Love, in all its mystery and complex emotion, boils down to a rush of chemicals that stir our brains and bodies with feelings of euphoria and adrenaline. It’s kind of funny, actually — that something that feels so big and full inside of us, whether we have it or are yearning for it, is just a simple, bodily reaction. Even still, love comes with all sorts of implications and can still be difficult to navigate, no matter your relationship status. Here is your guide, so to speak, for creating chemistry.
A Formula for Chemistry
Though we often pursue love based on feelings of passion, our behavior is what dictates whether a relationship will last, according to observations and research by leading Northwest experts.
Marie Antoinette of Austria was just 14 years old when she married Louis XVI of France to help strengthen the newly formed alliance between their two previously feuding countries.
Just a few years after their union was cemented in 1770, the pair became the king and queen of France. Their union is perhaps one of the most famous arranged marriages in history — in part because of their bloody demise — but it’s just one example that reminds us of the paradigm shift marriage has undergone over the past two centuries, from relationships forged for familial and country alliances, to ones that blossom out of love and endearment.
In a lot of ways, we have economics to thank for this: The Industrial Revolution of the mid-1700s and -1800s ignited economic growth, allowing for greater financial independence and, by the 1850s, couples started marrying for love. Near the turn of the 20th century, workweek hours started to sharply decline, so spouses could spend more time together. Public dance halls, carnivals, and theaters started cropping up, further fueling romantic desires and pursuits.
While most Western couples are in favor of romantic relationships over arranged ones, the pursuit of love also comes with a lot of pressure for spouses as they attempt to fill one another’s needs.
In 2014, a group of university professors from Illinois explored this very idea. Their research, entitled The Suffocation of Marriage: Climbing Mount Maslow Without Enough Oxygen, lays out how humans have ascended psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which starts at the base with physiology (air, water, food, shelter, etc.), and peaks at self-actualization (the desire to better yourself).
In other words, marriage used to be a tool for stability; now we seek out a partner who will help us become our best selves. They’re our friend, confidant, and cheerleader. It can be a lot to ask of one person, and the professors determined that while spouses may have high expectations for their other half, they may not be investing enough meaningful time and energy into the relationship to make it fruitful.
With this research in mind, we wondered how happy couples are managing their expectations and fulfilling one another. We sought the insight of two local experts: Clinical Director for the Gottman Institute Don Cole, who works primarily with the couples; and Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a famed sociology professor at the University of Washington who specializes in human sexuality and also is an expert on the Lifetime reality TV show Married at First Sight.
Their research and experience working with couples revealed that there just might be an equation, of sorts, for happy relationships.
Let’s start with our behavior.
When prompted, many likely will say the most important aspect of a healthy relationship is communication. On the surface, that is true, but it’s not quite that simple.
The Gottman Institute, a Seattle-based team of psychologists who have performed extensive and globally recognized research on marriage, zeroed in on specific behavior that can make or break a relationship.
In the 1970s, John Gottman, co-founder of the institute, conducted studies at his lab with couples using an observational coding system — verbal and body language, facial expressions, etc. Over the next decade-plus, his research evolved, and his team observed couples interacting over several years and, in some cases, two decades.
In a study Gottman conducted about how behavior can predict divorce, he and his team were able to determine with 90 percent accuracy whether a couple would split, meanwhile discovering that 69 percent of relationship problems are perpetual, often deriving from personality differences between partners.
Cole said the most harmful behaviors were dubbed The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by The Gottman Institute, and they are: criticism; defensiveness; contempt; and stonewalling, which essentially means the person shutdowns once they feel overwhelmed.
These types of behavior can occur on a daily basis and can slowly erode the happiness within a relationship.
“They’re detrimental because (the behaviors) typically represent a pattern of escalation of negativity,” Cole said. “If I say something and my wife says something negative and my response is to be defensive, then I’m escalating the negativity. Say she escalates it even more and it becomes contempt, and now she’s putting me down. That’s really toxic, and then the stonewalling might occur afterward. Each of those steps represents an escalation, and they really feel harsh and rejecting and uncaring, especially stonewalling, because it communicates that I don’t even care what you have to say.”
Unsurprisingly, negative behavior outweighs positive behavior. Cole said a successful relationship should have a conflict ratio of 80 percent positive to 20 percent negative.
“That is a predictor of a stable relationship,” he said. “Most of the time, even when they (successful couples) are talking about problems, they’re doing it from a positive place. When they do disagree, they do it politely. The positive couples are a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative. The couples that are declining over time, they spent more time in negative territory. A 50/50 scenario (of positive to negative behavior) is a disaster.”
The couples who are more likely to make it through the long haul are playful, he said. They’re often verbally and physically affectionate, have shared humor, validate each other either with words or body language, and are intentional to acknowledge their partner when she’s sharing something. Cole calls this “turning toward” the other person. In other words, if your partner says, “Oh, I’ve been dying to see that movie,” it’s important to respond in a way that makes them feel heard.
“The struggling couples only turn toward each other’s bids 33 percent of the time,” he said. “When we don’t do that, we’re turning away or turning against our partner, like, ‘Can’t you see I’m reading? Leave me alone.’”
The couples that make it and continue to have fulfilling relationships tend to their spouse with care, Cole said, and are also quick to repair things if a conversation turns negative.
The good news is that couples can change their behavior, he said. The way we react to situations is often learned from our environment, whether it’s family, friends, or past relationships, and it can be altered to become more positive.
When it comes to the recurring problems (which exist in every relationship), Cole said two things need to happen: Accept that you have personality differences, and learn to compromise. For example, if one person is more adventurous and social and the other prefers to stay home, it’s better to understand that neither of you will likely change, and split the difference with activities.
“The unsuccessful couples move into gridlock and can no longer have successful conversations,” he said. “Some other issues could be spending money, raising kids, how we spend our free time, how we relate to our families of origin. It’s not what they differ on. It’s how they handle it.”
Now, intimacy is generally another important factor for many couples, and, like marriage, the roles couples play within their relationships have drastically changed, too. Schwartz said women often are coming into a relationship with more sexual experience than in previous decades and have a better understanding of what they like in bed.
Statistics about sex and sexual satisfaction are all over the board, but overall, data does consistently show that men tend to want more sex than women. With this in mind, it’s really no surprise that sex can be a point of contention for some couples.
As relationships mature, it’s typical for passion to fade, and in order to combat the loss of excitement that inevitably comes with the passing of time, Schwartz said couples need to continue seducing each other.
“People need date night, not just because they need time to talk, but also to set the stage,” she said. “The newness, the eroticism of the relationship is gone, but you can still flirt with your husband of 40 years. We know what desire looks like: ‘I love the way you look in that suit,’ or ‘I’ve been thinking about tonight.’ If you stop doing those things, you can get bored of each other really quickly.”
Just like any other aspect of a relationship, maintaining passion is a daily task that starts with connecting with one another on a more basic level, Schwartz said, like asking how the other person is doing — making time to communicate with him or her. Having a strong overall connection with your partner can help lay the foundation for a stronger relationship in the bedroom. Not only is general conversation essential, but so are communication and foreplay in the bedroom, Schwartz said. Tell your partner what you want, what feels good, what you fantasize about.
“If you love someone, it’s supposed to give you license to be more intimate than a one-night stand,” she said. “How do you make (sex) special between the two of you? Part of that is trust and acceptance and being kind and open to each other.”
There are so many reasons sex might not be happening as frequently in a long-term relationship, Schwartz said. But one theory has captured headlines all over the world.
A 2013 study published by the American Sociology Review entitled Egalitarianism, Housework, and Sexual Frequency in Marriage set out to determine whether men who do more household chores have more sex. Anyone who’s married knows how frustrating it is when you feel like you’re the one doing all the dishes or all the laundry. So, one might think that when those duties are being shared, then both people feel happier overall and will therefore have more sex.
The answer? Probably not.
The study revealed couples who have more equity in their relationship — including incomes and splitting housework — have sex 1.5 times fewer times per month than those where the man doesn’t do any daily chores. One-and-a-half times isn’t a big marginal difference, but it is interesting to explore the psychology behind how gender roles affect our sexual desires.
Schwartz said psychologists have a couple theories.
“Sex is often used to reduce distance between people,” she said. “The strong, silent type needs the chattier type, and she uses sex to make him open up. A piece of data might indicate that: Lesbians have less sex, but they’re also strong communicators, so they have other things that make them feel close.”
The other theory, Schwartz said, has to do with the idea that, “Hierarchy is sexy to women.”
“The male who just did the Indy 500 or just got off his job as a lineman or as a macho hunter, that’s arousing,” she said. “Sociology would say, duh. When you become more friend-like and collaborative, then that touch of animalism is removed, and it’s less erotic.”
Overall, Schwartz’s advice for a happy sex life echoes what Cole recommended: Invest quality time in the relationship to build an emotional and physical connection, and compromise. Partners sometimes have differences in their sexual compatibility, but it doesn’t have to mean the death of sexual fulfillment, Schwartz said. If one person wants sex four times a week and the other person has a desire for only two, can’t they meet in the middle, she suggested?
One other thing Schwartz said that really resonated was this: “It’s very hard to know how precious (relationships) are when you’re younger, because the world seems so open to alternatives. But I think as people get older, they realize how precious it is to have that shared history with someone, even though there are things about it you don’t like.”
We’ll never really know what happened behind closed doors in Marie Antoinette and King Louis’ marriage. According to biographies, though, it doesn’t seem as if they grew to love each other. They shared 23 years of marriage and four children, but not much else.
History doesn’t remember them kindly, but it’s hard not to feel a bit heartsick over the thought of a loveless marriage. Society has groomed our inclinations for a love-based partnership for more than a century, and that ideal is unlikely to fail, even with all the difficulties and pressures it comes with.
The good news is, for those who are struggling with their relationship, it can be fixed, Cole said.
“We can define what a good relationship is like,” he said, “and find it in our own marriage.”
Cheers to that.