Question: What do you do if someone gives you a gift?
Answer: You open it.
That simple dynamic turns out to be an important key in developing successful relationships, according to psychologist Thomas Bradbury, who teaches the UCLA course Close Relationships (website).
Bradbury makes this point in the second lecture of the course when the class sees a video of a newly married couple discussing their attitudes towards religion. The wife wants the husband to become a regular church goer, and the husband is resisting and attacking the benefits of religion. But at one point in the conversation, the husband says, “It’s hard for me to believe in stuff I can’t see.”
Bradbury stops the tape, and comments, “If your partner says it’s hard, you say ‘tell me how that’s hard for you. Help me understand that from you point of view.’” A disclosure like this is, in Bradbury’s view “a gift, a disclosure of vulnerability.” So, Bradbury asks, as he resumes the tape, “will she open the gift?”
The audio at this point is a bit hard to follow, but it’s clear that she ignores this moment of vulnerability and charges on as if it hadn’t been there. She failed the test.
Bradbury comes back to the topic in lecture 5, when he talks about mate selection. He says that intimacy grows on a ladder of greater and greater disclosures, and for this process to continue, the disclosure has to feel good. In particular, the partner has to feel validated and understood.
Imagine that you tell your partner, “I did something really stupid today. I can’t believe I did this. I sent an e-mail to my sister and I thought it was my friend and I was criticizing my sister in the e-mail. ” Then your partner has a choice. Your partner can say, “Yeah that was stupid. That was really a bad idea. What were you thinking, for God sakes.” Or does the partner say, “that can happen to anybody. I’m sure it’ll be okay. Your sister will laugh it off. Why don’t you give her a call? You want me to give her a call?”
It’s the back and forth of this kind of disclosure, Bradbury says, that leads to the growth of a close relationship.
There are lots more pearls in this class, which is one of UCLA’s podcast offerings for the current quarter. Bradbury’s goal is to show what recent psychological research can teach us about how relationships develop and change over time.