When you recall the details of the beginning of your relationship, is it told with love or tinged with negativity? In her new book “For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage,” Tara Parker-Pope points to a study that shows why it’s important. An excerpt.
How did the two of you meet? Was it love at first sight? Did you date for a long time or was it a whirlwind romance?
Newlyweds and long-married couples often are asked to recount the details of their first date, their courtship, or even the wedding proposal. Perhaps you were high school sweethearts or maybe you met through an online dating service, at the grocery store, or through a blind date arranged by friends.
But what does a story of how you met years ago have to do with how you are getting along with your spouse today? Relationship researchers are keenly interested in hearing how couples met as a way to gauge the quality of their relationship now. But the actual details of the story are far less important than how the two of you tell it. Your personal romantic narrative, as told by you or your partner, is filled with clues about the state of your relationship today and can predict whether trouble looms ahead.
Studies show that each couple’s back story is particularly revelatory about the present state of their relationship. One of the earliest studies of the value of a couple’s “how-we-met” story was published in 1992. John Gottman and his colleagues at the University of Washington took oral histories from fifty-two couples, and their stories were then coded and deconstructed. The couples, who had been married for an average of five years, also took part in laboratory-based discussions in front of cameras and strapped to body monitoring devices. Based on all the evidence the researchers had collected, they already had a pretty clear idea about which couples were happy and those who were headed for divorce.
Three years later, the researchers checked in with the couples again. The researchers had been virtually perfect in their assessments. The how-we-met story had predicted, with 94 percent accuracy, which couples would break up and who would stay together.
The how-we-met story is useful but slightly less predictive in newlywed couples — the relationship is still evolving and couples have yet to settle into a pattern. Even so, talking to a couple about their early romance, even when they are still in the midst of it, can identify potentially troubled relationships. In one study, the researchers collected how-we-met stories from ninety-five newlyweds, and then they checked in again at different intervals for the next nine years.
At the four-to-six-year interval, the how-we-met story had been 86 percent accurate in predicting who would still be together. By the end of the nine-year study, the accuracy of the how-we-met story had slipped to 81 percent. Among the seventy-nine couples who were still married up to nine years later, the researchers had correctly predicted sixty-eight of them would still be together. And the how-we-met story had correctly predicted thirteen of sixteen divorces.
Why is the how-we-met story so important? Typically, the early days of a relationship are the most romantic and the most love-struck. Put us in a brain scanner when we are in the early days of romantic love and we will look like we are crazy or on drugs. The parts of the brain that involve critical thinking are shut down — that’s why we aren’t troubled by obvious flaws like a filthy apartment or lavish spending habits. Meanwhile, our brains are awash in a dopamine surge and we feel dizzy and exhilarated by love. All of the memories we are creating during this time are tinted by the rose-colored glasses of the newly in love.
And when we are happy in our relationship, we remember the early days with pretty much the same rosy-tinted optimism. But once we become dissatisfied with our partnership, at some point perceptions shift. It’s not that we make up problems that never existed. It just becomes far easier to recall the negatives than the good times. And we end up recasting history to reflect our current state of discontent.
Is the story of your early courtship filled with nostalgia and optimism? Or is it tinged with negativity and regret? Do you remember getting lost in the rain together on your first date? Or do you just remember the fact that he refused to stop for directions?
Spouses who are in happy marriages often recount the early part of their relationship with laughter, smiles, and nostalgia—even when talking about difficult times like a job loss or financial struggles. Unhappy couples, however, tend to recast their past times together in a decidedly negative light.
For instance, imagine a couple telling the story of the first time a wife visited her future husband’s filthy apartment.
“My goodness, the place was a wreck! Socks everywhere, empty beer bottles. It was definitely a bachelor pad.”
Or she might remember it this way:
“It was disgusting. Even back then, he was a complete slob.”
It’s the same story about the same messy apartment, told two different ways. But it’s clear which wife is happier in her relationship.
Consider my own how-we-met story from my first date with my husband in Austin, Texas. In the early days of my marriage, I would have recounted it this way:
“After dinner, he suggested we take a walk around the Capitol building. I had just had surgery on my foot, but I was having such a good time I didn’t care. I didn’t want to ruin the moment so I went along, hobbling around the Capitol grounds.”
But later, when the relationship began to sour, I sometimes told the story this way:
“After dinner, he suggested we take a walk around the Capitol building. I had just had surgery on my foot. Of course he didn’t even notice that I could barely walk.”
Even though I would often laugh while telling the story, I’m sure an experienced therapist would have clued in to my negativity long before I was even aware of it. And that’s the value of the how-we-met story. In addition to having your partner tell your how-we-met story, listen to yourself and how you tell the story of your early courtship. What you learn will provide a useful snapshot of the state of your marriage today.
Excerpt from "For Better" by Tara Parker-Pope © 2010. Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA). Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.