The Science of Good Relationships: Part 2
In part 1 of The Science of Good Relationships, we went over the four habits we must avoid to prevent dissatisfaction in our relationships. This week we shift our focus to three habits that can keep our relationships happy and healthy.
Now, I have only been married for 3 years, so I am not a marriage expert. But you know who is? Relationship researchers! They literally devote their career to exploring what makes or break a relationship.
While there is a lot of advice out there, the three habits that I will talk about today are backed by scientific evidence and I have personally seen that they do contribute to the happiness of my own marriage. So, if you are interested in tried-and-true habits for a healthy relationship you have come to the right place! While they might seem simple at a glance, trust me, it will transform your relationship.
HABIT 1: WEAR ROSE-COLORED GLASSES
Dr. Sandra Murray has studied the dynamics of relationships for over 2 decades. In her research, Dr. Murray has followed hundreds of couples to explore the ingredients that create a happy relationship. Her main finding? Looking at your partner through “rose-colored glasses” is the biggest predictor of marital satisfaction. In other words, those people who viewed their spouse in the best light possible were the ones that were happiest in their marriages.
Simple enough, right? But how do you actually get there?
There is no surprise that our partners are going to let us down or disappoint us at one point or another. We are humans! What stands happy couples apart from those who begin to de dissatisfied with their relationship is how they respond to their partner’s shortcoming. See, when our partner hurts us or disappoints us, we have two options: assume that they are a bad partner and/or that they don’t care about us OR assume that they did not mean to hurt us and that there is a good explanation as to why they let us down. The choice is always ours. And as research by Dr. Murray and colleagues suggests, the second option is what is healthiest for relationships, regardless of how or why our partner let us down. (Needless to say, this only applies to minor transgressions, not abuse or infidelity).
This certainly does not mean that you should brush everything under the rug. On the contrary, you should always address your feelings and expectations with respect. But changing your beliefs about your partner is what will make the difference and will change how you address the issue.
For example, my sweet husband is as close to perfect as they get (see? I apply this research myself : D). But cleaning just isn’t his biggest strength. Even when I ask him to scrub the tub or something, that tub will still be dirty! Needless to say, our definitions of clean differ. When I first got married, this would really annoy me. Id’ think, is he not cleaning because he expects ME to do it? Does he just want to do a half-hearted job so that I won’t ask him again? How dare he! This is a partnership! I can’t do everything myself… and on and on and on… I know this example is silly, but we tend to do this all the time no matter how our partner lets us down. It is SO easy to get into a negative mindset and jump to bad conclusions! Whether you internalize these negative thoughts about your partner, or even worse, spew them out and criticize them, this response is toxic to a relationship.
We cannot help our partner’s behavior, but we can choose to either give negative explanations or to grant the most generous explanation possible for their behavior. For example, in the bathtub scenario I mentioned above, the alternative explanation would be to think “maybe he did not know which products to use” or “maybe he didn’t notice.” Having these responses or assumptions gives him the benefit of the doubt and prevents me from seeing him in a negative light. Furthermore, it grants insight into how your own words or behaviors could have contributed to your partner’s shortcoming. For example, I was never explicit about my expectations, or what cleaning products he should use, which is my fault for not communicating clearly.
Of course, as I have mentioned before, simply responding in a positive way is not enough. If there is an issue, it needs to be communicated. After I decided that assuming the worst of my husbands’ cleaning (or lack-thereof) was not going to help either of us, I showed my husband exactly what product to use, and showed him how to do it. Importantly, I pointed out that when he helps me clean the house, it means a lot to me ( as opposed to saying, you never take initiative to clean the house and do it wrong). See the difference? Same message, completely different approaches. And by the way, learning simple communication strategies like these is how you become a mind ninja 😉 and yes, my husband now does an excellent job at cleaning the tub.
HABIT 2: EXPRESS GRATITUDE:
Psychological research shows the vast benefits of being thankful. It not only improves mental and physical health, but it also helps us be more empathetic and reduces our aggression towards others. In other words, being grateful allows us to be kind to others, even when others are not being particularly nice to us. Sounds like an awesome super power, if you ask me!
What does that have to do with having a happy marriage?
Well besides helping us be kinder to our significant other, it also sets us up to be generally happier in our relationship. It is normal for us to get comfortable once we have been in a relationship for a while. Instead of being thankful for the little things our significant other does for us, we begin to just focus on the things they don’t do. This is also extremely toxic to our relationship, because it prevents our loved one from feeling appreciated.
When we begin to practice gratitude, it shifts our attitudes from being demanding to being appreciative. What does this mean for your day-to-day interactions with your partner? Every time they do something nice, or even do something right, whether it be doing the dishes, or waking up when the baby cries, instead of just “expecting it” express gratitude. Tell them, “Thank you for doing the dishes. ” Sure, your spouse should be doing things like these anyway, but again, shifting your attitude is where the magic happens. Wouldn’t your feel better if you were thanked for what you did, even if it was your “job” anyway? It feels nice to be noticed and valued, and it actually encourages us to do a good job.
As a principle, we are more likely to repeat a behavior that gets a positive response from others. Therefore, if you thank others when they do something good, chances are, they will be more inclined to do it again. Another mind jujitsu trick to put in your back pocket 😉 In all seriousness, my husband and I have made it a habit to repeatedly say thank you. It has changed the entire “feel” of our relationship.
In addition to getting into the habit of saying “thank you”, writing down things you appreciate about your spouse when you are mad or annoyed does wonders (or anytime, really). Why? Because it is nearly impossible to stay mad when you begin to be grateful. Next time you are upset or annoyed with your partner, write down five things you appreciate about them. You will see how quickly your negative feelings will disappear.
HABIT 3: SEEK NOVELTY
You know when you first met your significant other and could not get rid of the butterflies? You were excited and nervous, and your body reacted that way too. Your heart sped up a little faster, your stomach felt butterflies, and your hands might have even sweat a little. What a great feeling! But after a while, you no longer feel this way. Your body goes back to baseline, and you no longer have this physiological reaction to your significant other. While this is a good thing, many people miss that feeling. Well guess what? According to science, you can trick your body to feeling that again!
Researchers have shown that emotional arousal (i.e., the physical responses to being excited or nervous etc.) can sometimes get misinterpreted by the brain. What does that mean? It means that when you feel your heart race, or your palms get sweaty, your brain can get confused as to why you are feeling that way, and thus can blame it on something else. For example, psychologists Dutton and Aron found that men who were standing on a shaky bridge when a woman approached them and gave them her number were more likely to call the woman and state that they were more attracted to her than men who were not on the shaky bridge. You see, the men on the shaky bridge experienced an emotional arousal because of the bridge (it was shaky and it was high). Their stomach probably dropped and their heart raced because heights usually create this in people. But because a woman approached them and captured their attention, they misattributed the arousal to the woman that approached them. Moral of the story? Sometimes your body reacts a certain way and then the brain attributes that arousal to what is immediately happening in your environment.
All this to say that if you seek fun, novel activities with your significant other, your brain begins to associated all these positive feelings to your significant others. It is so easy now a days to be busy and tired all the time (oh, just me?).
We resort to eating take-out and Netflix. And while there is nothing wrong with having a night in, it is important to be intentional about doing different activities with your significant other. This doesn’t have to mean you go skydiving, but it does mean you go to a restaurant and try something new. Or you sit on your porch to watch the sunset and have deep, meaningful conversations. My husband and I like to go on walks around the neighborhood and talk about our dreams. Just anything that gives you alone time and gets you out of your routine!
There comes a point where we forget that love needs to be cultivated; we aren’t going to enrich our relationships by watching TV next to each other or reading a book and not connecting. Again, there is nothing wrong with that, but being able to have novel experiences with your significant other is important! In fact, studies have shown that couples who engage in novel or exciting activities report more satisfaction in their relationship than those who do not. Not to mention that being intentional and even doing these activities provide you with more time to experience life with your partner.
Now some of you might be saying, “I have four kids! There is no time to do exciting activities.” One of the best advice I got before I got married is to have a weekly date night. This couple knew that once you get married, life gets busy! Not to mention you live together, so it is not like you have to make time to see each other- you see each other anyway! But taking the time to do something fun or different together, get out of the routine, and keep learning about each other is so important. And yes, we are all busy… and yes children do take a lot of our time. But one thing I know is that we make time for what matters. Your relationship with your spouse matters! Not just for you, but for the well-being of your children. Being able to show your kids that you have a loving and healthy relationship is one of the best gifts you can provide. And before you have another objection, let me just tell you that Joanna Gaines from Fixer Upper has 5 kids, multiple businesses, a TV show, and she also finds time to have a weekly date night😉 What’s your excuse?
Summing things up...
1) A good relationship with your significant other is important for the well-being of children
2) Seeing the best in your partner predicts happiness in a relationship.
3) Practicing gratitude not only brings benefits for your overall health, but it also improves your relationships
4) Doing novel things with your partner nourishes your relationship. Setting apart a day for weekly datenight is essential.
Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples' shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of personality and social psychology, 78(2), 273.
DeWall, C. N., Lambert, N. M., Pond Jr, R. S., Kashdan, T. B., & Fincham, F. D. (2012). A grateful heart is a nonviolent heart: Cross-sectional, experience sampling, longitudinal, and experimental evidence. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(2), 232-240.
Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of personality and social psychology, 30(4), 510.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American psychologist, 56(3), 218.
Murray, S. L., Griffin, D. W., Derrick, J. L., Harris, B., Aloni, M., & Leder, S. (2011). Tempting fate or inviting happiness? Unrealistic idealization prevents the decline of marital satisfaction. Psychological Science, 22(5), 619-626.
Tsapelas, I., Aron, A., & Orbuch, T. (2009). Marital boredom now predicts less satisfaction 9 years later. Psychological Science, 20(5), 543-545.