April 6, 2018

"Partners must understand each other deeply, provide each other with sensitive support during difficult times, and help each other savor the good times. Ideally, they’ll also have lots of hot sex.”

Does that sound like your definition of a great relationship? It might seem self-evident, but this way of thinking about romantic partnership is very particular to modern times, argues social psychology professor Eli J. Finkel in his new book The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work.

Finkel’s book charts the historical course of marriage, from an institution that supported our survival needs—for food, clothing, safety—to one founded on love and intimacy. Today, the third wave of marriage revolves around self-expression: We seek not just love but mutual personal growth; we want partners to help us explore our feelings and our identity, partners who bring out our best, most authentic selves.

These “self-expressive” marriages have the potential to enrich our lives more than ever, Finkel argues, but they’re also riskier: Research suggests that the quality of our marriages today is more strongly linked to how happy we are overall than it was in previous decades; marriage seems to have become more central to our lives and to our happiness. Yet fewer Americans now report being “very satisfied” in their relationships, and divorce rates are increasing among the less educated.

If we want to succeed in the self-expressive marriage, we’ll have to grapple with a paradox: Just as our expectations of our spouses are increasing, we’re also spending less time with them, and less time with other social connections who could help meet our needs. Finkel offers three strategies that can make the difference between marital crisis and marital flourishing.

1. Do Some Lovehacking

hands holding heart in middle

If your relationship needs a booster shot but you don’t have much time or energy to devote to it at the moment, “lovehacking” may be the way to go.

Lovehacks are quick, simple practices that change the way you think about your partner. Like other forms of hacking, they won’t fix deep, underlying problems—but they are a helpful patch to tide you over into the future.

Here are some of the lovehacks Finkel recommends:

●︎ Practice gratitude: Saying thank you to your partner could increase your commitment to the relationship.

●︎ Offer physical touch: In one study, when experimenters told one partner to affectionately touch the other while watching a video, the other partner felt more trusting and secure—even if they knew the touch was prescribed.

●︎ Celebrate their joy: Research suggests that responding actively and positively to a partner’s good news—by showing our delight and asking follow-up questions—may be as important as empathizing with their bad news.

●︎ Gain perspective on a conflict: Think about a conflict you’re having with your partner from a third-party perspective—and try to bring this objectivity into the heat of the moment.

●︎ Give them the benefit of the doubt: When something goes wrong, make your first thought a generous one—“Maybe there was an accident on the highway,” not “He’s always late—he just doesn’t respect my time.” On the flipside, when something goes right, you can interpret that generously, too: “She’s such a kind person” rather than “She must be feeling guilty for something.”

●︎ Boost your sense of security: When your partner compliments you, spend some time thinking about why they did so. This can help people low in self-esteem feel more secure in their relationship.

●︎ Cultivate a growth mindset: Relationships take work, and it helps to recognize this rather than expecting everything to be perfect naturally—or assuming that problems will never go away. “It’s constructive to think of difficulties not only as unpleasant circumstances to be endured, but also as opportunities to learn about each other and to deepen the relationship,” writes Finkel.

2. Invest More Time

hot pink alarm clock

Lovehacks give you lots of bang for your romantic buck, but they aren’t a long-term solution. Eventually, you’ll have to address the fundamentals of a happy relationship, Finkel explains.

●︎ Communication: Is talking overrated? Not according to the research: Talking and revealing more about yourself to your partner are both linked to higher well-being. One innovative way that researchers got couples to talk was to invite them to watch and discuss relationship movies every week for a month—and over the next three years, this cut their divorce rate in half!

●︎ Responsiveness: Responsiveness is a quality that includes understanding our partners (their needs and desires, strengths and weaknesses), validating them, and genuinely caring for their well-being. Research suggests that being responsive is an incredible gift: It may make partners happier, more relaxed, and more connected to us; help them sleep better; and even increase their sexual desire. The daily work of responsiveness requires empathy, patience, and building trust over time.

●︎ Play: Luckily, we don’t have to spend all our time in the emotional trenches. Another fantastic way to strengthen a relationship is with playful, fun activities.

For example, one study found that couples who did an activity they found exciting (like seeing a play or dancing) weekly for 10 weeks were happier with their relationship than couples who simply did an activity they found pleasant (like going to a movie or eating out). Another study found that shaking things up by going on a double date boosted passionate feelings. Other types of “play” work, too: Research suggests that trying out different sexual behaviors for your partner could make them happier in the relationship.

3. Maintain Your Independence

flowers on sheets

Although we may not like to hear it, another way to support a relationship is sometimes to ask less of it. In fact, Finkel attributes this strategy with saving his marriage, helping him and his wife survive a rocky postpartum experience.

“It mitigated feelings of disappointment during our darkest days,” he writes. “Lofty expectations can help us achieve marital bliss, but they can also produce disappointment and resentment.”

Lowering your expectations can be a strategy for coping with difficult times—the birth of a baby, a stressful season at work, family illness. Research suggests that when newlyweds are facing difficult relationship problems, having high expectations can make them less satisfied. More expectations equal more pressure.

How do you lower the bar? One option is to become more independent: to pursue your own hobbies even if your partner won’t participate, to focus on your own personal growth and self-knowledge, or even to live apart (which works well for certain types of people).

A second option is to find other people to meet some of your needs—don't ask everything of one person. Finkel’s ongoing research suggests that partners with broader and more specialized social networks (bigger groups of friends and family who offer unique forms of emotional support) are happier and less likely to break up.

Find other people to meet some of your needs—don't ask everything of one person.

He suggests examining your goals, from work to fitness, leisure to activism, and figuring out whether some of them can be supported by other people. Maybe your partner doesn’t have to be your hiking buddy, your career coach, and your sounding board for workplace gossip, in addition to being a loving parent, gourmet chef, and amorous lover.

These strategies for improving marriage only represent part of Finkel’s book; the rest is devoted to the three historical eras of marriage, and how they were shaped by changes in society and culture. In a sense, it’s refreshing to recognize that our assumptions about what makes a good marriage and what our partner should provide us are so heavily influenced by the time and place we live in. It means that we have more flexibility to explore other options, to recalibrate our goals, and to have a better shot at happily ever after.

What We Can Learn from the Best Marriages originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

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