The Magic Two Words to Make Relationships Work

I don’t normally use clickbait-type headlines, but I recently came across some gold content buried deep in a great article in Business Insider. I know, you already visit B.I. for all your relationship needs, but in this case the article was long and in-depth and there’s no way most people would have read down to the part that was, in my mind, the most important.

They even say it themselves:

The psychologists found that the only difference between the couples who were together and those who broke up was…

The only difference. That means there was one thing that kept couples together – two words that were the key. And no, you heteronormative types, those words weren’t “Yes, dear.

They were active constructive.

courtest MTSOFan via Flickr CC

The Way to Your Heart

“Great!” I can hear you saying. “Now, what the frak does active constructive mean? Do we have to invest in Legos? Is this yet another tense I’ve forgotten from French class? C’mon, Gray, you’re past the first sub-heading and you still haven’t given us content.

True enough. So let me lay it out: Based on a study by psychological researcher Shelly Gable in 2006, the way that couples interact could be laid out into four basic categories. These were either active or passive and constructive or destructive. Here’s how it could work out:

Partner 1: “Honey, I’m home! Guess what? They’re sending me to Las Vegas to represent the company at a convention! Can you believe it?”

Passive-Destructive Partner 2: “I got the oil changed today. Can you chip in for half?” Note how by not even acknowledging Partner 1’s news, PD just nullifies it.

Passive-Constructive Partner 2: “Ah. I’m sure that will be…interesting.” (Goes back to surfing Facebook).  Partner 1 is acknowledged – sort of – but not in any way that matches the initial excitement, and in the hierarchy of attention the news is pretty low.

Active-Destructive Partner 2: “Las Vegas? You can’t afford Las Vegas – and how will you be able to represent the company? That’s a huge responsibility, and in that environment – do you really think you can handle that? Are you sure they picked the right person?” The reaction tears away at the news and seeds doubt and fear where jubilation used to be.

Active-Constructive Partner 2: “Wow! That’s a huge honor! They must really have confidence in you – and Vegas! Maybe you can go see Cirque du Soleil! What hotel are you in – I’ll look online to see what’s playing nearby!” Not only is the excitement echoed, but concrete support and steps to make it even better are created.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

Here’s the full quote that I excerpted from above:

Active constructive responding is critical for healthy relationships. In the 2006 study, Gable and her colleagues followed up with the couples two months later to see if they were still together. The psychologists found that the only difference between the couples who were together and those who broke up was active constructive responding.

Those who showed genuine interest in their partner’s joys were more likely to be together.

I added the emphasis to that quote above, because I think it’s that important. And it’s not easy – many people have the other three modes of interaction modeled to them from an early age by parents, siblings, teachers. It’s not necessarily their fault, either – while it’s not exactly abuse (at least, not in most cases) it is still something that is passed on from generation to generation. You can make all kinds of excuses for why you would respond in the other ways, from “I just didn’t want to build up their hopes” to “If what I said keeps them from it, I guess they didn’t really want it that bad!

You can even rationalize a reason not to use Active Constructive: “Well, I can’t fake being enthusiastic! I should be honest, right? And honestly I’m not that excited about it!” Here’s the thing: excitement is contagious. It doesn’t take much to get excited, even if you have to fake it ’til you make it.

That’s why this is a Practice Post. You need to practice the Active Constructive until it is a habit.

If that seems too much trouble, that’s fine. I agree, it can be a lot of work, especially if you have to change your default reaction or try to build enthusiasm for things that you feel ambivalent or even antagonistic towards. But I have to point out again those three words: “the only difference“. By making the decision not to cultivate Active Constructive behavior with your relationships, you are deciding to actively increase the odds that your relationship will not last.

Oh, and you’re also deciding to have a lot less fun. But hey, that’s up to you. As for me and mine – I like being excited about things. It’s cheaper than an iMax movie and less destructive to my clothes than base jumping.

Say it with me: Wheeee!

1 thought on “The Magic Two Words to Make Relationships Work”

  1. I have two relationships at the moment. One that has lasted almost twenty years, and one of almost three. With both, it looks like we happen to all practice the magical words and, I agree, it has made all the difference. Feeling supported, encouraged, and celebrated IS love.

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