The pandemic of 2020 has resulted in an uptick in divorce, especially in newer couples according to the National Law Review. The past year has been stressful, and that stress puts pressure on relationships. It is interesting that the article from the National Law review not only named stress related to health, but also to financial well-being of couples. The pandemic certainly caused financial uncertainty for a significant number of individuals. 

Shifting gears a bit, this past weekend my spouse and I celebrated our seven year wedding anniversary. We have said many times in the past week that it seems like our wedding was yesterday but we also don’t remember a time without each other. We walked down memory lane a bit, and thought about our wedding day, the big milestones we’ve celebrated together (moving to Los Angeles, welcoming our girls, moving back to Kansas City, etc.). 

It got me to thinking that I don’t remember a single piece of relationship advice that I received from family or friends during our dating years, or engaged years, or around our wedding. I’m sure there were a lot of fantastic pieces of relationship advice; however, it’s not what my mind gravitates towards. 

Instead, I’m all about what the research says. There are a number of researchers who study relationships and there are key things that we can all do to strengthen our relationship. So, in keeping with MPower Co, we’re not here to give relationship advice, but instead I want to share some key relationship research.

Use what the research says when things get stressful. I have in the past seven years, so that’s why I wanted to give you some of my favorite research-based relationship information.  Here are seven pieces of relationship research, not relationship advice, to know about: 

  1. Bid and Respond to Bids

Dr. Gottman, a relationship researcher at Harvard, has studied romantic relationships with a lens focused on signs of divorce. His research has found that successful couples bid and respond to bids with each other in far greater quantities than in relationships that end in divorce. Simply put, those in solid relationships engage with one another more often. 

While he expected to find grand gestures and deep conversations to be a key to successful relationships, instead he has found that it is connecting over mundane things that can make a difference. For instance, caring to engage and listen to how a partner’s day was, asking about a meeting that happened, or offering to get your spouse a drink of water, is an important part of your day. 

When my spouse and I first met, we were both traveling significantly for our different jobs. I was traveling over the United States and he was traveling internationally. In fact, one of the first months in our relationship, we met for a one hour lunch as I was coming back into town and he was heading out of town. In hindsight the only reason we made it through those first few months were because of my partner bidding for my time. He was always reaching out through text or video chat. It didn’t matter our timezones, etc. 

The texts were simple, “How is your day going?” or “Did you have a nice dinner?” If it weren’t for his effort, even though it was simple, it would have been easy for our schedules to get in the way of us getting to know each other better. Dr. Gottman’s work proves how important these little things and conversations are to the satisfaction and the long-term success of our relationships.

  1. Words Matter – Use “Us” “We” and “Our”

You may think I’m going to focus on how to talk to your partner; however, the research shows it’s more about how you talk about your relationship. The words we use when talking about our life with our spouse matters.

Interestingly the research shows that if we interconnect with our significant others we are more satisfied and committed. How do we measure this? By the words that we use. Couples who use the words “us” “we” and “our” more frequently have a more ingrained sense of closeness or interconnectedness with their partner. 

  1. Show Gratitude Toward Your Partner

Brian Oglosky, an associate professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, reviewed over 1,100 research studies on relationships. One of the four things he suggests can improve our partnerships is showing gratitude. We get busy and forget to say “thank you” or express our gratitude. Take time to think about why you are grateful for your partner and for what they contribute to your relationship that you are thankful for as well. Noticing it is one thing. Expressing gratitude, though, is what can strengthen your relationship.

I was talking with a couple in mid-2020 about how the pandemic was affecting their relationship. They were both tired and were juggling more at home, than they had prior to the pandemic, when they had more support from others. They felt like they weren’t spending time together, because when one was working the other was with their kids. They were constantly doing dishes and cleaning the house more due to more meals at home and their house being used more. They felt like they were just passing by handing off kids or household tasks. 

Through talking with them it was clear they were trying to hold space for each other and do small acts for each other, but they were tired. I challenged them to pay attention to each other enough to find one thing to be thankful for with respect to the other person or their relationship each day. After two weeks, I checked in with them. While still very tired, they were less frustrated with each other. By paying attention, they realized they were both doing their best and it was more the circumstance that was weighing on them. 

  1. Avoid the Four Horsemen

Let’s go back to Dr. Gottman’s research, as he is really the research expert in this space. Interestingly, he has found that couples that engage in the four horsemen (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and/or stonewalling) are more likely to have their relationship end in divorce. Typically by 5.6 years of marriage. So, while earlier I was focused on how you talk about your relationship, take some time to also reflect on how you do talk to your partner. 

I once witnessed a couple have an argument, which in and of itself didn’t bother me. It’s life. Two people can’t agree 100% of the time. It was how they handled the argument and resolving it that was the issue.

One individual folded their arms and literally dug their heels in that they were right without hearing the other person out. The other person was unkind to the first individual. There was both defensiveness and criticism at the core of their argument. It was awkward and there was no clear resolution to the situation. One person just left the room at the end of it. It was clear this was how they handled disagreements. That relationship didn’t last.

  1. Empathize with Your Partner

So what can you do instead of engaging in the four horsemen? It’s fun to be right. We all like to be right. Critical, though, to the success of romantic relationships is the ability to empathize with our partner, this is according to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and Kinsey Institute fellow. It’s important to take time to understand our partner and their perspectives. Putting our egos aside is critical to our ability to connect. With those that are closest to us, we can’t be right all of the time. 

So instead of putting up a wall or using hurtful words. Take time to ask questions. Instead of jumping to a resolution, ask questions that help you understand. “Why is this important to you?” “Have you had an experience that leads you to believe…” Slowing down and focusing on the process instead of the conclusion can help you and your partner understand each other better. 

  1. Share Meaningful Experiences

Research out of Yale University has revealed that focusing on having shared experiences with those around us can deepen our relationships. In a time where we are inundated with screen time, posting to social media, etc., it’s easy to get caught up in a moment but not sharing the moment with those immediately around us. 

When life throws lemons your way, think about trying something new or getting back into something you used to enjoy, and bring your partner along. Having them see your joy and be part of it can increase your connectedness. 

  1. Understand Your Biological Differences

Research shows that one of the most significant events in a romantic relationship is adding a child into the mix. The first 18 months of having a child shows most couples are less satisfied within their relationship than prior to the new addition. In the book Partnership Parenting, the book talks about the biological difference between men and women. Specifically, hormones of men and women are very different when it comes to response to children.

The book goes to great lengths to remind us that if we have similar goals (i.e. to raise well-rounded, self-sufficient children), then we have to recognize that it’s ok if our parenting styles are different.  It’s good for others to see we are still individuals and don’t do everything exactly the same. Taking time to recognize that it is ok to have differences and that our biology can come into play is important to recognize. 

MPower’s Course MPowered Couple

This article was written by MPower Co’s CEO Lea Satterfield, who is also the author and coach of the online financial course MPowered Couple. MPowered Couple helps couples organize their financial lives together, create common financial goals and values that support both the couple and the individuals within the relationship, and much more. The course is fully online and Lea acts as a coach for the course to ensure that couples reach their goals for taking the course. To learn more about the course and to sign-up for the waitlist for the course, head to the course page on our website!