The Happy Couple [Preview]

The key to keeping the magic alive in a marriage, experts say, is finding ways to promote the positive

Power of Positive Emotions
One of the benefits of reveling in the good times is a boost in the positive emotions of both members of a couple. A decade ago positive psychology pioneer Barbara L. Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that positive emotions, even fleeting ones, can broaden our thinking and enable us to connect more closely with others. Having an upbeat outlook, she argues, enables people to see the big picture and avoid getting hung up on small annoyances. This wide-angle view often brings to light new possibilities and offers solutions to difficult problems, making individuals better at handling adversity in relationships and other parts of life. It also tends to dismantle boundaries between “me” and “you,” creating stronger emotional attachments. “As positivity broadens your mind, it shifts your core view of people and relationships, bringing them closer to your center, to your heart,” Fredrickson says.

When a person's positive sentiments outnumber negative feelings by three to one, that individual reaches a tipping point beyond which he or she becomes more resilient in life and love, Fredrickson found. Among individuals in enduring and mutually satisfying marriages, ratios tend to be even higher, hovering around five to one, according to research by world-renowned marriage expert John Gottman, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

In her book Positivity (Crown, 2009), Fredrickson lists the 10 most frequent positive emotions: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love. Although all these emotions matter, gratitude may be one of the most important for relationships, she says. Expressing gratitude on a regular basis can help you appreciate your partner rather than taking his or her small favors or kind acts for granted, and that boost in appreciation strengthens your relationship over time. In a study published in Personal Relationships in 2010, social psychology researcher Sara B. Algoe, also at Chapel Hill, and her colleagues asked cohabiting couples, 36 percent of whom were married or engaged, to report nightly for two weeks how grateful they felt toward their partners from their interactions that day. In addition to gratitude, they numerically rated their relationship satisfaction and their feelings of connection with their partner. On days that people felt more gratitude toward their partner, they felt better about their relationship and more connected to him or her; they also experienced greater relationship satisfaction the following day. Additionally, their partners (the recipients of the gratitude) were more satisfied with the relationship and more connected to them on that same day. Thus, moments of gratitude may act as a booster shot for romantic relationships.

The fact that gratitude affected both partners also hints that expressing your gratitude is important for relationship satisfaction. To test this idea directly, Algoe, Fredrickson and their colleagues asked people in romantic relationships to list nice things their partners had done for them lately and to rate on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much) how well they thought they had expressed appreciation to their partner for having done those favors. In results not yet published, the researchers found that each unit improvement in expressed appreciation decreased by half the odds of the couple breaking up in six months.

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