Years ago, Thom and I went to a seminar to hear “relationship guru” Barbara De Angelis give a lecture. How did we know she was a relationship guru? She had written a book, was doing the lecture circuit and told everyone right up front that she was an expert because she had gone through so many breakups and knew what didn’t work. Sorry? Even at the time Thom and I both knew that we didn’t want to take marriage advice from someone who wasn’t living the ideal experience. De Angelis may have discovered what doesn’t work, but she was only guessing at what did. This week, after celebrating 41 years of marriage with a man I love and appreciate more each and every year, I’ve put down a few thoughts that might be helpful to others. And it never ever hurts to remind ourselves what we are grateful for in our lives.
So here they are:
- It takes effort and intention—yes even after 41 years! I know we all want to think that once we “learn something” we can just put it on the shelf and it will keep on doing its thing. That is not how relationships work. They are living, evolving creations that need to be fed, watered and cared for on a regular basis. I’ve seen lots of people cater to their children, their parents or their friends and almost ignore their spouse or partner. Like a pet or a plant, if you don’t take care of it, we should never be surprised if it wilts and dies.
- Avoid complacency—seek novelty. When a couple first falls in love the brain is flooded with feel-good chemicals like dopamine. Gradually as relationships become more settled and predictable, the surge of chemicals often declines. If we aren’t careful, boredom can set in and that is deadly to relationships. But experiments now show that simply doing new and novel things together as a couple creates the same boost of chemicals. It’s not just time together that is important, it’s time together doing something new, interesting and with a potential for growth. Taking classes, dancing, creating a business or traveling all qualify for bringing you closer together. Arthur Aron from the University of New York says, “partners who regularly share new experiences report greater boosts in marital happiness than those who simply share pleasant but familiar experiences.”
- Make play and laughter a regular part of your lives. “The more you invest in fun and friendship and being there for your partner, the happier the relationship will get over time,” says Howard Markman, a psychologist who co-directs The University of Denver’s Center for Marital and Family Studies. “The correlation between fun and marital happiness is high and significant.” When was the last time you did something fun together?
- Support each other emotionally and stay intimately connected. Who do you go to when you need support? Hopefully, it is the person you live with. In fact, if one person in a relationship holds themselves back, and the other wants and needs comfort and reinforcement, then the quality of that relationship will suffer. Research studies show that if we hold the hand of someone we trust when confronted by pain or anxiety it soothes us physically, mentally and even reduces the pain. And, as James Coan from the University of Virginia says, “When relationships are functioning well, your spouse takes your problem away. If the relationship is not functioning well, this adds an additional problem.”
- Eat together and socialize regularly. Researchers at the University of Oxford last year found that the more that people eat with others, the more likely they are to feel happy and satisfied with their lives. In addition, Professors Geoffry Grief and Kathleen Holtz Deal, both from the University Maryland School of Social Work said that socializing with other couples allows each to stand back and look at our partners with new appreciation. Plus, when you are having fun with people you enjoy you are usually happy, and that happiness is contagious.
- Let go of getting the other person to change and instead change yourself. According to Dr. David Burns in his book, Feeling Good Together the number one reason that relationships fail boils down to blame. He strongly recommends we each take full responsibility for our relationship by saying, “ We all have far more power than we think to transform troubled relationships into loving ones, and this can nearly always be done quickly. But we’ll have to focus entirely on changing ourselves instead of blaming the other person. And although the rewards of intimacy can be enormous, there will be a stiff price to pay. The transformation will require humility, pain, and some hard work.”
- Make it “we” instead of me. It always surprises me when we encounter a couple who continue to keep their lives separate in spite of how long they have been together. When bank accounts, investments, and other important family matters are considered “mine”, not ours, we hold ourselves and our intimacy in check from the other. That might make for an acceptable partnership, but it is a strain on an intimate and committed marriage. Robert Levenson, a professor of psychology at Berkley says, “If we-ness isn’t there by the time you get to fifteen years, you’re in trouble. From my personal perspective, I like to think of Thom and my marriage as a creation that we have created together—and that we both need to care and nurture it if we want it to grow, stay healthy and deepen as the years go by. So far so good.
It is now fairly common knowledge that couples who divorce when they are in their first seven years of marriage usually do so with a lot of drama. They either weren’t compatible in the first place or they can’t figure out how to make it work. In contrast, the divorces of older couples usually happen because one or both of them simply stop caring and drift apart. As author Barbara Bradley Hagerty says, “Young marriages die amid crashing plates and angry words, seasoned marriages usually end with a whimper, when both sides stop trying, when they become disconnected and bored, when they quit investing domestically and look abroad.” Hagerty strongly recommends that we “Engage with verve, because autopilot is death.”
When young, it is tempting to believe that if you find someone you are physically attracted to and share a few interests with, then you’ll make a good couple. But Barbara Bradley Hagerty claims that “marriage research is overwhelming and emphatic on one point: Opposites attract, then attack. People who share personality traits, worldviews, education levels, and conflict styles tend to have happier marriages than those who do not.”
Do Thom and I see everything exactly the same? Not hardly. But we do value each other’s perspective in all things, respect each other deeply, and there is no one I’d rather be with most of the time than him. When we were young there weren’t many examples of truly happy marriages to use as a goal for our own. While we both came from families where our parents stayed together their entire lives, their example was more about comfort and compromise than happiness. Instead, we feel we have created something unique and special and hope our version confirms what is possible for couples over the long run. And never forget, if you want to live something special in your life, the SMART choice is to look for positive examples to learn from and follow.
Okay, your turn. Have you been in a marriage or relationship for a long time? What is it that has helped your love grow and evolve? If not, what do you think might be beneficial in the future? Any and all thoughts on good relationships are welcome in the comments below.