How do you get what you want in intimate relationships? Think of Gandhi’s famous quote about being the change you want to bring into the world. Due to the relationship dynamics known as positive reciprocity and negative reactivity, people in intimate relationships tend to respond in kind to positive and negative actions by their partners, especially under stress. Caring usually prompts caring:
“I feel bad that you’re hurt.”
“I feel bad that you’re hurt, too.”
Just as anger tends to create power struggles:
“You have to do what I want.”
“No, you have to do what I want!”
And resentment breeds resentment:
“I don’t care about how you feel (that’s the subtext of resentment), but you must care how I feel.”
“Well I don’t care about how you feel, either, because you don’t care about how I feel.”
Research has taught us that your best chance of being happy in an intimate relationship is to be happy before it starts. The data suggest that there is a set-point of happiness, to which we tend to revert following positive and negative life experiences People can suffer great loss, even crippling accidents or disease, and within a couple of years, rise to their level of happiness before their misfortune. Similarly, joyous events, such as getting married, winning a lottery, or getting a great job, have a positive effect only for a year or so, before we revert to our original set-points of happiness.
You can change your set-point for happiness, but the change has to come from within, not from marriage, lotteries, or success at work. Your best chance of finding a partner you can be happy with is to be happy on your own. And the best guide for that is to live according to your deepest values.
In the relationship surveys we use at CompassionPower, we ask people what kind of partners they would like to have and what kind of partners they would like to be. In general, people want to be loving, compassionate, supportive, and sexy. They want their partners to be those things, too. But they also want them to be generous, flexible, and fair.
Most of the people in our surveys did not report that they wanted to be generous, flexible, and fair themselves, but they definitely wanted those qualities in their partners. It’s not that the respondents wanted to be stingy, rigid, or unfair; it just didn’t occur to them to list those qualities for themselves. That’s understandable, considering that, in general, we’re much better at judging others than assessing ourselves. We tend to be hyper-sensitive when someone is unfair, ungenerous, or inflexible toward us, but we really have to stop and reflect – if not go on a weekend retreat – to even come close to an adequate evaluation of whether we are those things to others.
Like it or not, we have to develop the self-awareness to know when we’re being the partners we most want to be. But it’s worth the effort; it’s really the only chance of finding a safe intimate relationship.