Researchers write much about relationships, publishing literally thousands of articles on what things work—or don’t. Dr. John Gottman, and the folks at his lab in Seattle, maybe does some of the best research on the topic. The findings help us know what makes a relationship move from good to great. As a couples therapist, what follows are four of the things that seem to really help folks find happiness and satisfaction in their relationships.
Expression of Admiration and Affection
Many of us know to make up after a fight. But, research tells us that we build a bank account of positive feelings if we do the “make up” actions before we have a fight. We build the account balance when we express our love without anything causing the expression. Those expressions can consist of an unexpected text, a small favor, or note left near the sink. As the account builds, we tend to override the tendency to see our partner negatively when stress causes irritability, allowing us to use positive feelings to be forgiving to each other. The idea is to look for ways to appreciate and feel fondness for your partner, and express those things when times are good.
Making Room in Your Head for the Other Person
Sociologists tell us that our lives are busier than ever. We face demands on the space in our heads every second as our phones tell us to read an email, answer a text, or read a new alert. Our children make demands too, as they should, asking for the attention they deserve. But, as we fill our minds with so many bits of information, we are happiest when we reserve space for our partner in our thinking. Satisfied couples tell us that they make room in their heads for each other, and fill that room with important information about their significant other. Some of the “furniture” in the room consists of everyday things (important dates, favorite foods, etc.), but it also contains deeper things that mean something to our partners. For example, if your partner has a song that reminds him/her of a special time during childhood, keeping that knowledge in your head gives you a private map of him/her. Asking questions about how your partner thinks about things or feels about different parts of life tells partners that you care about them and want to know about them. Couples who love well keep these “love maps” of each other in the front of their thinking.
Accepting Influence from Each Other
Many people define power in relationships as the control we have over each other, but another way to define power is the balance of influence each person has on the other. We all ask our partners to allow us to influence them. We ask for help with the laundry, caring about our feelings, or a moment of undivided attention. Happy relationships consist of not just these efforts to influence or to connect, but accepting those efforts. In other words, if we mostly say “OK” to a request for help (and, of course, then do it) or turn toward our partner when they need us, the interaction affects how we both feel positively. When we fight, there is a special case of the acceptance action—saying “yes” to an effort to repair the breakdown in the relationship. The best of the repair efforts start off with a soft emotional message that includes a word about how the “repairer” might have contributed to the argument. To say “yes,” we turn our feelings and attention to our partner and take ownership over our role in the argument. Repairing an argument is not so much about solving the problem at hand (some problems in relationship just defy being solved)—it’s about managing a fight to fix the distance arguments could cause. If we can avoid that distance, we can stay connected rather than isolated from one another.
Knowing Your Partner’s Inner World
We live in our heads more than most of us realize. We learn to attach meaning to events or family rituals, to words and gestures. Those meanings create a symbolic world in our thinking—a world often unknown to our partner. Conflicts often stem more from reactions we both have to these meanings than the real situation outside our heads. Thriving relationships consists of each partner’s efforts to learn the other person’s meanings and symbols. Some of the most important parts of that inner world are the dreams we have for our life and relationships. Many of us find it hard to express our dreams, so partners often show love by looking for disappointed hope underneath the argument. As we learn more about each other’s inner world, each of us begins to share the meanings and dreams. We grow to see the relationship serving each other’s dreams and hopes, and spend energy helping our partner fulfill their aspirations for life. A key to happiness in relationships is knowing each other’s meanings and symbols, finding the dreams within conflicts, and creating shared meanings.
A Final Word
Many pop-psychology authors continue to say that relationships require hard work. I would agree, but only in part. The learning of habits like creating love maps or shared meanings can require effort, unless it comes naturally (as it does for some of us). But the key to sustaining a happy relationship isn’t hard work all your life, it is actually learning the habits that make each other happy and feeling safe. When the habits take over (as habits do), then the effort stops seeming like work. We often build these routines into our life together without thinking about them much at all. At that point, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Happy is as happy does.”
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