Our Empathic Nature

The Altruistic Side of Evolutionary Psychology

How to Have a Happy, Long-Term Partnership (With or Without “Marriage”)

Five simple rules can make a big difference

I usually post here about psychological research, my own or others. Today I'm writing mainly as a clinician for two decades and a partner in a 32-year marriage. I just read a Scientific American Mind article about how people in long-standing relationships can literally "smell” one another’s emotions and I think, from first hand experience, this is true. While my husband is one of those men who tend to keep their feelings to themselves, I know when he is upset, disturbed, bored, irritated, and even when he is just worried or not feeling well physically. I tell him “Come on out with it, I can read you anyway” and although he may deny my observation, and he is rarely willing to give me credit for ability to sense his state—this seemingly uncanny ability—he knows it’s true, and he usually can read me as well—and now I can tell him why, and suggest this is not unusual. While you maybe able to read your partner, it is often wise to leave it alone, that is, don’t bother articulating whatever it is that you’re sensing. Even though you may be able to read one another, deliberately concealing or not articulating negative thoughts you might be having about your mate is part of the road to a happy, long-term marriage or partnership.

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1) Learn to engage in "parallel play": Be companions while doing your own thing

The first factor contributing to a peaceful marriage is learning to be a companion without paying focused attention on your partner. Married couples need to become experts in what is known in the case of young children, as “parallel play.” When children are entering toddlerhood and close to going to nursery school, they often play side by side, although each child is playing a different though perhaps compatible game, or each is engaged in what looks like a solitary activity but with an awareness that another child is close by, and also deeply engaged in their own play experience. Parallel play is one key to a happy marriage, and something many couples don’t seem to know about. When each member of a couple is allowed to go about playing with whatever and however she or he wishes, while in close proximity to the partner who is likewise permitted to be engaged in another activity, there is often an air of peace in the home. The idea of “togetherness”—meaning that couples do almost everything together, watch the same TV shows at the same time, or spend every spare minute working on the same project together, is highly over-rated. Doing everything together leads to internal ranking (i.e. competition, who is better at the activity, or who gets to set the agenda), residual resentment, and boredom. Parallel play provides companionship while self-development is underway; personal growth is ongoing and able to thrive within a marriage in which both partners are pursuing their own interests, while being in proximity to one another at the same time allows for ongoing emotional regulation. We all need one another to keep our limbic system (old expression for the emotion-heavy part of our neural make up) stable and relatively happy. Tom Lewis, in General Theory of Love, describes the lifelong need to be regulated emotionally by close (and positive) relationships with others. I’ll add here the equally important need to regulate close others, throughout the life span. Couples can and do regulate one another while in proximity, although each member is doing his or her own thing.

2) If possible, keep separate bank accounts and credit cards 

Next on the list of factors that contribute to a happy marriage—if at all possible, keep separate checking accounts, and separate credit cards. Many disputes and topics of dissention in long-time partnerships are about money, how you spend it, when you spent it, if you spend it. Everyone has different interests and different “desires” (to say nothing of different needs). In the end, it may all come out of the same joint total amount of income, but many fights can be avoided if each partner has the room to make purchases that are, at least initially, “private” and that may not, initially, be something his or her partner approves of. There used to be sit coms with whole episodes in which a loving husband is throwing a fit about his wife purchasing a dress that he didn’t approve of ahead of time, or where the wife is hiding her purchases in the trunk of her car. In the more contemporary version, a wife may be furious that her husband spent money on a golf club, or some other “personal” item. With just a little time between the purchase and coming to terms with whatever expense was accrued, people tend to calm down and stop bossing one another around about what is a justified purchase and what isn’t. Everyone has a right to make their own purchasing wisdom or mistakes in judgment, If one member of the couple starts going overboard in terms of the couples overall, summary income, they can deal with that when and if it is necessary. It’s not worth micromanaging one another’s spending—that only leads to unnecessary fighting. Cut one another some economic slack, don’t look over your partner’s financial shoulder, and contention is often avoided without disastrous emotional outcomes. If things get out of hand, it’s later and with some distance, you can sit down and discuss what went wrong and how to fix it without that immediate judgmental attitude and blame.

3) Men hate (and withdraw from) conversations about “the relationship”: Avoiding the blame-guilt-blame cycle.

My next piece of advice may be counter to what many marriage counselors will tell you, but I’m convinced of it’s wisdom. Men (and of course there are always exceptions, but when I say “men” I’m speaking of most men, at least those I’ve worked with and there are many) do not like to process. They hate conversations about “the relationship.” The minute their partner starts trying to discuss ‘the relationship,’ they shut down, get stony faced, and distant. The psychology at work here is that men are often prone to feeling guilty outside of conscious awareness, and when their partner is unhappy, as indicated in efforts to discuss the relationship, they immediately think it is their fault—and sometimes it may be in part their fault, but overall, no one can be held responsible for someone else’s unhappiness, no one has that much power.

Women also feel guilt often and easily, but they seem to be more aware of it. When a partner in a relationship starts up with the “lets discuss the relationship” the male response if to feel guilty, without conscious awareness. Men may respond to this under-the-surface guilt by backing off, growing silent and highly uncommunicative to say the least. They do not want to discuss “the relationship” and any efforts to force that conversation leads to trouble instead of resolution. So let that be a mantra “men do not like to process” or “men do not want to discuss the relationship.” Women have to find other ways to bring up relationship problems, while avoiding direct or forced discussion. The same thing is true in psychotherapy. Men usually don’t want to be asked to discuss their feelings. They prefer to be asked (and talk) about the facts of their lives, past and present. When they feel entirely safe, sure they won’t be in trouble or otherwise subjected to condemnation or humiliation, they may open up and start to discuss their feelings. But not on demand; they hate to be grilled about emotions and the most ineffective way to get them talking about emotional issues is to bring them up without the man first extending an invitation. Don’t misinterpret me here—there are many women who also respond badly to someone (a therapist or a partner) demanding a discussion of “feelings,” but overall, it’s women leading the: “We need to discuss our relationship” kinds of conversations.

4) Avoid blaming your partner for anything: More about the blame-guilt-blame cycle  

If you want a happy marriage, make every effort to avoid “blaming” your partner for anything. In close partner or marital relationships, blame becomes a never ending escalating cycle of guilt induction, followed by the party who has been made to feel guilty, throwing blame and guilt induction in the other direction. The quickest, most lethal, most relationship-busting way to deal with guilt is to turn around and point a blaming finger in return, externalizing the problem onto the other party. Avoid blaming your partner for anything. The blame-guilt cycle spells death to a long-term union. 

5) Take a deep breath, then be sweet to your partner

The last rule for having a happy marriage is to make every possible effort to be sweet to your partner. When feeling angry, stop, take a deep breath, and extend sweetness instead. Engage in effortful identification, put yourself in your partner’s shoes, and no matter how you might feel at the moment, be sweet. There is marital research backing up this assertion. John Gottman and Robert Levenson, in years of studies of marriages, both happy and successful and those headed for failure, found that when couples—both or either partner—expressed contempt, disdain or other humiliating emotions, the marriage is probably doomed to be acrimonious and ultimately, to fall apart.

A correlated finding from Gottman and Levenson is that couples who mirror one another’s psychophysiological or emotional state often fall to pieces. If your partner is winding up into some highly emotional state, keep cool, don’t think you should match him or her in intensity. In the middle of an argument, in meeting an angry partner’s emotions, dare to be entirely different. Be sweet. This rule of sweetness may seem artificial, the opposite of open communication, but it’s not. Furthermore the rule of sweetness applies equally to both men and women. Expressing disdain or contempt for your partner may appear to be “honest” in that you might think “but that’s how I really feel.” But most often that feeling is fleeting, momentary; it’s rarely a true reflection of your feelings. If you fell in love enough to make some kind of union, you probably don’t—bottom line—really feel contempt for your partner. Feelings of contempt may be another expression of the blame-guilt syndrome. To humiliate a partner (in an effort perhaps, to win an argument) is rarely what someone really wants to do if he or she can stop and think for a few moments. We’re wired for empathy and compassionate altruism (or what some Buddhists have called our “Buddha nature.” Responding to anger with anger and blame ends up making us more guilt-ridden and highly uncomfortable. Learning to regulate your emotional outbursts, learning to see your partner as someone deserving of sweetness, goes a long way in building a solid and long-term (dare I say permanent) happy union.

 

References

 Gottman, J.M., Gottman, J.S. & Declaire, J. (2007). Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage: America's Love Lab Experts Share Their Strategies for Strengthening Your Relationship. New York: Three Rivers Press

Gottman, J.M., & Levenson, R.W. (1992). Marital processes predictive of later dissolution behavior, physiology, and health. Interpersonal relations and group processes, 63 (3) 221-233.

Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lanon, R. (2001). General theory of love. New York: Vintage Books.

Lynn E. O’Connor, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, Professor at the Wright Institute, Berkeley CA, and Director of the Emotion, Personality, and Altruism Research Group. more...

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