“Are You Trapped Inside Yourself ?”
I’ve been thinking about what makes close relationships sustainable over long periods, through the inevitable challenges and speed bumps which reality foists upon us.
We don’t have far to look to see the evidence, either anecdotal or statistical, that divorce rates continue to soar. In each case there are at least two, and probably three or more, sides to the story.
An article in The Atlantic magazine reports that several detailed scientific surveys which studied samples of successful as well as failed marriages basically point to two key “make or break” traits: kindness and generosity.
That sounds pretty obvious, but it bears further reflection.
The branch of social science which began studying the success and failure of marriages was born in the 1970s, as a result of soaring divorce rates. Over time, a host of specialist psychologists carried out extensive studies. One such expert in the field is John Gottman, who identified a pattern in daily life interactions between spouses which he named “bids.”
In this context, a bid from one party to the other is something like a request for attention, or connection, or sharing — often something small. One party notices something of interest to them and draws the other’s attention to it. The reaction of the other party, especially in the context of a pattern over time, has a profound effect on the relationship.
If the pattern of response to the “bid” is routinely disinterest, disdain, or excuses like “I’m busy”, then over a period of time there is an erosion of emotional connection.
Gottman claims that by observing these interactions, he can predict with 94% accuracy whether couples — straight, gay, rich, poor, with or without children — will remain together for a longer period.
His research points to the attitudes both parties bring to the relationship. Kindness and generosity predispose people to be better, more responsive listeners, and more considerate in their words and actions. Selfishness, cynicism, and hostility yield very different, if not opposite results.
Of the successful partners, Gottman observes “They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully.”
Of the failed partnerships, the biggest culprit is contempt. Those who are preoccupied with criticizing the other party for this, that and the other thing, routinely fail to notice the positive things and eventually see bad things when they aren’t really there.
While all of this makes sense, it’s clearly more challenging to achieve success in today’s pressurized, fast-paced, materialistic, distracted society than in simpler times past.
Clearly, it can be done, but who is currently teaching young people how to do it? If the answer is no one, then society may have a rough road ahead.
One interesting point which Gottman makes is that you can look at kindness and generosity as fixed traits — qualities you are either born with or acquire through education. Or, you can look at them like a muscle. Some people grow up with stronger muscles than others due to various factors, but everyone can work to improve their relative muscle strength.
Just like going to the gym for muscle training, perhaps in future we will need facilities for kindness and generosity training. That’s partly the role of religion or spirituality in many societies.
Gottman asserts that there is ample evidence to suggest that the more someone receives or sees kindness, the more they themselves will be kind. Although this is also common sense, it falls into the category of things we don’t think about as often as we should.
Although Gottman’s research, and the main focus of this blog post, is on spousal relationships, there are many lessons here for us to ponder in terms of sustainable human relationships in general, including in the business world.
There is no disputing the fact that the most precious things in life are friends, family, and health; so it behooves us all to be lifetime learners on how to manage these things well.
In business, long-term relationships between colleagues, management and staff, customers, and investors are often a key distinguishing factor between truly great companies and ordinary ones. I can’t think of a better individual example than Warren Buffet.
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