Was there a point in your life when you took a class on the science of relationships? Did anyone teach you about the science of relationships at school? Did your TAFE or University course have a subject about close, personal relationships?
From what I’ve observed, we don’t have any education curriculum about how to be successful in relationships. Instead, we’re supposed to simply know how to get relationships right because… well, we’re human! Plus, we have Disney and Hollywood rom-coms. Those movies and books reassure us that love is all we need to live happily ever after, right? What more do we need to understand the intricacies of how to love our partner or spouse when they’re having a bad day? Or how to understand what someone needs when we’ve accidentally trampled on their values? (Sarcasm intended.) Schools focus on academics. We are supposed to intuitively pick up on how to do relationships well from our upbringing, our experience, and whatever the media or broader culture put in our way.
The support you need to make your marriage or partnership better
The trouble is, our upbringing, our experience, and the broader culture often fall short in showing us how to develop truly loving relationships where we feel ‘better together’. As someone who has conducted university-level research and spent two decades studying the science of close, personal relationships (as well as having worked with tens of thousands of people who are actually in those relationships), my experience tells me that this isn’t working so well for too many people. We could do better in our relationships with that other person we’ve committed to love for our entire lives.
I’ve seen the frustration people feel when they can’t communicate with their partner. I’ve felt their sadness as they explain to me that life is easier when their partner isn’t home. I’ve watched as couples have attacked one another rather than worked together to resolve important issues. People get frustrated because they think they should be able to get their relationship right. They know it’s supposed to be better when they’re together… but too often it feels better when they’re not.
What’s strange is that, because we are literally wired to connect, we take it as given that we should be able to understand each other, we can communicate with each other, and that we are capable of working things out. And… when things don’t work out, it’s easy to blame our partner. “Why won’t he listen?” “She’s always right!” “What would I know? I’m just the one at home all day looking after the kids.”
All too often, the issue is not actually about communication at all. It’s about our hearts. Unfortunately as we experience challenge and struggles with our partner our hearts become hardened. We play blame games. We see our partner as faulty. And things can quickly spiral into relational toxicity.
Relationships - particularly the long-term, intimate kind - are challenging: a tertiary course in personal growth. We make a lot of mistakes. We miss a lot of opportunities. And we often fail to see them as the extraordinary gift they are. What do I mean by that?
Imagine a relationship where you felt seen, heard, and valued. One where, as your partner entered the front door after a long day out, they saw you and their eyes lit up. They smiled. And they held you. Later that night you worked together, as equals, in the kitchen and in putting the children to bed. You spent time sharing ideas and experiences from your day and your partner listened and built on your conversation.
The final researcher in the world’s longest study on human development (which involved over 260 Harvard students and continued for 75 years), George Vaillant, summarised everything we learned about wellbeing in one sentence:
Happiness is love; full stop.
So… where is the love? And how can we get more of it?
The big relationship mistakes we ALL make
It’s hardly explosive to suggest that we don’t always do a great job in our relationships. We stumble. We find our partner baffling. We try, with the best intentions, to do things right and get told we’re doing it wrong. It’s tricky. Here are five reasons we struggle so much:
We fall victim to biases
You are sure you see things clearly and your partner isn’t seeing straight. You are certain that you’re doing your best, but your partner isn’t pulling their weight. You just know what’s going on in their head, even though they deny it.
These are called cognitive biases, and they interfere with each one of us and the way we think. Let me summarise a small handful of what could be a long list of biases and see how many you fall victim to:
We like information that matches our beliefs. If we “think” that our partner is selfish, we notice all the things they do that seem selfish… but we conveniently fail to notice all the helpful things they do. This, as you can imagine, is very bad for our relationships - but it’s an easy trap to fall into.
We think we are doing 80% of the housework. Our partner is sure they’re doing at least 60% of the housework. That’s 140% of the housework complete… and yet it’s never actually done! This occurs because we’re typically only fully aware of what we do. We don’t know what the other person is doing. And all-too-often we claim a proportion of the workload that’s higher than the truth.
Fundamental attribution error
When our partner makes a mistake, it’s primarily because they’re “faulty”. We see their character flaws and weaknesses and blame them for being malicious, unthoughtful, or selfish. But when we make mistakes it was circumstances or bad luck conspiring against us.
Illusion of knowledge
We think we know what our partner is thinking - even when they tell us they’re not thinking that thing we think they’re thinking. We know better because we are all-knowledgeable!
We think others tend to share our preferences and beliefs more than they actually do.
We tend to think that our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are always stable, when in fact they change. A lot. And we get mad when our partner points this out because in our mind we’re stable and they are the ones who are always changing.
We think everything is about us. And we make everything about us. When our partner is having a bad day, we think it’s because of us. We ask them. They deny it. Then we get mad because they’re not telling us what’s really going on (illusion of knowledge and projection bias). Then we blame them (fundamental attribution error) and they start arguing with us which confirms we were right all along (confirmation bias) even though it had nothing to do with us!
Let’s do a quick self-assessment. What would your score out of 5 be for each of these biases? If 1 = I don’t do this much at all and 5 = Oops, it’s a chronic problem, how are you scoring?
Do a quick test for yourself and then ask your partner how they might score you. You might ask if they’re open to looking at their own self-assessment and compare notes. Self-awareness is the first key to improving who we are and how we relate to each other.
The support you need to make your marriage or partnership better
Failure to invest
Remember back to the first few interactions you had with your partner. How attentive were you to one another? How deeply invested were you? There’s something about a first-date mentality. When we show up for a first-date we really do show up. We’re present. We’re focused. We are prioritising our dating partner. We’re showing them our best selves.
Over time, it becomes harder to bring a first-date mentality to our relationship. We become familiar with one another. We’ve made the catch. The relationship is stable. We don’t need to keep trying to impress.
And that’s a mistake.
Here’s a different view: if my wife, Kylie, is the person I’ve committed to for now and forever, surely I ought to be investing more and more to make things work. Failure to invest in a relationship is like buying a car but never doing any maintenance. Eventually it will just stop working.
We focus on the big stuff
In some cases, a relationship may be foundering and so a couple might decide to do something big. After a failure to invest, the decision to do something leads to investing in sending major signals. It’s like a first-date mentality on steroids; a romantic dinner on Valentine’s Day is sweet and special; an expensive birthday gift can be an extravagant gesture; a special holiday getaway can be a terrific relationship investment.
These experiences can be wonderful, but generally it’s a misplaced effort to focus on the big stuff. Doing small, simple things often has the biggest impact. The daily habit or discipline of doing the unspectacular but important makes all the difference:
- Saying please and thank you;
- Offering to help when you see a need;
- Switching off your phone before being together;
- Going to bed for pillow talk (or more) rather than watching Netflix;
- Prolonging your farewells and returns with a LONG kiss;
- Regular gentle touches of acknowledgment;
- Texts throughout the day when you’re apart.
Each is small, inexpensive (or free), and barely noticeable in and of itself (particularly when compared to the big stuff). Yet these small and simple things make all the difference when it comes to seeing, appreciating, and loving your partner.
We want to be comfortable
Here’s a revelation. Life isn’t meant to be comfortable.
Humans are designed to grow, overcome challenges and obstacles, and develop to greater capacity. It’s innate. When we stagnate, we die. It’s literally in our nature to progress.
For some reason, we take our foot off the accelerator in our relationships. We think marriage is about being happy and content. The point of marriage is not happiness and ease. The point of marriage is growth. Marriage makes us better people. Marriage requires us to work, to think of others, to take one for the team (regularly), and to lean into learning. The great mistake we make is to think we can be stagnant in our relationships. We can’t. They require ongoing commitment and effort.
As a cyclist, I’ve learned that hills are hard to ride up. But they also make me a better cyclist. They strengthen me. They build me. Marriage and long-term intimate relationships offer the same opportunity for self-growth and development. They give us the opportunity to be better, improve our character, and build virtue into our lives. This stuff doesn’t come from being comfortable. It comes from learning and discovering how to improve. Growing pains hurt.
We think marriage is for us. It isn’t.
Eli Finkel is the author of The All or Nothing Marriage. In this book he explains that we expect a lot from our marriage partners. We expect them to be our friends, our confidants, our advisors, our lovers, and more. And when they fail to measure up (because life can be busy and there is a lot to be done), we wonder if we can ever be happy in this relationship with such a faulty human.
Some years ago, Seth Smith wrote about his fears about getting married in a viral article :
“Was I ready? Was I making the right choice? Was Kim the right person to marry? Would she make me happy? Then, one fateful night, I shared these thoughts and concerns with my dad.
My dad giving his response to my concerns was such a moment for me. With a knowing smile he said, "Seth, you're being totally selfish. So I'm going to make this really simple: marriage isn't for you. You don't marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn't for yourself, you're marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn't for you. It's not about you. Marriage is about the person you married."
He went on to explain that “a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It's about the person you love -their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, "What's in it for me?" while Love asks, "What can I give?"
Question for you: why did you get married or enter your current relationship? Has your motivation changed as your relationship has developed?
The Parable of the Bumps in the Road
Early in my marriage to Kylie, I had an experience that taught me some profound lessons.
(Before I share this lesson, let’s just acknowledge that I was trying to be funny, but I was really just being an immature goober. I don’t do this kind of thing anymore.)
We were running late for an important event. I was wearing my white shirt, tie, and best suit. Kylie had been in the bathroom putting on makeup and doing her hair, but at a certain point we couldn’t wait any longer. I told Kylie the time and asked if she could finish her makeup in the car.
This is the “relationship fail” bit.
As we drove to our event, I thought I might try and lighten the mood with a little prank. I watched Kylie out of the corner of my eye, and with precision timing I lined up a bump in the road and hit it just as Kylie placed her lipstick on her lips. It smeared her teeth and made me laugh out loud as I pretended to apologise. Kylie’s withering look told me not to do that again. And while the lipstick slide did make me laugh, I knew it wasn’t considerate or kind, particularly under the stressful circumstances.
In spite of my best efforts to no longer be an impediment to Kylie for the rest of the car ride, I wasn’t successful. This was for two reasons:
First, some bumps are unavoidable. They’re big. Or they cross the entire road. Some bumps must be driven over.
Second, sometimes you can’t see the bumps until you’ve hit them. And even though You might not see them, you sure do feel them.
Frustratingly for both Kylie and I, we hit several of those bumps on the road to our destination. And because of my misplaced attempt at humour, Kylie believed I was hitting them on purpose (which I most definitely was not).
Our relationships are just like that drive Kylie and I took while running late. There are a LOT of bumps in the road of our relationship. Sometimes we even intentionally hit them (perhaps because we’re being silly or insensitive, or more charitably, because we are suffering from those human biases that make us mindless and self-focused).
Perhaps we think it’s fun to tease a spouse or partner about something that makes them cringe. From time to time, we might even feel malicious, tired, or too exhausted to care and we drive right at that bump, metaphorically causing a mess. Other times, we bounce across bumps that are in every relationship road. Pride, selfishness, ego, clashing priorities. We’re guaranteed to hit these bumps.
And from time to time we’ll hit a bump we didn’t know was there. A sensitivity from childhood. A tender spot that has become inflamed after a phone call with a family member or friend.
How do we get past our biases, our mistaken ideas about how relationships should work, and our idiosyncratic ways of being with our chosen one?
6 surefire ways to strengthen your relationship
The greatest gift we can give to someone is our focused, intentional presence. Make a commitment to put the phone away before you enter the room (or to put the screen down and leave the room so you can be where everyone else is). Listen closely. Ask questions. Be engaged in your partner’s life. Push your agenda down a notch or two and be where your feet are. There may be no more valuable gift you can give to your partner and to the relationship than to show up; to truly be there.
Not long after I finished my PhD, I was spending some time with a long-time friend. He opened up to me about his relationship troubles. Things were falling apart. His wife was on the verge of leaving. We discussed his situation and, among other things, I suggested that if he could simply focus on expressing appreciation and gratitude to his wife it might help.
Three days later he updated me. His initial efforts to express gratitude (which he rarely, if ever, did previously) were ignored. He repeated and gentle “thank-yous” were met with eye-rolling and contempt. The following day his wife responded to his appreciation with anger. “What are you playing at? You never say thank you!” Finally his gratitude to her led to a heartfelt conversation where he acknowledged his errors. He recognised his lack of attention and gratitude. And he resolved to stop taking his wife for granted.
Gratitude, at least in part, saved their marriage. Ten years later they’re still together and thriving.
Research shows that when we regularly express specific and sincere gratitude, people feel valued and relationships benefit.
Humility doesn’t mean you think less of yourself .
It means you think of yourself less .
Humble partners acknowledge that the way they see the world may not be accurate. Humble people are more aware of their biases, and are therefore more likely to accept information from others that points out where their biases might be letting them down. This helps with relationship alignment (being on the same page) because humble people are more open to correction and improvement.
Research tells us that humility is associated with more compassion in marriage and long-term partnerships, as well as more positivity in the relationship, less marital stress, greater marital satisfaction, and reduced risk of divorce.
Being faithful means being unreservedly loyal. You’ll adamantly defend your partner if the need ever arises. It means that you would never ridicule them or put them down. It means you’ll have their back, even when they’re wrong.
Of course, Being faithful also relates to our physical intimacy. Sex is a powerful relationship builder when used for good. But when misused it can destroy relationships, families, and lives.
While movies and some people in the popular media promote ‘swinging’, ‘open marriages’, polyamory, and no-consequence intimacy, most research indicates that marriages and relationships are most likely to thrive when both partners remain faithful exclusively to each other.
To some extent, the values of each partner will determine what it means to “be faithful”, but it is important to highlight that if there is a misalignment around sexual faithfulness (and even emotional intimacy outside of the relationship), it is likely to undermine the foundations of the couple’s bond.
(Note that pornography would typically also be included in this conversation, although research on this is mixed. Again, the values - and honesty - of the individuals involved may be an important predictor, though most therapists dealing with couples in crisis will point to pornography as an indicator of a lack of faithfulness in the eyes of the non-using or coerced partner.)
Ultimately, the secret to true happiness in relationships is a genuine desire, backed up by actions, to overcome selfishness and to be there for your partner. Letting go of personal desires and seeking to contribute to the best interests of the one you love is the key. There is no love without service and sacrifice.
It is important to emphasise that this must go both ways. If it doesn’t, it’s martyrdom. But when both people in the relationship commit to do all they can to consistently act in harmony with their partner’s preferences, that selflessness will grow their love and commitment to one another, and strengthen their family relationships.
Let's wrap this up
There’s no faking it in a long-term couple relationship. You’ve seen one another at your best and worst. You’ve experienced the uncomfortable sounds their bodies make, their quirky and annoying habits, and the way they respond to stress. Your heart might not pound with excitement the same way it did at the beginning. Things have become more routine. To keep the relationship committed and loving, work is required. Real work. Hard work. Gritty work.
Avoiding the potholes, navigating the bumps in the road, and finding ways to put one another first is the best way that we can develop a joyful relationship that lasts a lifetime and makes it “better when you’re together”.
The support you need to make your marriage or partnership better