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Secret of Love is As Simple As 1+1=2

February 17, 2019

Mid-February is the quintessential time of year when we show the ones we love how much we care. Spouses do nice things for each other. Schoolchildren make Valentines for their parents. Couples dine by candlelight. And all across the globe, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates fly off the shelves as if Cupid himself had pierced them through with magic arrows.

But what is the real magic that happens in a positive, strong and sustainable relationship?

Chocolates, trinkets or trips are sweet. But is there something else going on that helps a relationship endure the ups and downs of everyday life?

According to research by Dr. John Gottman and Robert Levenson, and later, applied research by Gottman and his wife, clinical psychologist Dr. Julie Shwartz Gottman, a lot of good things can happen when there is the right ratio of magic in a relationship, in fact, the list is so compelling that the findings show that couples (and this goes for a parent and child, too) who are able to make relationships work live longer, healthier, happier and more successful lives.

Now, this “science of love,” as Gottman embraces it, is real. And we all want to solve the mystery of love, right?

When out with a “newlywed” couple recently, our friends leaned in and asked over wine, “What’s your secret?” We’ll be married 38 years this summer, but it’s more than that. We feel the secret, but trying to explain it so that it makes sense is difficult.

I fumbled when I said, “You give things up. You learn to compromise.” That’s true, but at the time, it didn’t sound complete. Even so, glasses clinked softly to lasting friendship as we visited in front of a warm fire waiting for our table.

Later, I thought about the question: “What is it that makes you two laugh and enjoy each other?” At the time, the love of my life had cracked a silly little joke, and I laughed my silly little laugh even though I’ve heard the same story many, many times before. It is funny. And I want my soulmate to know that I still find wit in his bits.

When I started to dig, I learned that the Gottmans’ years of relationship research shows that science actually can help to explain the magic of love, that our friends’ question actually has a clear answer.

In fact, the behavioral scientists could predict with more than 90 percent accuracy which couples would make it by looking at how the numbers behind positive and negative interactions graphed.

If we take away only one thing here, it’s that an insult or ignoring your spouse at any given moment can do more than five times the damage than a box of chocolates or a single compliment can do to make up for it.

Couples who find this to be true understand that all is not really fair game in love, and so they spend much more time filling love’s scale with positive words and deeds than negative ones. The whopping 5:1 ratio tells all.

Gottman explained, “Five times as much affection, humor, interest in one another, excitement, (and) connection than there was hostility, disappointment, anger, negativity.” This is the fundamental formula that takes the mystery out of what’s really in that craved potion.

Funny thing, Dr. Gottman and his team noticed repeatedly that “shared humor turns out to be very powerful in a relationship.” The ability to laugh is where my husband prevails, and whenever I view the world through his eyes, I usually manage to see the comic relief. Because of it, I’ve built his trust and shown commitment.

Likewise, when he views the situation through my tidy lens, again we build that foundation of respect and loyalty. I recognize his needs, he sees mine, and we work to fulfill them. Each is happy and loved. The simplest act of responding to a comment or an action by the other is crucial. Gottman calls this making a bid. And all it really is doing is saying, “I see you, I hear you, l love you, my better half!”

This small act of ongoing acknowledgment goes a long way. Think of it as the glue that strengthens a relationship.

Now, you would think that arguing is not such a good thing. Not true. We can point to a disagreement on any day of the week that we’ve had. It’s natural. So, our old advice to “fight fast and love long” is not so far off when we consider the 5:1 science.

This morning, I have a writing project and Steve isn’t awake yet. All is perfectly quiet. Even so, my love for Steve means looking at the morning through his eyes, so I decide to take a few minutes to make the coffee and build a fire -- things I know he’ll really appreciate -- and his joy is something I enjoy. I tell him often that I am so lucky to have him in my life, and I often show him with my actions. He does the same. I guess luck is work. This kind of intimacy helps us to continually build trust and respect and a loyalty of love and everlasting friendship, even when things are tough, as they often are in everyday life. We always know we have each other to come back to, and we always try our hardest to have each other’s backs.

We are pretty bad at explaining this to our friends across the table. We sound goofy, corny and hard to take seriously. Still, they seem to really want to find this magic in their budding relationship, and we want them to succeed. True love exists -- the math proves it.

So turn toward your partner, be willing to live with your own set of shared perpetual problems (every relationship has them), and learn to laugh a lot more. Compliment each other. Treat each other as equals. Return to calm. Listen. Look for the positives along the way as if they are treasures. Verbalize those positives. Act gently. Live longer. Love longer.

One and one may add up to two, but two people able to be one in the most positive, affectionate and loving ways is what matters most if you want a piece of the magic.

Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, writes about writing, learning, and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey . Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com