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Zack Carter Ph.D.

The Most Important Relationship Strength You Must Have

How you treat people can contribute to long-term relationship happiness.

There you are. Exhausted. Late for work and standing in a long line at Starbucks, waiting for your morning energy in a cup.

You had a legendary toss-n-turn, awake 'til 3 a.m. And of course, you slept through your alarm. Above all else, you’re late for work, gas tank still needs filled, and you’re sweating through your shirt because it’s one of those “above average weather” summers you heard about on the car radio. Worst of all, you just noticed your socks don’t match. While pondering all this, glaring aimlessly up at the menu, you feel a tap on your shoulder. You turn around. A young man holding the hand of a young lady, anxiously, yet cautiously asks, “Sir, would you mind if we ordered while you continue to look?”

What do you do? Why is he asking so anxiously? Is he really that rude, or, could he be communicating his ability to exercise initiative and politeness to his potential future bride? Does it matter? With the morning you’ve had, and your current emotional state, do you let them go ahead of you?

Fresh off the press research suggests, even amid morning mishaps, you should consider selflessly letting this young man and woman place their order ahead of you. Your happiness and the happiness of your relationships depend on it.

According to the Self-centeredness/Selflessness Happiness Model, while self-centered psychological performance prompts fluctuating happiness, authentic-durable relationship happiness actually results from selflessness. Specific interceding processes typically are responsible for these associations.

Particularly, fluctuating happiness involves afflictive affects such as anger, fear, jealousy, and in the case of your coffee shop blues, frustration. However, authentic-durable happiness in any human relationship is influenced by emotional stability and feelings of harmony. So, although letting this young man and woman order ahead of you may put you behind another minute or two, this selfless act elicits a more positive emotional constancy in your mind, and in your relationships with others, while decreasing long-term negative frustration in that particular relationship.

What does this random coffee shop example have to do with your life?


What relationship happiness is eluding you due to selfishness?

Maybe your marriage was devastated due to your husband’s (or even your own) extramarital affair, or, you or your spouse are unwilling to get involved in each other's extracurricular activity of interest, or, you silently judge the guy in the next grocery aisle over snapping harshly at his girlfriend, when you’re only going to go home later to emotionally tear down your wife. Instances of brief, negative emotional fluctuation, decrease long-term relational happiness.

Though you may be tired of all those professionals, including myself, pumping out articles on the topic of narcissism and social media, narcissism and selfies, narcissism and texting, and so on, the one fact you need to take away from all the noise is this: Delusions of grandeur most often prohibit exercising of selflessness. When the self is on the proverbial throne, there is little room for otherness, and though the underlying goal of this article isn’t focused on social media, it must be considered with regard to self perception and relationships.

Nonetheless, we know that much relationship stability and satisfaction for our marriages, family, friendships, co-workers, and even strangers we encounter at coffee shops, are highly dependent on being regularly cognizant of nurturing another’s needs, interests, goals, desires, aspirations, and so forth, before our own. This does not mean heeding to the unhealthy, malevolent, depravities of those who may seek to do you harm, as many are known to prey on kindness and manipulate those seeking to be selfless. Rather, seeking the welfare of others, sacrificing everyday individualities, ignoring desire for self-glorification, and giving great dedication, devotion, and love for someone or something is the goal.

The Self-centeredness/Selflessness Happiness Model extends from the most devastating of human choices to the most innocent.

When the married man’s Facebook private messages with a co-worker turn into a self-centered real-world extramarital affair, he is receiving brief, fleeting, fluctuating happiness, while providing a long-term, everlasting impairment to his marriage relationship. When a seven-year-old selflessly gives up her share of the last bit of orange slices during a time-out in a soccer game to a fellow teammate who missed out, her authentic-durable happiness is steadied by emotional stability and deep feelings of harmony. And when you choose to regularly turn your phone to silent when you arrive home after work, you communicate selflessly to your family the importance and value you place on them over your digital network.

Both self-centeredness and selflessness begin in the mind. Though the former holds greater drasticity in damage over time, the latter provides great reward. Training to do either in your relationships takes consistency in behavior over time. Our natural inclination is to look after #1, and though habitual self-centeredness leads to superficial happiness, it is only brief and fleeting. Selflessness, however, takes patience, endurance, and time, while leading to durable, longstanding degrees of relational happiness. The choice is yours.

So, let the young couple order their coffee. What’s a few more minutes late to work versus emotional stability and feelings of harmony in your relationships?

For more articles written by Zack Carter, Ph.D., regarding how to steward well your communication in an effort to improve your self and your relationships, please check out his Psychology Today blog column by clicking the link below:

Clear Communication: Avoiding Blindspots in Your Words and Actions:

Clear Communication deals with the day-to-day blind-spots in communication. Blind spots in communication are defined as those thoughts, words, or actions you may or may not be cognizant of as you live day-to-day, but often times can negatively affect you and others in the long run. Want to know how to avoid communication blind spots in your personal and relational development? By raising your awareness of these blind spots, in both every day and in social and digital media settings, you can potentially elude relationship heartache and devastation. Achieving relationship success in this 21st-century environment requires healthy, consistent communication stewardship. This blog will help you learn about how to apply social psychology in your personal and relational settings to avoid these blind-sided communication moments. My goal is to educate my readers on how strategy and intentional communication behaviors are necessary to the development and management of your self, and your relationships.


Dambrun, M. (2017). Self-centeredness and selflessness: Happiness correlates and mediating psychological processes.

Peer J, 3306.

About the Author

Zack Carter, Ph.D., is a professor of communication at Taylor University, where he teaches classes in interpersonal, intrapersonal, and family communication.