Lecture on Campus: Building and Maintaining Relationships

One of the best things at Wash U is the amount free lectures that constantly happen on campus. Tonight, I went to a psychology lecture as part of “The Happiness Series” that focused on building successful relationships. Tim Bono, who’s been presenting this series all semester, teaches a class on happiness, but decided to a public lecture series because his class is always full.

He began the lecture explaining what causes relationships to fail, identifying five main behaviors that predict failure: A harsh startup to the conversation, complaints becoming criticisms, expressing contempt, becoming defensive, and stonewalling. A psychologist, John Gottman, was able to predict whether marriages would end or not with 91% accuracy based on those five behaviors.

The view from my seat during the lecture.

The view from my seat during the lecture.

After the sad start, Bono quickly began to focus on the positive, explaining what makes relationships work. The first thing that makes relationships is a cultivating mindset, rather than a finding mindset. A finding mindset, also known as the “One Right Person” theory, is when a person thinks: “I have to find the right one, the right person”. The finding mindset often results in relationships ending because people see problems and suddenly decide that it isn’t the right person, and then they don’t regret it ending. On the other hand, the cultivating mindset finds a person thinking: “I have to find someone with whom I am compatible and work through the inevitable hardships to strengthen the relationship.” With the cultivating mindset, partners will work to strengthen the relationship, rather than acting like bystanders and letting things fall apart.

The second characteristic of successful relationships is striving to be known rather than validated. Striving to be known is expressing yourself fully, flaws and all. On the other hand, striving to be validated would be always trying to impress your partner. If you constantly hide your flaws, you won’t be able to build intimacy with the other person. At the core of this is a deep friendship: happy couples truly enjoy spending time with each other.

You also have to fight occasionally. Allowing for conflict is important for healthy relationships. A common misperception is that successful relationships are conflict-free. The ideal ratio of positive to negative interactions is around 5:1, but as long as the ratio remains above around 3:1, the relationship will still be positive. The key is to accentuate the positive, but don’t ignore the negative—work through it. You must also avoid using hostility, insults, and contempt. Finally, make sure you keep your disputes private.

Also crucially important is when couples partake in “benefit finding”, or more simply known as appreciating their relationship. Thriving couples are found to perceive their partners more positively than other people do, while good couples perceive them equal to how other people perceive them. In negative relationships, couples perceive their partners less positively than other people do. This benefit finding is very important because the positive reinforcement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lastly, love is in the details. We adapt much more easily to the big things in life than the small, unexpected ones. Therefore, small, thoughtful gestures go a long way. Hugs, flowers, compliments, and demonstrations of empathy go a long way.

I hope you enjoyed learning about relationships as much as I did. A big thanks goes to professor Bono for providing his time on a Wednesday night!

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