A new study has found that the way you respond to your partner's good news may be more important than how you react to his disappointments. Couples who celebrated each other's happy events (like promotions or raises) reported greater satisfaction in their relationship and were less likely to break up than those who offered support only during rough times, says lead study author Shelly L. Gable, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara.
She and her researchers videotaped 79 couples as they talked about negative and positive events in their lives, then categorized the partner's responses in four ways: active-destructive ("Are you sure you can handle that job?"); passive-destructive (silence, changing the subject); passive-constructive (an absentminded "That's nice"); and, the most helpful, active-constructive ("I'm so proud of you" or "I know how important this was to you"). The finding that praise boosted a relationship more than a sympathetic response to bad news surprised Gable—as did the results concerning passive support, like smiling vaguely, saying, "Great," and returning to your newspaper. "We assumed when we started this research that passive support would be good—not as good as active-constructive, but certainly not bad," she says. But time and time again, Gable's team saw that passive responses negatively affected relationship satisfaction.
So when your mate bursts through the door with good news, "make an effort to notice these events and act on them in some way," says Gable. A partner can sense false enthusiasm, so if you're not able to have a genuine reaction, she suggests asking questions about why he's so happy. "This will help him," she says, "because you're giving positive feedback, and it will help you because it gives you insight into what makes him click." She isn't saying couples need to celebrate every event with a five-course dinner; simple and sincere praise is enough. "It's the thought that counts," she says. "Although I'd never turn down a five-course dinner."