You Gotta Nourish to Flourish: An Interview With a Relationship Expert

Last month, the W&D editorial team sat down to discuss the content calendar for February and decided to make this month’s theme all about Love. We quickly began ruminating on various love-centric topics from the importance of self-love to Valentine’s Day to must-see rom-coms. Given my personal history of not-so-successful relationships, and current dating status (non-existent), I selfishly proposed the idea of writing a story on the building blocks of healthy, long-lasting relationships. Well, and because, who doesn’t need some guidance on being a better partner, spouse, or even friend?!

Although the internet is filled with endless “dating tips and tricks” and “relationship secrets,” it has become increasingly difficult to decipher credible information from the unreliable advice. Luckily, I am fortunate enough to have a resource in my life who has spent the past 25 years researching family, interpersonal and relationship communications, Dr. Carol J Bruess. I first met Dr. Bruess (who now wants me to refer to her as ‘Carol’), a little over a year ago when I just so happened to end up in her Family & Couple Communications class taught at the University of St. Thomas. Little did I know, that my last required COJO course would soon become one of my all-time favorite college classes and that the quirky professor would become one of my all-time favorite life mentors. As anyone who knows her will tell you, Carol is a ray of sunshine, often incorporating emojis into her presentations, or ending an email with #blessed! Her passion for understanding and educating others on healthy relationships is unwavering; always radiating love and joy in all she does.

Recently awarded the status of Professor Emerita of Communication and Journalism, and formerly Director of Family Studies at the University of St. Thomas, MN, Carol is dedicated to making a difference in other’s lives. She has been interviewed and quoted in a number of national media outlets including PBS, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Men’s Health, Natural Health and Cosmopolitan Magazine. In addition, she offers expert advice to thousands every week on CBS/WCCO-TV’s segment “Relationship Reboot,” now with over 150 episodes. Let’s just say Carol is a woman in high-demand.

So, when she agreed to do an interview and be featured on W&D, I was overwhelmed with excitement! Each of Carol’s responses is a crystal-clear reflection of her vibrant and loving personality; all heartfelt, earnest and insightful. Whether you’ve been married for 30 years, just hopped into a new relationship, or don’t see dating anywhere in sight (like me), Carol’s advice speaks to us all.

What do you love about what you do?

Easy! When you commit your life to education you can rest your head on that pillow every single night knowing that you’ve had the opportunity that day to change and improve a life—even if it was just through a single conversation during which you showed care and concern for a student; or by taking time to listen to a student’s passions and help her find her calling in this big, sometimes-overwhelming world; or by showing a student radical encouragement when the many other voices in the world are discouraging; or by pushing a student to think critically and find her voice—sometimes for the first time—and nudging that young person to find the courage to stand up for what she/he believes is right and just toward making the world better… making the world a more loving place for all. I also absolutely LOVE knowing that what I study and write about – how to have life-giving, healthy relationships, families, marriages and friendships – can and does make people’s lives fuller, happier, healthier, and more delightful. What could be better than that?! I love that I get to study and teach and practice LOVE every single day. It’s a DREAM.

What has your research studying family and couple communication taught you about yourself and the way you interact with people?

As I knock on the door of 50 years on this great earth, I like to believe that the study of relationship communication coupled with five full decades of “lived experience” in the realm of human relationships has given me a few insights into both my own interaction style—as well as clarity on a couple basic human truths of social interaction. Here are my top three lessons, ones I’ve had to learn and re-learn—not without some pain:

  1. RECIPROCITY. We, humans, are quite simple; we will almost always give someone else what we’re given. Unless we’re intentional and super aware we’ll almost automatically reciprocate the thoughts, actions, feelings… even the moods… of others. If we’re positive and use kind words, others will most likely respond with positivity and kindness. Negativity begets negativity. If you randomly flip someone off, guess what? They are very unlikely to wave and smile kindly in response. And yet we forget this truth in our day-to-day, closest relationships: that if we want others to treat us with generosity, compassion, affirmation, and a soft tone (even when in the heat of conflict – and yes, it IS possible to be kind/gentle even during a difficult conflict!), we are wise to make sure WE are doing so. You’ve heard of the “negative spiral” in conflict, where the energy of contempt and negative words/thoughts/actions picks up speed and energy and it’s hard to break the cycle – the force is so strong it’s a bit like trying to “let go” of the metal bars you’re gripping when you’re on one of those fast-spinning, playground merry-go-rounds? It’s based in many ways on the principle of reciprocity: one person’s negative tone or comment is responded to with a similar level of tone/contempt, and the negative energy spiral gains stream. The same is true of a positive energy cycle! I try to choose/only be part of the more positive spirals in all of my interactions – and I know that the majority of the time whatever I “put out there” in the world and in my relationships will be reciprocated. It’s actually quite simple. And very powerful. And sometimes REALLY hard, because it’s easier to be a bit snarky or rude. Or, when you feel you’re “owed” something (like an apology), it can be REALLY hard to choose to roll out a generosity of spirit and words. But I promise 99% of the time it will serve YOU, and the relationship, well!
  2. DIGITAL LIFE. Lesson two is quite simple, and I’ve learned to practice this 100% of the time (only after more than a few fails – and before I fully understood how very true and damaging this choice can be): Research overwhelmingly shows we’re just plain MEANER to others when we’re not in the physical presence of another human being to which we have something to say that is difficult. Never, ever, ever text, email, or post online negative comments. Never EVER engage in difficult conversations when you are not face-to-face with the other human being. NEVER express your anger or upset with someone via a keyboard or with your thumbs on your phone. EVER! It just won’t end well. The research is so very clear on this one… and yet, of course, it’s WAY easier and more comfortable to confront others behind the safety of our screens. But I’m telling ya: it’s a BAD idea. Feeling a bit upset? WALK AWAY from the keyboard… advice supported by my third and final lesson/point here:
  3. RELATIONSHIPS ARE (PERFECTLY) MESSY. We’ve got to lean into the fact that relationships are messy. And sometimes unpleasant. And not always (not usually) easy. But they’re worth every bit of the work that is required to make them healthy and delightful. Because the research is getting more clear all the time, showing us just how profoundly negative relationships take a significant toll on our physical health (e.g., being in a “lonely” or high-conflict marriage will likely shorten your lifespan—sometimes quite significantly). As such, learning to both embrace the natural messiness of a well-lived relationship while learning how to do conflict well is one of the most important practices we can master – both in our personal relationships (family/marriage/friendships/neighbors) and in our professional relationships as well.

What do you think the secret to a long-lasting marriage is?

I don’t actually think there is a secret, per se (darn, right?). But the closest thing to what I and others who study marriage might say is the “secret” is simply this: Marriage is a VERB; it’s something you have to constantly be actively CREATING – or should I say co-creating, –together. It demands humility. BIG doses of humility. And humor. And did I say work? And a stubbornness to keep turning toward each other – over and over again – and learning how to have respectful conversations, work through your disagreements, and the ultimate key: maintain and constantly be recreating the deep friendship … the thing that brought you to your relationship and love for one another in the first place. As Dr. John Gottman at the University of Washington, the best relationship researcher in the world, often says (yes, he’s my relationship researcher hero!): over time in our marriages we start to scan the environment for what is going wrong and how we can criticize or point out all the things our partner is doing incorrectly. Instead, great marriages are built on fondness and admiration—and such qualities don’t just magically appear. Rather, they require us to actively and intentionally keep scanning our marriage environment for what our partner is doing well and right—and then acknowledging and pointing those out! Doing so requires a generosity of spirit, a commitment to being mindful of your own narrative rolling around in your head (you’re totally in control of that narrative, of course!), and speaking to our partner with the warmth and respect we would offer our friends. When couples can do all of the above, and learn to repair when they aren’t doing any of the above, well, their marriages are more likely to be delightfully happy AND long-lasting. And yes, it’s totally worth all the work! I promise.

Research shows many couples find themselves unhappy once the euphoric honeymoon stages of their relationship have passed. What advice do you have for couples who find themselves distancing after the emotional high is over?

First thing: Couples are wise to know that ALL relationships are messy and complicated, and that ALL relationships will have periods of challenge and times when one or both members of the couple might question: “Are we going to make it?!” It’s essential that every couple know that when you are in one of the “down” seasons of your marriage or a long-term relationship, it’s absolutely and completely natural! In other words, you’re not alone and it doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed. Decades of research on long-term marriage points to this truth (which couples should find encouraging, not discouraging!): there is a u-shaped relationship between happiness over the years. Happiness starts high—of course (think honeymoon and early love!)—but then tends to dip lower over the early years of marriage (think raising kids and sleep deprivation; career-building and stress of building a life). But, hang in there: Happiness swings way upward again a bit later, and then even higher into the later stages of marriage! And it’s important to know this is a general trajectory, not an absolute. Also, and equally important to know: even during the “lower” periods of happiness—often during those years of raising small children and building careers—there are MANY more micro-points of up and down. (Paige: Dialectical theory applies here!!) What’s essential is yes, you MUST keep working at your love. Keep putting each other first in mind and heart. Keep learning what the other needs, desires, and wants. Keep building your foundation of friendship, adoration, and appreciation for your partner. And, of course, I’d also suggest keep getting smarter about all the GREAT research and advice out there about how to navigate the relationship road (read smart blogs like this!). Yes, the ride will be bumpy. And yes, you don’t have to drive it alone! Talk to others going through the same things. Find a great licensed marriage and family therapist to help give you and your partner a few tools for building UP your marriage—making sure you’re not leaning on tools that are unknowingly sucking the DELIGHT and joy out of your relationship.

What are a few tips and tricks you recommend for keeping your marriage or partnership alive?

Tip #1: Make your relationship priority #1. Tip #2: See tip number one and then actively seek out ways to make sure you’re actively building a strong, vibrant, delightful relationship. If you allow it to “just happen” or put your relationship in auto-pilot mode, you’ll likely veer off course. Over and again. And, believe me: it’s harder to get out of the ditch than to stay out of the ditch in the first place. Also, per tip #2: Read credible books on healthy relationships (I share my top recommendations at the end of this article). By knowing WHAT to do and focus on (and what you can de-prioritize), you’ll be investing your relationship time and energy wisely!

What parallels have you observed between long-lasting successful couples?

What I observe is heavily skewed by what I know in the literature and from the best research on long-lasting, highly successful couples! Because great social science marriage research is now five+ decades in the making, I’m always on the lookout for when I see examples of couples who are living out and modeling for all of us what we know will (90%+ of the time) lead to a successful long timer relationship. Things like: Making sure their interactions are filled with much more positivity than negativity; building a culture of appreciation for each other and genuine friendship with each other; creating a large pool of shared meaning and shared memories in their relationship; always working to update their knowledge of their partner’s dreams, fears, and aspirations; willing to repair and apologize when they mess up; being genuinely curious about the other’s thoughts and needs; knowing how the other person wants to be loved and cared for; and, of course, finding new ways to build in little (or big, depending on the couple) bits of novelty and rituals of connection.

What advice would you give to someone who fears they might not ever find love?

Only two bits of advice: 1) BE love in the world—generously, fully and without expectation. 2) Then, stop looking and it will find YOU.

If you had to recommend one or more books that you believe every couple should read, what would they be?

No question, I’d recommend beginning with the best of the best work emerging out of the Gottman Relationship Institute. It’s because their work is based on the most credible, longitudinal data and research – and it’s both accessible and smart. Buy these books and keep them close by for the rest of your life; you won’t be sorry. Sometimes even I – as I’m thinking about how to navigate something in my own marriage of 26 years — just open to a random page of one of these books for a little booster-shot or reminder.

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work // The Relationship Cure

If you’re raising kids and in those early stages of adding babies to your marriage, also read this Gottman gem.

Because Dr. Bruess is too humble to self-promote, I would also like to mention that she is a co-author of two of her own books on marriage. Each publication couples decades of Carol’s own research with Gottman’s research on rituals of connection and happy relationships. Take a peek and let us know what you think!

What Happy Couples Do // What Happy Parents Do

Images via Tammy Brice

Paige Gardiner is a Producer at Wit & Delight. A recent college graduate, Paige majored in Entrepreneurship and recently launched her own jewelry business Goodrich & Grand. In her spare time, she loves a good glass of wine, a night out with girlfriends and laughing with her mom, which just so happens to be her current roommate.