In our inaugural blog, Why Happily Ever After Doesn't Just Happen, we mentioned the importance of working on our relationships like we work on our bodies at the gym, because building good habits is associated with long-term health and happiness. Gyms are set up to help increase our chances for success. Scheduled workout classes, various exercise machines and equipment, and trainers on hand doling out advice and guidance can all help move you closer to achieving your fitness goals.
Imagine if there were a relationship gym of sorts that we could visit regularly to develop healthy habits for building sustainable love. A place where we could practice flexing our relational muscles to increase our emotional flexibility and strengthen our intimate interactions. What would that look like?
A Place of Action: Walking the Talk.
The relationship gym is a metaphorical concept we coined and discuss in our workshops to emphasize the importance of regular practice. What we know for sure is that a real-life relationship gym wouldn't be a place where we just sat back and waited for a magical transformation to happen overnight, or merely chatted with our friends about wanting a better relationship. We've all likely seen those people who tend to lounge at the gym and hang out rather than work out. Perhaps those people may even be us at times. Just like we can't think ourselves fit (if only we could!) we can't solely think or talk about wanting a better relationship. We must walk the talk and put in the work to obtain results. And one workout at the relationship gym is not enough. It's an ongoing process. Daily decisions and actions add up over time to build a healthier, more flexible and resilient relationship. Fortunately, at every stage of our development we have opportunities to make choices that will help strengthen our relationship. Over time, these daily choices and actions develop into habits.
Developing healthy habits in our romantic relationships is easier said than done. The eminent American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910), considered the grandfather of positive psychology, was keenly interested in where actions come from and how they develop into habits. He emphasized the importance of voluntarily directing and focusing our attention in order to influence our perceptions. In our relationships, it's easy to mindlessly dwell on our partner's shortcomings and what we find lacking in our lives together. This unhealthy habit can lead us to spiral downward into feeling hopeless and helpless in love. And it may even encourage us to give up altogether on our partner and relationship. With practice however, we can become more adept at shifting our attention to focus on the strengths of our partner and what is going right with our relationship, which can be a very effective way of improving the quality of our connection. However, we can't stop there. While noticing and appreciating the good things can help our relationship thrive, we have to take action on what we see too.
With practice, our relational habits get better and easier.
While it's not easy to create healthy habits, the good news is that there are some excellent practical effects of doing so. First, we increase our competency. When we have practiced something like tying our shoes, riding a bicycle or a tricky dance move so much that the behavior has become habitual we are able to do it much more effectively than if we are constantly paying attention to what we are doing. That is true of healthy habits in relationships as well. Our relational muscle gets stronger with practice, and the healthy behavior, like responding well in day-to-day interactions with our partner, becomes more natural. And it also takes decreased effort on our part. We no longer have to concentrate all of our attention on what we are doing. Instead, our habitual actions become almost effortless, and they end up working for us because they become enjoyable. We want to do them. Hard work no longer seems like such hard work anymore and we reap the benefits of a stronger and more satisfying relationship.
Cultivating healthy habits in a "snap"
William James suggests four maxims to help us cultivate healthy habits in our daily life. While they are not a "snap" to develop since they will take practice, they are a "snap" to remember thanks to one of us (James) who has created the following acronym:
These four behaviors can help us develop healthy habits to strengthen our relationship. Things like committing to continually work on our relationship, scheduling regular time to connect with our partner, and savoring the unique strengths in each other bodes well for relational success.
Ultimately, we must heed the advice of the wise philosopher and psychologist to focus our attention and remember the importance of regular practice at the relationship gym in order to ensure long-term strength and satisfaction in our partnership.
James, W. The principles of psychology. (1890). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pileggi Pawelski, S. & Pawelski, J. Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love that Lasts. (2018). TarcherPerigee.