The One Thing Couples Get Wrong About Relationships
Do you see "differences" or "deficits" in your partner?
Posted Sep 29, 2018
Imagine this scenario: You meet an interesting woman (or man). You are immediately intrigued by the unique way she sees and experiences the world. You want to learn more about her. She is incredibly kind and passionate, with a strong desire to do good. Like you, she has lived a life that, by most measures, would be considered quite successful.
However, the way she navigates the world is markedly different from the way you negotiate life. Deeply curious to understand more about this fascinating woman, you ask her many questions. Like an exquisite flower, she slowly begins to open up and share her innermost feelings with you. You want to know all about her. You are attentive, receptive, and compassionate as her life story unfolds.
She reveals secrets from the past, and her longings and hopes for the future. You are dazzled by her intense, analytical mind and the deliberate way she lives in the world, which is the antithesis of your carefree approach to life. You love speaking with her and learning all about her, as evidenced by the marathon conversations that last into the wee hours of the night. Not surprisingly, you fall in love and marry. Life is perfect, so it seems.
Fast-forward a number of years. Remember those long and engaging conversations that you couldn’t get enough of? Now it seems that you can’t get more than a three-word answer to any question you pose. Your exchanges tend to be brief and transactional, rather than intimate and interactional. And whereas she once bloomed in your presence, she now seems to be wilting and is closed off whenever you’re near. You are wistful recalling what you once had and wonder how to recapture it. You ask yourself: What went wrong? You come up with all sorts of attempts to salvage the situation. You prod and poke at her, trying to force her to open up, wondering what is wrong with her. This approach backfires. She’s now even more reticent to divulge what she is thinking or feeling. You’re at an utter loss of what to do.
What many people get wrong about relationships is that they focus on what is wrong with it, rather than what is right with it.
One day, you have an epiphany and realize that she hasn’t changed, but rather you have. And that you are the cause of her shutting down. You remember how you once marveled at her eccentric differences, but now tend to see them as annoying deficits. You once celebrated her deep and deliberate thinking. Now you accuse her of intentionally trying to irritate you by her slow and thoughtful responses.
Rather than asking questions like you once did to try to understand her, you now often interrupt her and jump to your own conclusions. You’ve been assuming you know what her needs are based on your own likes and dislikes. After all, the way you’ve lived your life up to this point has worked out pretty well for you, and why wouldn’t she want to do things your way?
For the first time, you realize that the frictions and frustrations you’ve been experiencing resulted from your unconscious attempt to try to make her more like you. While you are sad to discover what you have done, you are also relieved to finally understand the unhealthy patterns of your behavior so you can remedy them. You are determined to practice seeing and celebrating the many wonderful qualities about your partner that you naturally did when you first met.
Why is it that these intriguing differences which we find so attractive in the beginning of a relationship are often later perceived as annoying deficits?
As we discuss in our book, Happy Together, we found that all too often couples fall into this rut after the honeymoon phase, failing to notice, acknowledge, and appreciate the unique strengths of their partner. What if instead of putting our partner down, which causes them to shut down, we remembered to actively celebrate their unique qualities, seeing them as intriguing differences rather than annoying deficits? And, as we discussed in our previous post, what if we savored the positive moments together? What effect would that have on our partner and our relationship?
What seems like a no-brainer in the beginning of a relationship, when we naturally see the goodness in our loved one, takes continuous effort as our relationship matures and develops. Let’s remind ourselves to act as we likely did early on: Be curious, ask questions, and really listen out of a deep desire to learn about your partner. One way for couples to grow together is by identifying, understanding, and discussing their strengths. And positive psychology can help us do so. Positive psychology researchers have identified 24 character strengths that have been valued across time and culture — qualities like creativity, kindness, love of learning, and leadership. The good news is that we all have strengths, and in different configurations. Our strengths are in part what makes us unique. Focusing on one another’s strengths, things we are naturally good at, and exercising our strengths on a daily basis is associated with greater well-being. (You can take the free VIA survey to find out your top five “signature strengths.”)
Once you’ve identified your strengths, start having strengths conversations with your partner, sharing what it feels like for each of you to have a specific strength. Ask one another how a specific strength informed your life. For example, perhaps you chose a career in tourism due to your sense of adventure. Or, maybe you passed up on a particular opportunity, because it didn’t allow you to exercise your strong leadership skills. Continue sharing stories of you at your best when you used a top strength. This exercise will help you and your partner relate better by understanding each other’s intrinsic strengths, and what makes each of you tick.
By focusing on what each of you do well and helping facilitate the strength use in each other, you will forge a stronger, deeper, and more satisfying connection.
Pileggi Pawelski, S. & Pawelski, J. (2018) Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.