Relationship Barometer:

A Good Sign to Look for When “On the Fence”…

Written by Lydia Ievleva | June 12, 2018

Relationship Barometer: A good sign to look for when on the fence about a relationship.

We seem to be better at identifying red flags in relationships than noticing good signs. For example, researchers from the Gottman Institute (aka the “Love Lab”) at the University of Washington in Seattle, have developed a way to identify couples at risk after just three minutes of observation. This is based on diagnostic criteria referred to as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (criticism, defense, contempt and stonewalling; see for more). What has been more challenging, is understanding what makes relationships thrive and flourish.  As John Gottman himself has noted: “At first, when I figured out how to predict divorce, I thought I had found the key to saving marriages… But like so many experts before me, I was wrong.  I was not able to crack the code to saving marriages until I started to analyze what went right in happy marriages.”

The good news, is that landmark research at UCLA led by Shelly Gable (currently at UCSB) does provide a key to predicting relationships that will last. The findings show that how well a partner responds to news of positive events is a better predictor of relationship health and longevity than how supportive a partner is during stress. This is due to what is called Active Constructive Responding (ACR), that is associated with greater commitment, passion, love and satisfaction resulting in longer-lasting relationships. Essentially, the research suggests that it is better to celebrate than to commiserate.

Interestingly, couples (and friends too) tend to be better at being there for each other when things go bad, than when things go well. A partner who embraces and shares your good fortune, however, is a better indicator of healthy long-term togetherness than who lets you cry on their shoulder.

For example, when a person comes home with news of a promotion, and the partner responds with as much, if not more, effusiveness (by being more zealous than jealous) – bodes well for health and happiness of the relationship. Here are a few ACR examples from the research:

  • My partner reacts to my good fortune enthusiastically, e.g., “Wow!  That’s the best news I’ve heard in long time!”
  • I sometimes get the sense that my partner is happier and more excited than I am, e.g., “Let’s call the family and plan a celebration!”
  • My partner often asks a lot of questions and shows genuine interest in the event, e.g., “I know how hard you worked for this … Tell me more …”

Consider where you and/or your partner fit amongst the following four options when responding to good news.

  1. Do you react enthusiastically (active-constructive)? e.g., “That’s fantastic news!  You so deserve this opportunity. You’ll be great at it.”
  2. Do you point out the potential problems or down sides of the good event (active-destructive)? e.g., “Are you sure you can handle the added responsibility?” or “Will that mean you’ll be away from home more?”
  3. Do you say little, but convey that you are happy to hear the news (passive-constructive)? e.g., “That’s very nice dear.” And return to whatever you were doing, e.g., reading the paper, T.V., computer.
  4. Do you seem uninterested and change the subject (passive-destructive)?  e.g., “What’s for dinner?” or “Isn’t all this weather incredible?”

When giving your union the once-over, it’s important to honestly assess the behavior of both you and your partner. It’s also important to note that this is not the definitive diagnostic tool upon which to make life decisions, but a piece of the puzzle towards a healthful, fulfilling partnership.

Closing Tips

  • Be zealous versus jealous – jealousy is a downer and undermines connection, whereas being zealous is uplifting — deepening bonds.
  • Be prepared to celebrate as well as commiserate – accentuating the positive scores more points than comforting the negative.