The Science Behind Happy Relationships
hen it comes to relationships, most of us are winging it. We’re exhilarated by the early stages of love, but as we move onto the general grind of everyday life, personal baggage starts to creep in and we can find ourselves floundering in the face of hurt feelings, emotional withdrawal, escalating conflict, insufficient coping techniques and just plain boredom. There’s no denying it: making and keeping happy and healthy relationships is hard.
But a growing field of research into relationships is increasingly providing science-based guidance into the habits of the healthiest, happiest couples — and how to make any struggling relationship better. As we’ve learned, the science of love and relationships boils down to fundamental lessons that are simultaneously simple, obvious and difficult to master: empathy, positivity and a strong emotional connection drive the happiest and healthiest relationships.
Maintaining a strong emotional connection
“The most important thing we’ve learned, the thing that totally stands out in all of the developmental psychology, social psychology and our lab’s work in the last 35 years is that the secret to loving relationships and to keeping them strong and vibrant over the years, to falling in love again and again, is emotional responsiveness,” says Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist in Ottawa and the author of several books, including Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.
That responsiveness, in a nutshell, is all about sending a cue and having the other person respond to it. “The $99 million question in love is, ‘Are you there for me?’” says Johnson. “It’s not just, ‘Are you my friend and will you help me with the chores?’ It’s about emotional synchronicity and being tuned in.”
“Every couple has differences,” continues Johnson. “What makes couples unhappy is when they have an emotional disconnection and they can’t get a feeling of secure base or safe haven with this person.” She notes that criticism and rejection — often met with defensiveness and withdrawal — are exceedingly distressing, and something that our brain interprets as a danger cue.
To foster emotional responsiveness between partners, Johnson pioneered Emotionally Focused Therapy, in which couples learn to bond through having conversations that express needs and avoid criticism. “Couples have to learn how to talk about feelings in ways that brings the other person closer,” says Johnson.