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The Counterintuitive Secret to a Glorious Relationship

The Counterintuitive Secret to a Glorious Relationship

Research suggests that in love relationships, if you rub each other the wrong way more than once for every five times you rub each other the right way you're entering the danger zone. Partnerships start to degenerate when the ratio of positive-to-negative interactions gets below five-to-one.

Why so high? As I argue here, I suspect it's tied to what social psychologists call "Loss aversion." Dashed expectations are felt more viscerally than met or exceeded expectations.

Rationally speaking (because it is a ratio, after all) there are only a few ways to stay on the good side of the five-to-one ratio:

1. Maximize good rubbing.
2. Minimize bad rubbing.
3. Convince yourself that you're getting more good rubbing than you are.
4. Convince yourself that you're getting less bad rubbing than you are.

All four of these have their benefits and risks.

One and two are touted as the virtuous choices: If you want a good relationship you have to give a lot, bring flowers, say nice things, keep it juicy, compliment each other, touch a lot, whisper sweet nothings and don't give each other a hard time.

There are some risks though. See, at minimum, a couple is four loves in one:

1. You love your partner.
2. You love yourself.
3. Your partner loves you.
4. Your partner loves him or herself.

Ideally, all four of these would be win-wins, in which for example giving your partner exactly what he or she wants gives you exactly what you want. Early on, that kind of harmony comes naturally. With time we settle back into somewhat divergent preferences. The trade-offs resurface, times when you're likely to disappoint each other, doing what you want instead of what your partner wants.

If, in order to maintain relationship health you feel this constant obligation to maximize good, and minimize bad rubbing, you'll find yourself biting your tongue, constantly obliged to show your partner a good time. The pressure can be deadening.

There is therefore virtue in the virtual, convincing yourself that you're getting more good, and less bad rubbing than you are.

Lots of successful couples employ "optimal illusion," the sense that they're doing better than they are. It requires "strategic gullibility," a certain calculated obliviousness. It can be a gift to your partner.

He or she is feeling grumpy this week, this month, or this year, and is complaining about the various dissatisfactions of the partnership. For the sake of the relationship, you're heedless. You fake concern but you don't really take it all the way in, you cultivate a thick skin. The scolding and chiding rolls off you like water off a duck's back.

A friend asks you later how things are going and you say "We're doing great. No complaints. We're both happy." And you mean it though it's not really true.

Such obliviousness is risky of course. More than a few of us know what it's like to miss the cues, not see the writing on the wall, staying in a mutually toxic relationship well after the ratio had plummeted. Still, a lot of relationships seem to weather tough times with a desensitized nose to the grindstone commitment.

Give your partner the gift of loving insensitivity. Let him or her know you're not listening by forgetting the harsh words he or she said yesterday. After all, what could it mean to approximate unconditional love but to cultivate a very slow update rate in your reassessments of how well it's going? You fall in love when the ratio is ten jillion glorious experiences to zero bad ones. You settle into a fat five-to-one ratio and then you stop counting. For a whole year, while your partner is out of work, grumbling about everything, the ratio dips way the hell down, but to your unconditionally loving heart, it's still five-to-one or better. Love at first sight is blind, but so, in its way is enduring love.

Enduring endearingly is the counter-intuitive secret to enduring, endearing love.

Or is it so counter-intuitive really? How different is that from the advice to be tolerant, generous of spirit, accommodating, forgiving?

One of Psychology Today's most popular articles ever was this one, making more or less the same case I'm making here but using the terms we generally associate with virtue. I wrote this criticism of the article because I felt it told half the story.

Here, in support of that very popular story I'm returning to its half. But with a difference.

Instead of generous, I'm saying oblivious. Instead of forgiving, I'm saying ignoring. I'm using words we generally associate with vice, not virtue. There is method to my madness, and my method is a bit counter-intuitive:

To know the benefits and risks, the promise and peril in every option, cast each in both positive and negative terms.

What, for example, is the difference between being forgiving, letting stuff slide, ignoring, getting over it, being strategically gullible, insensitive, or calculatedly oblivious? Other than the positive and negative connotations, I would say, not much.

What's the difference between holding a high standard, being fussy, being demanding, remembering, holding a grudge, monitoring, being sensitive, neurotic, vigilant and wary? Again, other than the positive and negative connotations, I would say, not much.

And if you want a song that says what I'm saying about the secret to a glorious relationship, try Brad Paisley's "That's love."

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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