After a decade of analyzing data from the Love Lab, we discovered that one set of variables determined whether a marriage would succeed or fail: Were the couples being positive or negative during the interview? There was very little gray area. Either they emphasized their good times together and minimized the bad times, or they emphasized their bad times together and minimized the good times. Either they emphasized their partner's positive traits and minimized their partner's more annoying characteristics, or they emphasized their partner's negative traits and minimized their partner's more positive characteristics.
What we've learned is that the couples who are most likely to have happy marriages show the following qualities and characteristics when they talk about their relationship:
Fondness, Affection, Admiration: Either verbally or nonverbally, the couple expresses positive affect (warmth, humor, affection); they emphasize the good times; they compliment their partner.
We-ness versus Separateness: The couple emphasizes their ability to communicate well with each other and their mutual unity and togetherness. They use words like "we," "us," or "our" as opposed to "I," "me," "mine." They don't describe themselves as separate.
Expansiveness versus Withdrawal: The couple describes memories about their shared past vividly and distinctly, versus vaguely or more generally with an inability to recall details. They are positive and energetic talking about their relationship, versus lacking energy and enthusiasm in recalling their past. They express intimate information about themselves, rather than staying impersonal and guarded.
Glorifying the Struggle: In a relationship, people build a whole life together, filled with values, purpose, and meaning. In "glorifying the struggle," the couple expresses pride that they have survived difficult times, versus expressing the hopelessness of their hard times. They emphasize their commitment to the relationship versus questioning whether they should really be with this partner. They are proud of their relationship versus being ashamed of it. They talk about their shared values, goals, and life philosophy. They have intentionally created a sense of shared meaning and purpose, even in the way they move through time together. And they create intentional traditions in their relationship for connecting emotionally. We call these "rituals of connection." Dates are an example of rituals of connection.
If a couple starts by expressing negativity toward each other in the interview, whether in words, facial expressions, or body language (cynicism, sarcasm, eye-rolling), it signals that a negative switch has flipped, and it almost inevitably predicts a relationship that will decline over time. If the couple expresses disappointment in the relationship, feeling disillusioned, as if marriage isn't what they thought it would be, or if they are depressed, hopeless, and bitter about their relationship, divorce is likely. Mind you, negative events and regrettable incidents are inevitable in all relationships. The positive switch is all about how couples positively interpret their negative events and their partner's character, and whether in their minds on an everyday basis they maximize the positive and minimize the negative (in their partner and in their relationship).
What it boils down to is that an overall perceived negativity will quickly erode a relationship. And every successful marriage and relationship has, at its foundation, a deep and close friendship—partners who really know each other and are, at the heart of it, on the same side, part of the same team. The words you choose matter. Your tone of voice matters. Even your facial expressions matter.
Of course we all get it wrong sometimes. We miscommunicate, and when we do we need to make repairs. Expecting no communication snafus in a relationship is like expecting a hole-in-one every time you hit a golf ball. Happy relationships aren't relationships where there is no fighting. They are relationships where repairs are made after regrettable incidents happen—and where a couple connects with each other day to day. Happy couples are not so very different from unhappy couples; they are simply able to make repairs to their relationship easier and faster so they can get back to the joy of being together.
In the end, a big part of the success or failure of your relationship depends on the conversations you have with each other. Three hundred couples did the exercises, recorded their conversations, and shared their stories. New couples, celibate couples, same-sex couples, and long-term married couples all found that these conversations brought them closer and helped them see each other in new and exciting ways. They became better friends, and they fell in love all over again.
You can, too.