The Surprising Science Behind Better Relationships
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The Surprising Science Behind Better Relationships

Health Podcast Psychology
The Surprising Science Behind Better Relationships

Eric Barker is the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree. His new book is Plays Well with Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships Is (Mostly) Wrong. 

Listen to Eric give Next Big Idea Club curator, Daniel Pink, relationship advice on the Next Big Idea podcast below, or read a few key highlights. And follow host Rufus Griscom on LinkedIn for behind-the-scenes looks into the show.

The stronger your relationships, the better your health.

Daniel Pink: One of the things that’s interesting, Eric, about your book is that, at some level, the word relationships is— I don’t wanna say that it’s soft, but it’s softer than, say, work and success and those kinds of things. And yet you make a pretty good case in this book that it really matters. Tell us a little bit about how much relationships matter to our emotional and physical wellbeing.

Eric Barker: It was crazy to see in some of the research that in terms of both health and happiness relationships are second only to genetics. It’s really, really critical. And we give it lip service, but I don’t think it’s something that we pay a lot of attention to. Beyond that, I think “relationship book” is right up there with “infomercial.” It’s not really taken as seriously as it should be.

Daniel: And relationships have an effect not only on our overall wellbeing, but also on our physical health. It matters to our cardiovascular health and our endocrine health. Various biological systems are improved when we have healthy relationships. You say our relationships are second only to our genetics in terms of our wellbeing. So, CRISPR notwithstanding, it’s very difficult to alter our genetics, but we can do something about our relationships.

Loneliness is bad for your health. But solitude has benefits.

Daniel: A couple years ago, we selected Vivek Murthy’s book Together about the epidemic of loneliness. For those who haven’t read that book, give us a little bit of texture on loneliness and its deleterious effects.

Eric: John Cacioppo, who is the leading researcher on loneliness, found that the elevation of stress hormones caused by loneliness is the equivalent of a physical attack. Loneliness is like getting beaten up. It’s staggering. It’s correlated with almost every negative health outcome you can imagine. That was terrifying for me to learn, because I was in pandemic lockdown, writing about loneliness—by myself. I was living by myself, not seeing friends, reading about how terrible this is for you. I’m surprised that insurance companies don’t mandate that you spend more time with friends. It wouldn’t be a bad idea.

“Lonely people don’t spend any less time with others.”

I read Vivek Murthy’s book. One thing he hit on—something that I think is critical here—is that loneliness is horrible for you. However, solitude is actually protective against loneliness. That distinction is really critical. Loneliness isn’t about proximity. It’s not merely about physically spending time with other people. Lonely people don’t spend any less time with others. We’ve all felt lonely in a crowd. Loneliness is how you feel about your relationships. So if you feel bad about your relationships and you’re alone, that’s loneliness. That’s bad. If you feel good about your relationship, but you have time alone, that’s solitude, and it’s a positive.

Want to make friends? Try sending costly signals.

Daniel: You talk about how friendship depends on costly signals. Tell us about that, because I think that’s a huge takeaway from this book.

Eric: How do you know if somebody’s a callous manipulator, trying to get stuff from you, trying to act like a friend? Costly signals. It’s a principle from economics. The idea is that these are signals that are “expensive” to send. That’s what we should look for. The first is time, because time is always scarce. If I spend an hour talking to you every day, I can’t do that for more than 24 people. Time is scarce. Scarcity means costly. So time is really critical. One study from Notre Dame tracked 8 million phone calls, and they found the people who stay in touch every two weeks—those were the relationships that were more likely to last. So touching base is really critical.

The second is vulnerability, opening up. If I tell you things that could hurt me, that could make me look bad, that could be used against me—that is a strong demonstration of trust. And Diego Gambetta, a researcher in Italy, found that the best way to build trustful relationships is to first demonstrate trust. Tell people: “Here are things that are embarrassing. Here are things I might not want to be public.” That says, I trust you. And very often people will reciprocate. There are major health implications of this. Robert Garfield at the University of Pennsylvania found that not opening up, not being vulnerable, increases the chance of a heart attack and doubles the chance that heart attack will be lethal. We need to release some of the psi on the stress and problems we’re dealing with, and we do that by opening up to others.

Daniel: This idea of disclosure and vulnerability is fascinating because it is potentially costly. If I were to reveal to somebody something that I’m not proud of, something that I did wrong, something that makes me look bad—that’s a risk. Give us one beat on the choreography that goes on in friendships. You don’t divulge everything all at once. That’s too costly. You make small investments that are reciprocated. Tell us about that.

“If it scares you a little, that’s a good sign that this is something worth opening up about.”

Eric: Don’t confess to any murderers up front. Make it incremental. Start small. Wait for people to reciprocate. If they do, escalate. This is actually a formula for building deeper friendships. Say something that’s kind of silly. If they reciprocate, graduate. In the book I talk about the scary rule. If it scares you a little, that’s a good sign that this is something worth opening up about. And if you incrementally increase it in that way, it’s powerful.

Beware the four horsemen of the romantic apocalypse.

Daniel: Tell us a little bit more about John Gottman. I think it’s important to know who he is, why he matters, and some of the things that he has found. Even though there’s a huge amount of research into relationships, a lot of roads lead back to him.

Eric: John Gottman was a mathematician, and he really brought to the study of romantic relationships a level of scientific rigor that had not been seen before. He went to extreme lengths to be able to isolate variables. He has a love lab. Couples will move into an apartment that is just wired with cameras, audio, everything. He does tests. He has people hooked up for blood pressure, hormones. And he studies what is going on in a couple’s interactions over the course of days together. His work gave us a rigorous level of analysis that hadn’t been seen before.

Daniel: If you had to pick Gottman’s greatest hits, what are the first two tracks?

Eric: I mean he found some staggering stuff. He came up with “four horsemen”—the four things that predict doom. Criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness, and contempt. Those four things predict divorce 81% of the time. With the first one, criticism, we think, Oh, couples complaining a lot. Complaining isn’t a problem. What’s a problem is criticism. Complaining is to say, “Here’s an issue.” Criticism is to say, “Here’s an issue, and you’re at fault, and you’re a bad person, and it’s due to your fundamental personality.” So to realize that those four things—criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt—were really predictive of divorce? That was powerful.

The other big Gottman insight that I would point to is this: Gottman rose to fame because by listening to a couple for five minutes, he could, with 90 percent accuracy, predict whether or not they’d be divorced in five years. And the way he did that wasn’t some algorithm. He asked the couple to tell their story, and if it’s a story that celebrates the struggles and moves upward, then that is a very positive sign. If it’s a story that focuses on the negative, that’s a bad sign.

Daniel: What I find really compelling in some of the Gottman research is this notion of contempt and how incredibly toxic that can be. If you have contempt within a romantic relationship, it’s essentially over.

“Whatever environment we’re in, we tend to associate the feelings we have with the person we’re with.”

Eric: He described it as sulfuric acid for love.

Daniel: Exactly. It’s really noxious. And yet there is some evidence that in romantic relationships that endure, there is a trajectory of sorts, isn’t there?

Eric: After 18 months, a lot of the big, explosive romantic feelings tend to die down. There is romantic entropy. And that’s okay. Usually that’s a movement from romantic forms of love to what’s called companionate love.

But the thing is, you can keep those romantic feelings alive. The issue is that people think, Oh, well, when we were first dating, we were in love, so we did all these exciting things together. But actually that relationship works in both directions. You fell in love because you did exciting things together. In psychology they talk about “emotional contagion.” Whatever environment we’re in, we tend to associate the feelings we have with the person we’re with. So if you keep doing fun, exciting stuff, you have those feelings for your partner. When we settle into too many Netflix and pizza Fridays, that tends to die down.

There was a study where they had one cohort of couples go on pleasant dates, and they had another cohort go on exciting dates. And exciting won, hands down. It really boosted their happiness.

How to have better fights.

Daniel: In our romantic relationships, we don’t always get along. But you have some advice on how to argue better. How?

Eric: First and foremost is if it starts harsh, it’s going to end harsh. So in those first few minutes, take a deep breath, pause. Start out talking about the issue, not criticizing the person. Take a step back, metaphorically. Make them laugh, hold their hand, say something nice. We talk a lot about compassion. The best use of compassion is in the midst of an argument. Couples who show more compassion and sensitivity during an argument have less volatile arguments and they have them less often.

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