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A New Study Shows the Power of Positivity Resonance for Couples

Positivity resonance predicts a couple's future success and physical health.

Key points

  • Research has long shown that the quality of your marriage greatly impacts your life satisfaction and happiness.
  • Marital contempt has been shown to predict both divorce and physical health problems in the future of couples.
  • Positivity resonance has now been shown to predict the opposite: staying together and staying healthy.
dusanpetkovic1/Adobe stock photo
Source: dusanpetkovic1/Adobe stock photo

It’s easy for us to take our life partners for granted. In some ways, it is bound to happen. We bump along from day to day believing we know what they’ll say before they say it and what they’ll do before they do it.

But, the truth is that taking your partner for granted is a dangerous game because it affects the way you treat your spouse. And research has shown that the quality of your marriage actually has an outsized impact on the overall quality of your physical health as well as life happiness and satisfaction.

Way back in 2001, a study by Gottman, Levensen, and Woodin showed that contemptuous, disgusted, and other negative facial expressions observed in a marriage are a predictor of not only the couple’s future likelihood of separation but also each spouse’s future problems with their physical health.

Fast forward to 21 years later, and a new study by Wells and Haase, et al., (2022) gives us the mirror image of that finding. A positive phenomenon the authors call “positivity resonance” accurately predicts not only a successful, rewarding marriage but also each partner’s future good physical health.

What Is Positivity Resonance?

The authors define positivity resonance as “moments of interpersonal connection characterized by shared positive affect, caring nonverbal synchrony, and biological synchrony.”

So, positivity resonance is a moment in which you share a positive emotion together, requiring no words, that synchronizes your heartbeats and other physical processes. Here are three examples:

  • At the cocktail party, Brittany stands in a small group of people who are discussing a new kind of rug fiber. Searching the room for her husband, her eyes suddenly catch his across the room, and she sees the boredom in his eyes, too. As they each perceive it in the other, they share a secret smile.
  • Will and James follow the realtor from room to room as she tries to sell them the house. As she points out each aspect, they nod and murmur neutral acknowledgments, making sure to keep their feelings out of the process. But as the realtor exits the last room ahead of them, their shoulders brush as they head toward the door. Sneaking a quiet glance, they each register the glee in the other’s eyes and they realize together at the exact same moment that this is their future home.
  • Arriving home from work, Brooke finds her husband, Jeff, on the couch with their twin toddlers climbing all over him, and he looks tired. Tossing her briefcase on the floor, she yells, “Dogpile!” and throws herself on the floor, still in her silk dress. Both kids immediately abandon their dad and jump onto Brooke, who starts tickling them. Glancing up at Jeff, she sees his relief and appreciation in their shared laughter. At that moment, they feel more bonded than ever.

It may not be easy to believe that these moments of positivity resonance can actually synchronize your heartbeats to each other, help maintain your physical health, and contribute to your longevity. But living your life in a relationship free of contempt and high in positivity resonance has been shown to predict all of those things.

The Secret to Having More Positivity Resonance in Your Relationship

  1. Pay attention to your partner. What do they like, dislike, want, and need? Do your best to stay tuned in to your partner's needs and wishes.
  2. Pay attention to your feelings and your partner’s feelings. For a couple to be emotionally connected in a positive way, they must be emotionally tuned in to each other. This can be extra difficult if you grew up in a family that didn’t generally talk about, or deal with, emotions much (emotional neglect). If you grew up in an emotionally neglectful home, you may need to make more effort to learn how to identify feelings in yourself and others, as well as how emotions work and how to understand them. These emotion skills are very learnable and can contribute to having more positivity resonance in your marriage.
  3. Show appreciation for your partner. An appreciated spouse is typically a happy spouse. Knowing and feeling that your partner appreciates you is a soothing balm that can help couples weather difficult times and stay bonded. It’s the diametric opposite of taking your partner for granted and sets the stage for positivity resonance.
  4. Don’t settle for distance or unhappiness. This is one of the biggest mistakes couples can make and, in my experience as a couples therapist, one of the most common. Unhappiness can gradually build under the radar of a relationship, neither party quite realizing it’s happening. It is essential to point out a growing or recurrent issue or problem and address it or it could lead to more contempt and less positivity resonance.

The Takeaway

Feelings are the glue that binds you together with your partner. Feelings also provide the fire that keeps passion in the relationship. Unfortunately, feelings can also do great harm and damage to a couple if they are not treated with proper understanding and care. If you or your partner grew up in an emotionally neglectful household, you may have a tendency to disconnect during difficult or painful conflicts. This means you may have to work harder for your resonance.

Learning to identify emotions in yourself and your partner, accepting that those feelings can’t be judged as right or wrong but that it’s what you do with them that matters, and being able to focus on the feelings in a conflict instead of the “facts”: These are all things that can benefit many folks with childhood emotional neglect enormously.

Just as Brooke noticed Jeff’s exhaustion and delivered to him what he needed, and just as Will and James read each other’s feelings in a single glance, when you demonstrate to your partner that you know them deeply and thoroughly and receive the same feeling back, you contribute to the feeling of “us.” It’s like saying, “We’re a team, and I get you.”

What a powerfully bonding message that is.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

References

To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my Bio.

Wells, J. L., Haase, C. M., Rothwell, E. S., Naugle, K. G., Otero, M. C., Brown, C. L., Lai, J., Chen, K.-H., Connelly, D. E., Grimm, K. J., Levenson, R. W., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2022). Positivity resonance in long-term married couples: Multimodal characteristics and consequences for health and longevity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000385

Gottman, J., Levenson, R., and Woodin, E. (2001). THE JOURNAL OF FAMILY COMMUNICATION, 1(1), 37–57

Driver, J. L, and Gottman, J.M., (2004). Turning Toward Versus Turning Away: A Coding System of Daily Interactions. In P.K. Kerig and D.H. Baucom (Eds.), Couple Observational Coding Systems, Chapter 13, 209-225. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

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