Do you have a marriage that’s just OK? Your relationship may be languishing because most of your time is spent dealing with the duties of life such as raising children, managing money and meeting job expectations. There may not be much energy left over for generating connection, much less romance. Fortunately, positive psychology research has uncovered the strategy that the happiest couples use for sustaining closeness, intimacy, and satisfaction.
For decades psychologists studied how to help people in unhappy marriages. Counselors helped couples learn how to get past problems they were facing, but the good times didn’t last long because another set of challenges would arise. And learning to solve problems doesn’t produce the loving exchanges characteristic of couples who have deeply satisfying relationships.
By studying how loving couples make their marriage great, psychologists are now able to coach couples who are struggling strategies for becoming happier. Dr. Shelly Gable, a professor at UCLA, is a pioneer in positive psychology. She has discovered that “capitalizing” on positive exchanges is the key to creating an excellent relationship.
Capitalizing occurs when you amplify the positive emotions that another person is experiencing as they share good news with you. By showing your excitement and responding enthusiastically when your partner tells you about positive experiences, you create an upward spiral of loving emotions. It feels great to have someone be interested in your stories and happy that you’re happy.
Dr. Gable’s studies show that couples who engage in this “active-constructive” manner of responding to one another feel more in love, more satisfied, and more committed than couples who display any other reaction. In fact, she’s found that the quality of any relationship is determined primarily by the way you respond to the person – child, friend, coworker, etc. – when they share a positive story.
Relationships deteriorate if you react to good news with any other type of response. A “passive-constructive” reply is positive, but too subdued to be effective. A “passive-destructive” response shows a lack of interest and signals indifference. An “active-destructive” reaction is critical and focuses on what’s wrong with situation the person is describing.
The following examples illustrate the four choices for responding to someone who’s just shared the good news that they got promoted at work:
- An active-constructive response would be: “Fantastic! You really deserve this after all your hard work. You’ll do a great job in your new position!”
- A passive-constructive reply would sound more like this: “That’s good. I know you wanted this. I hope it works out.”
- A passive-destructive counter would divert the conversation: “Oh – that reminds that my boss just told me I have to travel to LA next week.”
- An active-destructive come back would be: “I suppose this means that you’ll be spending even more time at the office. Why do you always put work ahead of your family?”
Even though people intuitively understand the importance of making active-constructive responses, it’s surprising how few individuals have learned to do so consistently. In this age of multi-tasking and pressure-packed schedules, it’s easy to remain focused on our own challenges rather than other’s success.
You can recognize when you’re capitalizing on the positive parts of your relationships as you see a flash of happiness in the person’s eyes and hear the energy rising as they continue to talk to you. If their speech loses energy and their expression reflects flat or negative feelings, your conversation is derailing and your connection is deteriorating.
By paying attention to these clues you can recognize if you’re promoting the relationship or putting your agenda first. The following statements will help you identify what style you typically use.
- Active-constructive: I’m enthusiastic when I react to someone’s good news. Sometimes I get more excited than they do. I ask a lot of questions so I can fully appreciate all of the positive ramifications of their good fortune.
- Passive-constructive: I’m happy for the person, but I don’t tend to make a big deal out of something good. I don’t say a lot. I tend to be silently supportive of people.
- Passive-destructive: I’ve got so much I’m trying to deal with that it’s hard for me to pay attention when people say something positive. Besides, doing good things is how people should be acting anyhow.
- Active-destructive: I’m realistic when I hear about a situation because I know there’s a downside to everything. By pointing out the negative aspects I’m helping the person to prepare for the potential problems.