I’ve never considered myself an expert on relationships. Instead, I’ve always thought of myself as extremely fortunate that I had such a great marriage and partnership. But this Valentine’s Day is a year when Thom and I will be celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary and I can honestly say I love him now much more than when we first got together. So, upon reflection, I might not be an expert, but I do believe that along the way I’ve learned a few things that makes for a happy life between two people.
#1 It takes time. Okay, so this one is obvious. Still, when I met Thom and “fell” in love with him I had no idea that what I was feeling was a mere shadow of the depth of love that would come after spending ten, twenty and then thirty years living, growing and changing with another person. Think about it, even if you had a good and close relationship with your mother, father and siblings, over the long haul it is but a fraction of the time you will spend with a person who joins with you in a dedicated long-term relationship. The potential for growth and transformation in this type of relationship is incredible. More than anything else, a good relationship will help you discover yourself over the long run.
#2 It takes effort. Notice I didn’t say it takes “work.” To me work implies a sort of drudgery, which I never ever wanted to get involved with. And frankly, if it does take “work” then it probably won’t last regardless of what you do. On the other hand, it does take concentrated effort. Just as if you were creating a piece of art or writing that great American novel, you know it’s not easy, but because it is important and dear to you, you don’t see it as work. Or, as with any purpose or passion, you give it everything you’ve got, but never feel it has much to do with work. Whenever two people come together with equal commitment and intention, it leads to tremendous potential.
#3 It takes positive interactions. Again, this one may seem obvious but it applies specifically to the work of a psychologist named John Gottman and his theories of good marriages. Gottman, famous for his 30-year study of why some relationships last and thrive while others head toward divorce, focuses largely on how each person treats the other. His major discovery was that happy couples have about 20 more positive interactions with each other to every “1” unhappy encounter. In comparison, those he predicted would divorce in the near future had “.8” happy experiences to every “1” unhappy. In other words, happy couples have 20 times the amount of fun and loving experiences to every one conflict. Those headed towards the end of their relationship spend the same time (or even more) arguing or fighting with each other, rather than spending enjoyable time together.
A good example of this is how routinely Thom and I have made the effort to try new experiences and do things together. If a couple isn’t spending time together, learning and growing together, they will often end up growing apart. Usually what happens with Thom and I in the beginning only one or the other of us is interested in a new project, life direction or hobby. But we’ve always found that when we both make the effort to get involved in what the other is interested in, it turns out to be fun, interesting and very good for the relationship—and we’ve created some really good things together.
#4 It takes management. Management might seem like a strange word to use in a relationship—but again it comes from the work of John Gottman. He found that in most relationships conflicts, disagreements or issues were only solved 40% of the time. The other 60% of the time, differences were “managed.” What that means is that the couple found ways to deal with their differences and move on in a way that worked for both. Some people might call it compromise—but Gottman felt it was more a strategy of cooperation.
For example, when we first got together Thom never liked me to ask him about what he spent money on—regardless of how little we had! In the beginning, we argued quite a bit every time he spent money I thought he shouldn’t. Eventually though we arrived at a way that worked for us both. I agreed to never question or ask if Thom spent money on anything that cost less than $100. He agreed that he would always check with me before ever spending more than that. Each of us compromised a bit to arrive at that agreement, but it was something we both could live with. That “management” or strategy ended up resolving a huge number of money disagreements ever since. Happily married couples learn how to do that with just about every difference they have—be it money, children, where to live, sex, what kind of work, etc.
5) It takes respect and admiration. The first time I heard about John Gottman it was in relation to his “Four Horsemen.” The Horsemen (after the four of the Apocalypse) are what he says are a clear indication that a couple is headed towards disaster (and divorce) in a very short time. They are: a) Blatant criticism; b) Contempt; c) Defensiveness; d) Stonewalling. While even the best of us may use one or more of these on a rare occasion, those headed on a fast-track to divorce use them repeatedly and consistently.
Unfortunately, we’ve all experienced the uncomfortable feeling of doom being around a couple that practices any of those regularly. The best way to have a good relationship—avoid The Horsemen at just about any cost. And if you are with someone that inspires you to use them—maybe that person isn’t the right person after all. More importantly, if you admire and respect the qualities of your loved one, then your relationship will thrive the more you tell and show your loved one how much you care.
I’m sure that there are more elements to a successful relationship, but these five rarely get as much attention as they should. During Valentine’s Day, it is tempting to think of love as a romantic interaction with the perfect someone, but the truth is that love is much deeper and important than that. Just like all the flowers, balloons and candy in the stores today—that isn’t what lasts—it just looks good for the moment. In the long run, lasting and loving relationships are a key to a content, happy and SMART life for every one of us and deserve all the time, attention and effort they take.
“Love is like a friendship caught on fire: in the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.”—Bruce Lee
“Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.”—Antoine de Saint-Exupery