Can research provide the secrets of a healthy romance?
A pair of UCLA psychology professors recently offered staffers a promise too good to pass up: the secret rules of a great relationship.
The rules are based on the duo's experience as counselors, and perhaps more importantly, as researchers who have studied the same couples year after year in their lab. By studying how and why relationships change, Professors Thomas Bradbury and Benjamin Karney have advice they say everyone should have.
Bradbury and Karney turned their concrete, research-based advice into The Relationship Institute at UCLA where hundreds of couples have taken their daylong, $200 seminar – but on March 5, they offered an hour's worth of free advice at a Staff Assembly Learn-at Lunch meeting at the Los Angeles Tennis Center Straus Clubhouse. The "sold-out" session generated a 70-person wait list.
Bradbury compared relationships to fitness – there are rules to follow to achieve "relationship fitness," just as personal fitness requires eating fewer calories and getting more exercise, he said.
"The puzzle is, why is it so hard to follow the rules?" he said. "It's because the task itself is hard ... pizza tastes better than carrots ... the calories we like are cookies."
Professor Thomas Bradbury, left; and Professor Benjamin Karney, right.
That means we're faced with hard choices when we disagree with our partners, Bradbury said. "We don't say, 'Wow, it's so intellectually stimulating that you see something differently.' We say, 'See it my way.' "
In many ways, relationship health comes down to the choices we make at moments like that: when our partner says something we don't like, Bradbury said.
And those choices are hardest to make when we're under stress, said Karney.
"Stress is a test," Karney said. "Stress makes us focus on the threat, but forget about the bigger picture. It's harder to think about complicated things and easier to fall back on habit, like fight-or-flight, instead of suppressing impulses or reaching out to understand your partner. Stress also forces us to focus our relationships on hard issues ... just when you're least able to deal well with them."
At the Staff Assembly Learn at Lunch event, psychology Professor Thomas Bradbury shares relationship advice with Bruin staff, based on research by Bradbury and Professor Benjamin Karney. - Photo by David Lederman.
Get it on your radar and respect it. Be aware of stress, Karney said. People who recognize that they or their partner are stressed are less likely to blame a resulting bad mood on their partner. Simply recognizing stress leads to better relationships by avoiding misplaced blame.
Step up and help … invisibly. Helping someone is a double-edged sword, Karney said: It's helpful, but it also implies, "Boy, you really need help," he joked. "The happiest couples practice something called 'invisible support.'" For instance, Karney explained, if your partner comes home in an obvious funk after a bad day at work, you could say, "I'll get dinner ready. You should relax because you're clearly in a bad mood." That's good, but there's an even better way: "Just do those things!" Karney said. "You could help, or you could say, 'I'm helping!' "
Choose your interpretation. People choose how to interpret their partners' actions, Karney continued. For example, if your sweetie isn't listening while you're talking, he said, you can assume 1) that your partner is distracted at the moment, perhaps by a stressful problem; or 2) that your partner doesn't respect you. "Happy couples keep it specific," Karney said. "Whatever it is, it's happening now, and doesn't infect the whole relationship generally."
Strengthen the foundation. Remember the good things about your relationship, even in times of stress. "The happiest couples cling to what's good," Karney said. "They smile at each other, tell jokes, put a hand on each other. They remind each other of their intimate bond even when everything else is crazy."
Invest in your relationship. People plan for retirement when they're young or middle-aged because they don't want to be poor when they're older. The same holds true for relationships – even when times are tough, take time to maintain your relationship. "People don't want to be poor or alone when they're old," Karney explained. "Act now to preserve the relationship you want to have later. Is it easy? No. But this is what people do in the happiest relationships."
Bradbury demonstrated how easy it is for a conversation to go awry, showing a three-minute clip of a couple who agreed to be taped in the researchers' lab many years ago. Conversation between the slightly overweight newlyweds began simply, with the wife telling her husband that she wanted to lose weight. The conversation slowly morphed: She wanted to lose weight by taking evening walks with her husband, but felt thwarted by him.
"It's hard enough to motivate myself without convincing you, too," she said. "When I ask you, I have to plead with you."
"Does pleading count as exercise?" he asked in a monotone. When that didn't work, he tried a new tactic. "Why do you have to wait until the end of the day?" he asked.
"I'm working everyday," she said, skipping over his suggestion that she exercise before he gets home. When he gets home at 6 p.m., she explained, he wants to relax and watch "Married with Children." But at 6:30, there's nothing on TV until 7 p.m.
"So there's half an hour we can go for a walk, and we'll be back in time for your other episode of 'Married with Children,' " she said. That got big laughs from the Bruin crowd, but sullen silence from the husband.
"Maybe if you would just cooperate with me," she said.
"This was supposed to be your problem," he replied as the clip ended.
"They're making choices," Bradbury said. "Work with my partner – or protect myself."
Communication is hard when couples disagree, but following the rules that help couples navigate stressful times can help them follow the overall rule for great relationships, Bradbury said.
"When we look at our videotapes and research, key findings come up over and over, no matter where we look. … This is the rule of close relationships: If you can show that you understand, value and care for your partner, you're going to experience the kind of relationship that you probably want."