If you were to ask me about the one thing that determines whether a couple will have a successful relationship, I’d think you were crazy. I mean: trying to boil down all of the complexities of a relationship into one single line of advice? My average column hits 2200 words and you think I’m someone who can boil things down to a soundbite? Something you can slap on a bumper-sticker?
But as it turns out, there’s an answer. And it’s deceptively simple.
It’s how the two of you choose to look at your relationship.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they assume their view of reality is both accurate and objective. We tend to believe that what we see and experience is 100% exactly what’s going on in the world around us. The only time we really start to question the subjectivity of reality is after a couple of deep bong rips in college.
In reality, however, our brains lie to us all the damn time. We can only handle so much information at one time, so in order to free up space, our brains skip over things and fill in the blanks based on what we know and what we expect to happen. We filter our reality through our assumptions and preconceived notions. Part of why most automobile accidents take place within five miles of your home is because the area is so familiar to you that your brain quits paying attention and goes on auto-pilot. It fills in the blanks based on what it believes to be there. Then that pick-up comes barrelling out of nowhere and you literally didn’t see it coming.
But what does this have to do with relationships?
Well, it’s about expectations. Much as with confirmation bias, when you expect to see something or hear something, you will. The same thing applies to relationships: what you expect is what you will get. Not because the experience is manifestly different, but how you perceive and react to it will be.
Now, the big question is: how does this apply to you as a couple?
Celebrate The Good, Minimize The Bad
Since we see what we expect to see, it’s important to make sure that what you expect are the best parts of your relationship. The problem is that the bad almost always outweighs the good in our minds. Because we have this inborn negativity bias, we often let the good times pass without comment while the bad times hit us like a ton of bricks.
That’s why it’s so important to celebrate the good times in your life. Not “acknowledge.” “Celebrate.” Sure, people in a happy, loving relationship can take their partners’ pride in them for granted. But even in the happiest, schmoopiest of relationships, nothing feels better than to get that little burst of validation from someone you love. It’s lets them know that you see what they’ve done and you want them to know, without a doubt, how proud you are.
That’s why it’s good to celebrate life’s little victories; it reaffirms that you appreciate your partner’s accomplishments, just as they appreciate yours.
Yeah, it can feel cheesy to make a big deal out of, say, finally nailing that recipe that’s been giving you trouble. It brings to mind ever Baby Boomer who’s ever complained about kids getting participation trophies for just showing up.
But there’s legitimate value in making a fuss over even relatively small accomplishments. Those little celebrations can actually be more important to a successful relationship than simply being the rock they can rely on when shit goes down. Yes, supporting your partner during the bad times is important. Being one pillar of their support system is like the first aid of your relationship. You’re staunching the bleeding and stabilizing the patient. However, that’s all you’re doing… relationship triage. Cheering your partner on and being cheered on in turn, on the other hand, is what helps heal the relationship.
Knowing that somebody sees the little things we’ve done, who knows what they mean to us and thinks that it’s great that we’ve achieved it? That’s a warm fuzzy feeling that makes us feel closer than before. And most importantly: celebrating those little moments is fun. Fun doesn’t become any less important when you’re in a relationship than when you’re dating. The more fun you have in your relationship as a couple, the more it strengthens your connection, your commitment and your intimacy.
So when you or your partner have some good news, overcome some obstacle or reach a goal at work, celebrate a little. It doesn’t have to be a giant production; a little reward or minor indulgence is all you need. Your celebration might be a nice foot massage or an extra glass of wine. It might even just be getting excited and asking for all of the details so your partner can feel like the conquering hero as they relive the moment.
The way you celebrate is ultimately less important than the fact that you do it and make it a habit. That becomes part of the programming of your relationship.
Affection Makes The Difference
While we’re on the subject of making sure our partners know how we feel, it’s also important to demonstrate our love and affection for one another. It’s one thing to assume that our partners know that we care for them, but it’s another to show it.
One of the traps that we can fall into over the course of a relationship is that we stop being affectionate with our partners. Things become routine, rote, even. We do things because they’re expected, part of what we do every day, rather than out of genuine feeling. A quick kiss before you go out the door, saying “I love you too” reflexively… if we aren’t careful, those just become part of the background radiation of a relationship. We become less like a couple than a pair of Disney animatronics, performing their daily routines with no feeling behind them.
When we want keep those positive associations going so we are primed to see the best in our partners and our relationship, we need to make a point to express ourselves. Not just to say the words or perform the expected observances, but to make a point of demonstrating and expressing our fondness for the person we love. After all, whether you’ve been with someone for six months or sixty years, we still like to know that they’re happy and want to be with us.
Let’s look at Patrick Swayze in Ghost. The fact that Swayze’s character Sam can’t say “I love you,” is a minor plot point; Demi Moore’s character Molly feels a little put out by the fact that Sam just says “Ditto” when she tells him that she loves him. Sam clearly feels the emotions even though he can’t say them. However, it feels less like a playful moment of someone who’s uncomfortable with intimacy to just… doing what’s expected. Even sweetly-intended jokes can damage the relationship in tiny ways if done for too long. It’s like being stabbed with a toothpick. On it’s own, it’s not a big deal. But those small cuts and stings add up over time, and it sets a specific tone and expectation.
On the other hand, you have my favorite fictional couple, Gomez and Morticia. Not a day goes by without a “Cara mia” or a reminder of how much they mean to one another. Critically, it doesn’t feel forced or rote; it feels like a genuine expression of affection. They’re deliberately setting up what to expect from the future of their relationship.
If you want to make your relationship a generally more positive one, make sure that you keep up your affection for one another. You don’t need to make a production how much you love someone — that can end up feeling like you’re making a joke — but you do want to express your fondness and affection for one another. Compliments, terms of endearment and flirting are all ways of keeping that feeling of affection alive. So too are little touches; not just kisses or hugs (though those are important) but the casual physical contact that reminds them that you like being with them. Your hands on their waist, your knee next to theirs and snuggling up to them on the couch or in bed… these are all ways of reminding your partner that you care.
They may be little gestures, but those little gestures build up over time too.
Want A Successful Relationship? Manage “Me vs. We”
Another key to the way you perceive your relationship is managing the “me” vs. “we” factor.
There’s a delicate balancing act when it comes to a successful relationship. You’re both an individual with their own wants and needs but also part of a gestalt being — that numinous “we” that you and your partner built together. You are both the individual pilots and Voltron.
You construct that “we” out of your time together, of the life you’ve shared and the work you’ve both put in. You have to be willing to commit to that “we” — that is, to the relationship the two of you have built. Focusing on the “we” means that you put aside your own wants and needs and doing the things that support the relationship. Notice very carefully that I didn’t say your partner’s needs. While that is important, that’s not what I’m talking about here. Your partner’s needs aren’t the same as the relationship’s needs. The relationship requires maintenance from the two of you working on concert with one another.
This is, of course, a tricky line to walk at times. While it’s important to have a life outside of your relationship, it’s also important to remember that at the end of the day, you’ve chosen to be together. You’re individuals yes, but you’re also a couple and that relationship is supposed to be greater than the two of you apart.
You will have things that you want. Your partner will have things that they want. It’s important that you both indulge each other’s needs and do things specifically for your partner… but that’s not the “we”, that’s two “me’s”.
You both will have to be willing to sacrifice your interests and time to do things that are specifically for the relationship itself. This sacrifice may be something as simple as establishing a date night and sticking to it. Alternately, it may be something as fun as finding couples activities that encourage the two bond on a deeper and more meaningful level. It may be something as emotionally difficult as setting up a recurring appointment with a relationship counselor to iron out issues that you’re unable to resolve yourselves.
If you want your relationship to last, you’ve got to remember that your “we” isn’t just you and them, it’s what the two of you have built together.
The Glory Is In The Struggle
Into every relationship, some strife must fall. How you respond to those hard times is what will make the difference in the long run. Do you believe that trouble is inevitable and hard times are there to be endured? Or do you dig in your heels, spit into your hands and get ready to do whatever it takes to get through to the other side?
That choice is significant, because it could affect the rest of your relationship together. Couples who see trouble as something to be endured are far more likely to break up than the ones who treat it as something to overcome.
There are two factors at work here. The first is simply the locus of control. Couples who are content to passively endure the hard times are functionally giving up their ability to affect their relationships. In focusing on endurance and simply trying to bear up under the stresses of a relationship, they’re saying that they’re helpless to do anything to better their position. Relationships are hard and shit happens, so wear a hat.
Couples who gear up to work through the problems, on the other hand, are coming at it from a place of agency. In trying to overcome whatever life throws at them, they are taking an active role in their own relationship. They know that things are tough — they’re facing the same problems as everyone else and feeling them just as keenly — but they’re choosing to work together to get through. They believe that they are can make things if they work at it, as long as they try. That belief, that fundamental optimism of “this is hard, but we can work harder,” gives them the emotional resilience to keep trying. They get knocked down, but they get back up again. They tire, but they endure.
Like a bird pecking away at at mountain, they may not make much progress at first. But by fighting for their relationship, they know they can break through eventually. They keep at it until they wear that mountain away.
And it’s that struggle together that leads to the other factor that determines who stays together and who breaks up: the reinforcement of “me vs. we”. Couples who simply endure are maintaining the status quo. They don’t commit to the “we”. They continue to do the same things over and over and watching their relationship fall apart under the stress.
Couples, on the other hand, who struggle and fight are committing to the “we”. They are growing and changing together. In taking a position of conscious effort and improvement, they’re having to work together as a team. They have to communicate and cooperate. They’re finding new and different ways of solving their problems as a unit and it’s bringing them closer together. The times are hard, the pain is great and the stress is almost unbearable. But in working together and rising up to the challenge, they come out the other side stronger and better than they were before. They fight on because they know that in the end, it’s worth it.
That’s the glory in the struggle to make a relationship last. There will be times when it’s nothing but frustration and pain. There will be times when it seems like nothing would go right if you stuck a gun to it’s head. But when those times come, if the two of you look at each other, roll up your sleeves and prepare to face those troubles head on… you’ll find yourselves breaking through to the other side and ready to face the other challenges life throws at you.
And that leads us to the most important part about making a relationship last…
You Build A Successful Relationship With The Stories You Tell
At the end of the day, the success of your relationship revolves around the stories you tell about your relationship. Is it the story of two people who muddle through life? Or do you tell the story of two determined bastards who’ve fought for every scrap they have and love each other all the more for it?
Sounds a bit woo-woo crazy-pants, doesn’t it? But there’s actual science to back it up. A study from the University of Washington found that the longevity of a couple’s relationship could be predicted with 94% accuracy based on how couples describe their relationship history.
See, the stories we tell about our relationships define who we are as a couple. Those stories correspond to how we perceive the way our relationships have progressed. The more negatively you describe your relationship, the more you’re predicting the future of your relationship together. Those negative beliefs are going to color the way you see everything in your life with your partner. They could be sitting quietly eating Triscuits and they’d still be pissing you off. Look at them eating crackers like they’re not the worst person in the world.
Alternately, the more positively you describe your relationship, the more that positivity is going to influence your perceptions. Yeah, you’re struggling right now, but you know that deep down, you both love each other and at the end of the day there’s nobody you’d rather have at your back.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you’re supposed to pretend that you didn’t have to struggle. You don’t act as though you didn’t have hard times or that there weren’t moments that by God you were ready to choke a motherfucker.
It doesn’t matter how much you love one another. It doesn’t matter how much sex you have or how many separate vacations you take. Every couple has times when they are just sick of each other’s shit.
It’s how you choose to view those times that makes all the difference. And it is a choice. As someone wise once told me: pain is inevitable. Everybody’s going to get hurt at one point or another. But while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. You may hurt. You may get angry. Hell, you will have days when you’re so pissed off that you’re quivering with suppressed rage. But if you can grit your teeth and hold on to that core of love at the center of your relationship – you know, the one I’ve been talking about over and over – then you can find the strength to get through those bad times and back into the good.
And when the good times come again: how are you going to describe what happened? What is the story that you will ultimately tell about your relationship? Are those bad times simply a matter of how close you came to ending things, or are they a time when the lightning flashed and the pillars of Heaven shook and the two of you lashed yourselves together and rode through the storm?
Do you talk about how you made a mistake when you got married? Or perhaps you reminisce more about the days when you were single and free? Are your stories about how you miss those days? Do you talk about them as though it was the worst time of your lives? Is it a miracle that you got through it at all?
Or — like Gomez and Morticia — do you look at it as a struggle that brought you two closer together? Did it nearly tear you apart, or did it show you that you had more work to do and inspired you both to work harder?
Do you talk about how marriage may be a struggle, but at the end of the day, you agree that it’s worth every hard-fought moment? Or do you talk about the hard times and the bitterness? Can you find the good that came from your tribulations and focus on that instead?
The stories you tell about yourselves will be what determines your future together. So it’s up to you.
Tell your story.
Just make sure it’s a good one.