decline in positivity. This sounds simple and obvious, but preventing or reversing these trends is anything but elemental. Before couples know it, conflicts last longer and spread like wildfire into new areas. Life pressures and responsibilities conspire to push aside the aspects that once drew the pair together.

What can couples do to buck these trends? Bradbury and Karney suggest taking these 10 proactive steps:

Create Opportunities for Positive Interactions

In the course of a relationship it's natural to become acclimated to your partner's most attractive features, to the point that they are easily overlooked. The most successful couples learn to stay connected in even the most mundane ways. They make it a point to establish rituals that ensure they are bonding on a daily basis.

Bring New Energy into the Relationship

We all know there's a big difference between the first time we kiss our partner and the 1,000th time. Engaging in new activities — dance lessons, rollerblading, social groups — keeps the relationship fresh by allowing partners to see each other in novel settings and relate in different ways.

Support Each Other Subtly

Announcing to your partner that you'll be assuming the cooking chores that night because he or she is under stress seems like a good thing, but when you put it that way, you're sending two negative messages: 1) the partner isn't up to the task; and 2) you want credit for your good deed and are creating a debt to be repaid. Bradbury suggests a better approach: "Honey, I saw this interesting chicken recipe — mind if I try that out tonight?"

Avoid Quid Pro Quo Thinking

"Unhappy couples track the debits and credits that go into a relationship account," says Bradbury. "Happy couples simply put in as much as they can without focusing on the withdrawals."

Encourage Disclosures

Revealing fears and insecurities adds depth to a relationship, but we are less likely to leave ourselves vulnerable if doing so isn't met with support — or, worse, comes with a price. In successful relationships, partners recognize when the other is expressing vulnerability and they reward, rather than punish, them for it.

Limit Negativity

Relationships are about taking care of each other, about seeing and validating the best in the other. "These goals are threatened when we yell at our partner, say mean things or defend our position without reaching out in an effort to understand what our partner is trying to say," says Bradbury.

Keep Conflicts Issue-Specific

In any intimate relationship, of course, disagreements are inevitable. The key, notes Karney, is to keep them localized. "If a partner is late for an appointment, we can generalize it to say, 'This is an inconsiderate person,' or we can keep it specific," he explains. "Happy couples don't ignore the negativity, but they don't let it bleed into other parts of their relationship."

Be Aware of Stress

Conflicts often arise during stressful times, when it becomes easy to lash out at the person closest to us. The constraints that cause these feelings are often not obvious. Staying attuned to stress — both in yourself and in your partner — buffers the relationship from these pressures by helping couples see that it is outside forces that are contributing to the hard times, and that this doesn't mean the relationship is threatened.

Revel in the Good

Yes, how you handle conflict and whether you and your partner are there for each other during difficult times are vitally important. But behavior in good times is equally telling. "The happiest couples know how to build on the positives," says Karney. "When good things happen, they seize on those opportunities and celebrate them. That can be very powerful."

Elevate the Relationship to Most Important Status

We exercise daily to invest in good health. We set aside part of our paycheck to invest in our retirement. The health of our intimate relationship is no less important than our physical or financial health — and arguably it is more so. "We urge people not to take their relationship for granted, but to invest in it every day," says Karney.

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