Four Research-Based Tools for a Healthy Marriage- Part II: Scanning for Positives and Affirming Successes

What does it mean to “see” another person?  I would propose that for me one characteristic of “being seen” would include another person noticing the good in me.  According to research, this can be accomplished through scanning for positives and affirming successes.  These two tools from the work of John Gottman and other marriage researchers deal with the topic of recognizing the positive in one’s partner.

The first research-based tool, functional conflict style, dealt specifically with moments of change, growth, or disagreement.  These two research-based tools, however, deal with the every day interactions in which every couple engages.


Scanning: Seeing Opportunities for Positive Interaction

Taking opportunities to appreciate and affirm a partner’s worth by showing attention enhances the positive experiences within marriages and partnerships.  In a healthy marriage, partners “scan” the environment for these opportunities.

The Atlantic article “Masters of Love” by Esfahan Smith, she points out that anything that a partner shares is a “bid” to connect.  If I said, “This article is so interesting!”  On some level, I am asking my partner to be interested with me, to pay attention, to connect. He can choose, however, whether to do this or not.  Each choice adds to a bank of “my partner values me” or “my partner is not interested in me” that can help or harm a marriage.

According to psychologist and marriage expert Gottman (who can identify if couples will stay together with a 94% accuracy rate), “There’s a habit of mind that [successful couples have] which is this: they are scanning social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. [Unsuccessful marriages] are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes.”  His wife, Julie Gottman adds that they are “scanning their partner” specifically for clues of mistakes as well.

Really, this amounts to something very simple: kindness. Fortunately, the ability to be kind, like many other things, can grow “like a muscle” with time and practice (Esfahani Smith).  In addition, kindness builds upon kindness, so as partners find ways to appreciate one another, then the relationship improves exponentially.  Esfahan Smith states, “there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.”

Affirming One Another’s Successes

Kindness includes everyday interactions, but it also includes the way a couple appreciates successes together.

Celebrating the successes of a partner is perhaps even more important than fighting well.  According to researcher Shelly Gable, how couples reacted when one of them had good news is a predictor of whether the couple will stay together. So, according to Gable, there are four ways one could respond to, let’s say, a promotion.

For example, the partner says, “I got a promotion” and spouse responds in one of these ways:

▪ Passive destructive, or ignoring the experience; “Did you see that the Dancing with the Stars finale is on tonight?!” 

▪ Active destructive, or actively diminishing the experience; “Great.  Now you have something else to hold over my head.”  

▪ Passive constructive, or half-heartedly affirming the experience;  “Cool.  Good for you.  What are we going to make for dinner?”

▪ Active constructive; or whole-heartedly affirming the experience;  (fully turned toward the partner and with enthusiasm) “Wow!  That’s so awesome!  You have worked really hard for this.  I am proud of you.” 

In an ideal scenario, a partner’s successes will be acknowledged with an active constructive response that both affirms the value of the person and the importance of the event.

Conclusion and Action Steps

So what are the take-aways from this research?

Some ways to increase the health of a relationship would include:

  • Scanning the environment and one’s partner for positives that can be acknowledged frequently
  • Practicing and expressing openly daily gratitude for one’s partner
  • Being mindful of bids for attention and acknowledging them- even if they seem small
  • Responding with full attention and presence whenever possible
  • Giving active constructive responses to a partner’s successes

If some of these behaviors are new, it might feel awkward at first to try them; however, like a muscle, as the strategies are implemented over and over, they will become more natural. Because of this, the key is to keep going even if it is uncomfortable or strange.

Furthermore, based upon research, if even one partner decides to engage in behaviors like acknowledging the other’s bids for attention or celebrating the other’s successes, the marriage will improve because “kindness begets kindness.”

Personally, I would say that feeling seen and giving and getting kindness in my own  marriage might be the two most significant factors to increasing our happiness over time.  It has changed my perspective to see marriage as a place to cultivate and grow my own kindness and appreciation toward another person whom I love, to try and see the best in that person every day.

This sounds self-explanatory for a marriage, but from my own personal experience, I have found it easy to slip into not noticing all of the small things Jamey does to keep our lives going.  Conversely, it is easy to miss all of the good things that others see about loved ones when I am stuck in the grind of getting things done and paying more attention to life’s ups and downs than I am to the relationship.

This being said, I think (know) it is possible to change based upon science and personal experience. The human brain, and therefore human behavior, is capable of vast growth.  Knowing this, and then applying it to the reality of marriage, is life-giving for individuals and relationships.


This post is part of a series on marriage where I explore the topic as a personal and social experience.  

Thoughts?  Opinions?  Connections?  Please share.

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