What science says about why relationships work

Social scientists, since the 1970s, have been studying why some relationships work and others don’t. Given the fact that almost half of marriages end in divorce, it’s a very important issue.

But relationships at work are also important. Teams have to work together well to achieve important, shared goals. Schools, for example, make the greatest difference for children when school leaders, teachers and parents are pulling in the same direction.

Psychologist, John Gottman, has been one of these researchers. For the last 40 years, he has worked with thousands of couples on his quest to find why relationships work. Gottman speaks about 3 key issues assocated with positive relationships that last. I believe that many of Gottman’s findings also transfer over to workplace relationships.

  1. Differences are handled well: Gottman found that when differences between couples are handled well, relationships are more likely to last the distance. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t tension or conflict at times, but more that tensions are being kept at a low level and conflicts are being resolved.

    So, too in high-performing workplaces where there are typically quite open, honest and robust conversations going on. We might have different opinions on certain changes at work, but these opinions are expressed respectfully, tensions are kept at a low level, and, eventually, there is agreement about the way forward.

  2. Far more positive than negative interactions: Gottman also found that when positive interactions significantly outweigh negative interactions, relationships are more likely to last.

    He observed couples reaching out to each other for empathy, conversation about a shared experience, or for intimacy. Couples who ignored these attempts, continued doing what they were doing, or responded with hostility, were more likely to end in divorce. Those who had divorced only had 3 out of 10 positive responses to their attempts for intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had positive responses on almost 9 out of 10 occasions.

    In workplaces where there is high morale and strong relationships, the challenges are also significantly outweighed by the positive interactions. People feel supported at a personal and professional level and, often, people connect over food and through laughter. Good leaders are approachable and touch base regularly with team members, checking how they are going and that they have what they need to do their work well.

  3. Kindness: We often think about kindness as something that we do - small acts of generosity to help others feel better about themselves, such as supporting a colleague emotionally or in a practical way.

    Another way of showing kindness is by being generous about someone’s intentions, particularly when we are initially seeing their intentions less kindly. At these times, we practise kindness by appreciating there are probably other things going on for that person – that they are dealing with other stressors or pressures. If they are trying to do the right thing, even if it was done poorly, we can still appreciate their good intention.

    Gottman says that this type of kindness doesn’t mean we don’t ever get upset or frustrated with others. But more that we are letting them know we are hurt or angry rather than acting in hurtful ways. 

    Researcher, Shelley Gable, from the University of California, says another way to practise kindness is through shared joy. Couples that do this well tend to be interested, ask questions and get excited when their partner has had a win of some type. They are joy enhancers.

    Whereas people who are joy killers are disinterested, minimise the achievement, or find a way of redirecting the conversation to the negative. Being there for each other when things go right appears to be more important to relationship success than being there for each other when things go wrong.

    In workplaces, we practise this type of kindness by being interested, enthusiastic and happy for others when they have had a win of some type. We also enhance joy at work when we give genuine, meaningful recognition of people’s abilities and achievements. Even the self-motivated among us don’t mind a genuine thanks, particularly when we have been putting in exceptional effort. 

One could argue that handling differences well with others, ensuring there are far more positive than negative interactions, assuming the best and enhancing the joy of others are all acts of kindness. Let's do our part in making this world, at least the world around us, a kinder place.


Subscribe to our FREE newsletter

and we will send you 3 bonus e-books on building stronger teams and a happier workplace