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3 Secrets of the "Fittest" Couples

Pandemic-induced relationship Darwinism.

Key Points:

  • Being stuck under the same roof for long stretches of time has exacerbated problems for many couples, but some are thriving.
  • Research suggests that the couples who prioritize honest communication and who seek out opportunities to grow together as a couple are most likely to maintain their bond.
  • Taking this time to learn more about a partner's needs, likes, and dislikes can help couples cultivate and nurture more meaningful relationships.

Ever since living organisms have existed, they’ve been fighting one another for survival. Those who were “fittest” survived to pass on their genes to offspring, and those who didn't ceased to exist. Modern humans beat out the Neanderthals because we were better adapted to evolving weather conditions. "Survival of the fittest" also explains how, nowadays, smaller Canadian whitefish have a higher reproductive advantage than larger whitefish because they’re harder to catch with the large nets fishermen use.

 Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
goldfish in love in a fishbowl
Source: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Charles Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest” has long served to explain the scientific phenomenon that organisms that adapt to their environment are the most successful in survival and reproduction, but it also bears relevance to relationships amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under quarantine, couples, many long out of their honeymoon phase, have been finding themselves spending a lot more time with one another. While quality time is great, being stuck under the same roof for prolonged periods of time can highlight and exacerbate long-standing issues. Additionally, the pandemic has caused people to be (unsurprisingly) more stressed-out than ever. It has resulted in the inability to see family and friends, created health-related anxiety, and caused financial distress. The Census Bureau estimates that about 11 percent of U.S. households experience food uncertainty and 35 percent struggle to pay for usual household goods.

Stress can have a huge impact on relationships and how partners treat each other. A survey conducted by Very Well Mind showed that while 46 percent of respondents reported that the pandemic had no effect on their relationship, over half said it did. Of that half, 27 percent reported that the pandemic actually improved their relationship, while a proportionate 27 percent said that it worsened theirs. So, what differentiates the first “27 percent” from the second? How is it that some couples are thriving during the pandemic and others aren’t?

Research conducted by Dr. Hannah Williamson of the University of Texas found that, amid the pandemic, “satisfaction increased and maladaptive attributions decreased in couples with more positive functioning, and satisfaction decreased and maladaptive attributions increased in couples with lower functioning.” This is where the “survival of the fittest” theory gains its relevance in regards to relationships during the pandemic. Partners who maintain a certain mindset and consciously choose to work through personal stressors, anxieties, and hardships together are those that will ultimately survive post-pandemic.

Below, I outline three skills of successful couples that not only survive but come out stronger from incredibly stressful and troubling events such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Understanding a Fixed vs. Growth Mindset in Relationships

In relationships, a “fixed” mindset takes no accountability—it assumes that we hold no power to change or improve the state of our relationships in any meaningful way and that, essentially, “it is what it is,” or “if it’s meant to be it’ll be.” Individuals with this mindset believe that if their partner behaves in a way they don’t like, it’s impossible to change, so their relationship is doomed. Mindsets like these are very unhealthy and allow no room for growth, progress, or improvement. If problems exist, they snowball into larger relationship issues.

A “growth” mindset, on the other hand, thrives on the idea that solving relationship issues takes time, effort, and collaboration and that partners should encourage one another to grow. Almost all successful couples work under the “growth” mindset. Instead of reacting angrily or acting passive-aggressively when their partner does something that makes them upset, they establish healthy dialogue and work towards a solution.

Want to increase your relationship’s chances of survival? Make a conscious effort to a) face relationship issues as they appear b) look at them as “we” issues rather than “you” or “me” issues and c) find ways to solve issues together.

Communicating About the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

You’ve heard it a million times, and I’m going to tell you again—communication is key! Openness is one of the most preeminent qualities of the “fittest” couples. A study conducted by Robert Epstein asked over 2,000 adults to complete a questionnaire assessing their strengths in seven basic skills and then asked them to self-rate their satisfaction with their partner. Results showed that one of the two top predictors of a happy relationship was good communication skills. Don’t long for your partner to be a mind reader or get frustrated if they don’t “just know” why you’re upset. This creates tension, passive-aggressiveness, and unnecessary arguments.

Making the effort to communicate with your partner will resolve problems and prevent them from happening in the future. When communicating, avoid phrases that begin with “you,” such as “you always” or “you never,” as accusatory statements seldom lead to constructive conversations or solutions. Be mindful to use more “I” statements, like “I feel hurt when…” These types of statements more effectively allow you to communicate your feelings without making the other person feel blamed.

Don't forget to talk about the good as well. Strong couples see the value of affirming one another and giving voice to things that are going well. Discussing wishes, hopes, and dreams creates a shared vision of what's ahead.

Why It's Important to Get to Know Your Partner

Getting to know your partner over and over again is another skill that predicts relationship success. The pandemic brought out sides of our personalities we didn’t previously know. Couples who took time to understand their partners in this new light tend to be more fit.

For many, love languages changed. Someone who once appreciated gifts may have needed more acts of service. Another person who once loved physical touch may have needed more distance through quarantine. And that’s okay. The pandemic allowed us to learn how our partners handle conflict and manage high levels of stress. It created an opportunity to see our partners in roles we never would have otherwise. Couples who maintain an open, curious attitude about discovering new sides of themselves and their partners cultivate relationships that are more meaningful.

How Couples Can Thrive in the Pandemic

As you may have noticed in reading this post, successful couples aren’t just magically successful. Nurturing a healthy relationship, especially in stressful times like these, takes a lot of work, effort, and, you guessed it—communication! By utilizing the skills outlined above, your relationship, like the whitefish, will be at a greater advantage of surviving the fisherman’s net.

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