What is the real secret to having a happy and loving relationship? When I give you the answer, you will probably be surprised. But first, ask yourself this question: What do happy, satisfied couples have that I don't?
You may think that happy, satisfied couples know better how to maintain a strong sense of commitment than you do. Maybe they do, but why?
You may think that couples with smiling faces know how to communicate more effectively. That may be true as well, but why is that?
Why is it that happy couples know how to fight more effectively and resolve conflicts more smoothly? And why is it that some of them still hold hands, stay close to one another, and appear to have something you can't find anywhere—romance?
The good news is that what you're looking for—the key to ridding yourself of the frustration, anger, disappointment, and hidden resentments that drive you to the breaking point in relationships—is already within you.
That's right: You need to turn to yourself—not your partner. I know this is hard because we all have been conditioned to think that another person is supposed to make us happy. So many of us have been duped into thinking that if he just changed this one thing, or if she could just get a grip about (fill in the blank), then we would finally be happy.
Now let me pause to say this: You did not get into your relationship to be treated poorly, ignored, or abandoned. Being abused or denigrated, subjected to reckless spending, deprived of a sex life, or forced to put up with problematic, immature behavior is not what I'm asking of you. If this is occurring in your relationship, your partner needs to make major changes. Individual and couple's counseling may be needed. And if your partner will not cooperate with counseling, you need to face the fact that he or she will probably never change, and then to decide to try living with him or her the best you can, or move on to a new and hopefully more satisfying relationship. I am all for trying to save relationships, but in the face of repeated hurts and insensitivity, it may be best to move on.
But assuming nothing so egregious is going on, here's what you can take from those happy, satisfied couples—the ones who beat the odds and don't split up or simply stick it out for the sake of the kids—because they do tend to have a strong commitment to each other and communicate effectively. They are able to fight fairly and resolve conflicts. And they know how to be romantic.
Here's their secret, above and beyond anything else: They have a better, more realistic, and healthy way of thinking about each other.
As I describe in my book, Why Can't You Read My MInd?, it is this way of thinking that enables couples to improve communication, solve problems, and enhance romance. This true foundation for a happy relationship, this elusive secret to your success, can only be found in one place—your own mind.
The couples I've worked with over the past 22 years who have made it together are those who have been able to recognize and address the pervasive yet little-known relationship problem I call toxic thinking. Toxic thoughts—"You are totally selfish!" "Everything always has to be about you!"—erode our empathy and destroy our love. Couples who can avoid or overcome toxic thoughts are more satisfied. They remain, against the odds, a unified force. They are the ones who make me think, with great conviction, "If anyone has a chance at lasting happiness, they do."
I will be continuing to write more about healthy vs. toxic thinking toward our partners in upcoming blog. In the meantime, you may want to check out my recent post on "What Headgames Look Like in Lasting Relationships." Stay tuned.
Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein is a psychologist with over 20 years of experience specializing in child, adolescent, couples, and family therapy. He holds a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the State University of New York at Albany and completed his post doctoral internship at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center. He has appeared on the The Today Show, Court TV as an expert advisor, CBS Eyewitness News Philadelphia, 10! Philadelphia—NBC, and public radio. Dr. Bernstein has authored four books, including the highly popular 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (Perseus Books, 2006), 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child (Perseus Books 2007), and Why Can't You Read My MInd?