- Research explains why people are likely to focus on what's wrong in their relationships, even minor issues, while ignoring what's going well.
- Research suggests that partners may even manufacture problems when none exist.
- Most healthy relationships rely on sources of strength liked similarities, friendship, feelings of comfort, and feeling able to be yourself.
Your performance evaluation at work comes in, and it’s glowing. However, there’s one area that “needs improvement.” Days later, which part do you think about?
The negative, of course. Part of you knows it’s ridiculous to let that one thing bother you. After all, there’s a lot more good in there than bad, but you can’t seem to help it.
Unfortunately, we do the same thing in our romantic relationships. We all have a negativity bias, or a tendency to focus on the bad aspects of experiences. This makes us more critical of our relationships than we should be. Along the way, we take the good times for granted and they become an underappreciated part of our partnership. But the problems? They stand out. Our partner’s insensitive comments, moods, and messiness regularly capture our full attention.
Mix this into a relationship that has lost a bit of its spark, and it can be hard to notice anything other than the problems. As Daniel Kahneman describes in Thinking, Fast and Slow, we tend to only see what’s right in front of us and overlook what’s not there at the moment. When problems are all that you see, it feels like that’s all your relationship is.
In fact, we have such a strong tendency to pick up on the bad stuff that we may even manufacture problems that don’t exist. A study published in Science suggests that if our relationship doesn’t have any major issues, we’re more likely to take what once would have been considered a small issue and feel it’s more problematic.
When we spend our time worrying about the wrong things, we don’t have time to appreciate what’s going right. Not only does this mean our view of the relationship is skewed, but it also means we’re missing out on a meaningful opportunity. While working on problems is one way to improve a long-term relationship, it’s just as important to reflect on your partner’s good qualities and the positive aspects of your connection.
The Pillars of Healthy Relationships
To shift your perspective, start by paying more attention to the facets of your relationship that are stable, consistent, and comfortable. Those peaceful, drama-free, status-quo elements are easy to forget, but they’re sources of strength.
Following are 10 pillars of healthy relationships that research suggests are key to a satisfying, lasting bond. Many of these are likely present in your own relationship; you just need to pause and take notice.
1. You can be yourself. You and your partner accept each other for who you are; you don’t try to change each other. You can simply be yourself and show your true identity without worrying if your partner will judge you. That’s helpful because research shows that partners who accept each other tend to be more satisfied with their relationships.
2. You are BFFs. In many ways, your romantic partner is your best friend, and you’re theirs. That’s good news because research suggests that romantic partners who emphasize friendship tend to be more committed and experience more sexual gratification. Romantic relationships that value friendship emphasize emotional support, intimacy, affection, and maintaining a strong bond. They also focus on meeting needs related to caregiving, security, and companionship.
3. You feel comfortable and close. Getting close to someone isn’t always easy. But in your relationship, you’ve worked through that and are quite comfortable sharing feelings, relying on each other, and being emotionally intimate. Even if vulnerability can be challenging at times, you’ve learned to trust your partner and find it brings you closer. You no longer put up emotional walls and don’t constantly worry about your partner leaving, which provides a sense of stability.
4. You’re more alike than different. You and your partner have a lot in common, and key areas of similarity may help make your relationship more satisfying, new research suggests. Sure, the differences stand out, but beyond those few contrasts, you’re similar in a lot of ways. For example, your partner may enjoy superhero movies while you enjoy rom-coms. Though that feels like a major contrast, you’re both homebodies who enjoy making a meal together then crashing on the couch to watch TV shows while you debate others’ life choices, make fun of awkward dialogue, and try to guess the next plot twist. Ultimately, you have a lot more in common than you have differences.
5. You feel like a team. Words matter. When you talk, do you often use words like “we,” “us,” and “our?” If someone asks, “What’s your favorite show to binge-watch?,” do you reply with, “We have started watching Schitt’s Creek”? That use of “we” shows a strong sense of cognitive closeness, or shared identity, in your relationship. Research suggests that couples who are interconnected like this tend to be more satisfied and committed.
6. They make you a better person. Your partner helps you refine and improve who you are. Here, your partner doesn’t take charge and tell you how to change, but rather supports your choices for self-growth. Together, you seek out new and interesting experiences that contribute to a feeling of self-development. According to relationship researchers, when you expand and grow as a person, your relationship does, too.
7. You share the power. While partners may have their areas of expertise (for example, one handles lawn care, while the other does interior decorating), partners often share decision-making, power, and influence in the relationship. When both partners have a say, relationships are stronger, more satisfied, and more likely to last. And, unsurprisingly, couples are happier when they feel the division of labor in their relationship is fair.
8. They’re fundamentally good. What do people want in a spouse? It’s surprisingly simple: someone who is reliable, warm, kind, fair, trustworthy, and intelligent. Though these traits aren’t flashy and may not immediately come to mind when creating your relationship wish list, they provide the foundation for a resilient connection. Research suggests that when partners have agreeable and emotionally stable personalities, they tend to be more satisfied in their relationship.
9. You trust each other. We need to be able to rely on our partner, which comes from a sense of trust. Not only do we trust our partner with the password to our phone, or with access to our bank account, we know that our partner always has our best interests in mind and will be there for us when we need them. Research suggests that this is a positive cycle: Trust encourages greater commitment, which encourages greater trust.
10. You don’t have serious issues. There are problems, and then there are problems. Sometimes it’s easy to forget about all of the problems and major red flags we don’t have to deal with. “Dark side” issues like disrespect, cheating, jealousy, and emotional or physical abuse are relationship killers. Sometimes, the light can come from the absence of dark.
Spend a few moments reflecting on how each of these applies to your own relationship. At this point, you may want to give yourself some kind of score to affirm your relationship is in good shape. How many of these 10 pillars do you have? How many do you lack? But that’s not really the point. Chances are, your relationship has elements of all 10. The key is to do a better job of noticing and, where needed, cultivating these foundational areas. Often, strengthening these pillars is as simple as savoring everything in your relationship that works. There’s a lot there when you know what to look for.
Hopefully, you’ve also noticed areas of strength that aren’t on this list. That’s great, because this list is by no means comprehensive. More importantly, it shows you’re starting to notice more of what works, and not obsessing about what’s broken.
Of course, you shouldn’t use a few positives to justify staying in a bad relationship. Focusing on strengths is only helpful for those in good relationships looking to make them better. Good relationships are built on mutual respect, love, and friendship between equals.
The lesson here also isn’t to pretend like your relationship doesn’t have issues. Rather, it’s a lot easier to fix those problems when you appreciate how much of your relationship is already going well. Relationships are difficult enough without making them any harder. When you’re only shedding light on what’s wrong, it’s easy to buy into the mistaken belief that your relationship is in trouble. But when you stop taking the good for granted, and give your partner and your relationship more credit, you may realize that your relationship is stronger than you think.
This essay is adapted from Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship...and How to See Past Them (Little, Brown Spark, 2021, 304 pages).
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