All Talk

In order to sustain happy relationships, your word must be your bond, says Carol Bruess

“Our relationships happen in the micro day-to-day stuff: greeting at the end of the day, the conversation over the dinner table, negotiating what we’re doing for the weekend. It doesn’t happen on the holiday card.”

When it comes to helping us talk our way to happy relationships, Carol Bruess is a woman of her word. Literally. As a professor at the University of St. Thomas, she studies the link between what we say to each other and the longevity and quality of our connections. Here, she translates her research into everyday tips.

The secret to marriage is that it’s a lot of work. Constant negotiation. But the fun has to outnumber, outdo, outperform the work over time.

Happy couples have five times more positive moments than negative moments over time. Something as brief as a glance in someone’s direction can be a very large gesture.

Most research shows the early stages of a relationship are filled with so much creativity, intentionality—even different kinds of hormones. But our daily lives take over. Kids and jobs demand our attention, and we start giving those things our attention and stop giving it to our relationships. One of the single best things we can do for our kids to support them academically, socially, and creatively, and to make them smart, lovable, good human beings, is to have a great relationship with our partner.

Those little intentional things—a flower, an inside joke—are really important for filling up our emotional bank accounts. Couples who enjoy rituals of connection remind each other they’re not trivial—they are central. Then, when we have to do the harder work, when we’re feeling contemptuous and angry and hurt, we’re much more likely to do well.

Two people are responsible for a relationship, but one person can initiate a whole lot of change. We tend to reciprocate what we’re given: positivity begets positivity and negativity begets negativity. You can choose to apologize, repair, de-escalate. Most likely the other person will reciprocate that kindness.

Get and give Bruess’s advice—her three books are available at Patina,