This is a valuable enough article that I’m reprinting it without permission. Hopefully the NYT won’t mind.
New York Times December 5, 2006
For Couples, Reaction to Good News Matters More Than Reaction to Bad By BENEDICT CAREY
Scientists who study relationships have long focused on how couples handle love�s headaches, the cold silences and searing blowups, the childcare crises and work stress, the fallouts over money and ex-lovers.
But the way that partners respond to each other�s triumphs may be even more important for the health of a relationship, suggests a paper appearing in the current issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study found that the way a person responds to a partner�s good fortune � with excitement or passive approval, shared pride or indifference � is the most crucial factor in tightening a couple�s bond, or undermining it.
�When something good happens to your partner, it�s a terrific opportunity to strengthen the relationship � that�s what this study really says,� said Art Aron, a social psychologist at Stony Brook University in New York, who was not part of the study. �It fits with this whole thrust in the field, focusing on how to make things better rather than trying to avoid making them worse.�
In the study, researchers asked 79 heterosexual couples who had dated at least six months to fill out questionnaires characterizing how their partners typically reacted to positive news. People often had different styles in different contexts: a boyfriend who withdrew when his partner was upset or overwhelmed might glow with shared excitement if she was promoted. The researchers filmed the couples interacting in the lab, as they discussed positive events that happened to one or the other, to check their self-reports. The researchers also had members of the pairs rate how satisfied they were in the relationship, based on a battery of questions at the start of the study and again two months later.
The study was conducted by Shelly Gable, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles; Gian Gonzaga, a psychologist formerly at U.C.L.A., and Amy Strachman, a graduate student there.
In the laboratory as in life, constructive support is generally better for a relationship than detachment, as many people have learned the hard way. Couples who lace their arguments with sarcasm and mean jabs, studies find, are usually headed for a split. But in their analysis of response styles, the researchers found that it was the partners� reactions to their loved ones� victories, small and large, that most strongly predicted the strength of the relationships. Four of the couples had broken up after two months, and the women in these pairs rated their partners� usual response to good news as particularly uninspiring.
Celebrating a partner�s promotion as if it were one�s own provides the partner with a tremendous emotional lift, said Dr. Gable, while playing down or belittling the news can leave a deep and lasting chill.
In most relationships, positive events outnumber negative ones by at least four to one, studies have found, and �you get much more bang for your buck� by amplifying life�s rewards than by soothing its bruises, as important as that is, Dr. Gable said.
�When you�re seeking support from a partner, there�s a lot more going on than when you�re sharing good news,� she added. �Your ego is on the line. You�re admitting that maybe you can�t handle this by yourself. And the best your partner can do is relieve your distress. It�s not the most scientific thing I can say, but for the partner it�s also a bummer to have deal with it, too.�