Praise: Encouraging Signs

Hurdles like jealousy and miscommunication can determine whether a relationship succeeds. But what about how couples “cope” when something positive happens? According to a new set of studies, the way we respond to our mate’s good fortune is a strong predictor of marital satisfaction and, at least in the short term, whether a couple will break up.

Shelly Gable, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, examined how couples share everyday positive events because she felt that the lion’s share of relationship research focused on how couples handle conflict and trauma. “Thankfully, positive events happen more often than negative ones,” she says. “And satisfying and stable relationships are about more than a lack of conflict, insecurity and jealousy.”

In one study, Gable analyzed how men and women respond to a positive event in their partner’s life, such as a promotion at work. A partner might respond enthusiastically (“That’s wonderful and it’s because you’ve had so many good ideas in the past few months”). But he or she could instead respond in a less-than-enthusiastic manner (“Hmmm, that’s nice”), seem uninterested (“Did you see the score of the Yankees game?”) or point out the downsides (“I suppose it’s good news, but it wasn’t much of a raise”).

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The only “correct” reaction according to Gable’s research—the response that’s correlated with intimacy, satisfaction, trust and continued commitment—is the first response, the enthusiastic, active one. Basking in good news or capitalizing on the event seems to increase the effect of happy tidings by reinforcing memory of the occurrence. This is true for both men and women, and holds regardless of whether they are dating or married and whether the positive event is large or small.

Gable says an occasional passive response from a partner probably isn’t the end of the world, and she speculates that most of us are able to make excuses for our partners in such situations. “The problem is when that’s the chronic response,” she says. “If a partner doesn’t respond actively and constructively, the person who’s trying to disclose something immediately feels less positive and feels less intimacy. Basically they feel less understood, validated and cared for.”

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