2 Ways to Be Happy With Your Relationship

Research-backed tips for feeling better about your partner.

Posted Jan 12, 2015

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I remember reading an article in a women's magazine once that said the key to a lasting, happy relationship was "being friends with your partner." At the time, I thought this was the cheesiest thing I had ever read.

A decade later, well, I still agree. I'm not saying you shouldn't be friends with your partner; it's just so obvious. It's like when my dad used to tell me, "Remember to eat if you get hungry." What else would I do?

After being in a committed relationship for almost five years, I would consider my partner my friend, but I wouldn't say that our friendship has been the glue for sticking together.

Instead, I might attribute my above-average contentment to two not-so obvious things:

First is my attitude. From my teenage years into my early 20s, I was a diehard believer in soulmates. We were only allotted one per lifetime, I was sure, and if we blew that opportunity, we were destined to be alone forever.

I met my soulmate my freshman year in college—or so I thought. After three years of being soulmates and completing each other, a la Jerry Maguire, it ended slowly and tortuously. It probably took another three years to actually realize that I could live without him, followed by a triumphant epiphany: There are no soulmates.

Some may think I'm being cynical, but I've found that life without a soulmate is far more liberating and fulfilling than life with one. Because I had convinced myself that I had found the One, I wasn't able to admit that we had some pretty glaring problems in our relationship—the most obvious one being that we stopped hanging out with other human beings. At first this was fun and romantic, but then we got to be extremely codependent and boring. Did it seem odd at the time? Sure, but we were soulmates, so nothing mattered.

In fact, research from the University of Toronto now suggests that being stuck on a soul mate hurts your relationship: "Our findings corroborate prior research showing that people who implicitly think of relationships as perfect unity between soulmates have worse relationships than people who implicitly think of relationships as a journey of growing and working things out," says researcher Spike W.S. Lee.

In the study, couples in long-term relationships were asked to recall conflicts with their partners, in the form of a quiz. The results showed that individuals who viewed their relationship in the "unity" mindset (or the idea that their partner was their one and only) were less satisfied in their relationships, while those who viewed their relationship in the "love is a journey" mindset did not feel less satisfied. Which makes sense, since if love is a journey, then there are bound to be ups and downs.

In my own relationship journey, there have been a fair share of hills, valleys, and make-you-want-to-vomit windy roads (some of them even spotlighted in past blog entries here) but at every twist, I tell myself that every trip must have its hiccups—and these just happen to be ours.

And... it's absolutely normal.

The second key to relationship success is more work, but essential: I don't expect my partner to change. This is a lesson I learned from my mom, who, having been married to my dad for about two decades, suddenly came to the realization that he would never, ever be able to put his socks in the laundry hamper. In the couch crevices? Sure. The floor? No problem. On the kitchen counter? Sometimes. But the hamper? Never.

She told me that you can't demand people change, because they never will. Not for you. Not for anyone. Maybe not even for themselves. The only person you can change is yourself.

At the time it was a depressing thought. I couldn't imagine a lifetime of picking up dirty socks all over the house, but somehow she managed it. How did she do it? She changed her own attitude toward the socks.

I was once in love with someone who I thought was perfect, but in the back of my head, I always hoped and wished that he could do this or that differently. If only he treated me this way. If he could only miss me more. If only. Looking back now, I remember more of my fantasy version of him than who he really was. Needless to say, he never became the person I wanted him to be. When I met my current boyfriend, I didn't want to change a thing. Even now, he loves me the same way he did when we met. And I still get butterflies. 

But because people don't change, neither do their problems.

According to research, 69 percent of a couple's problems stay the same. And just because you argue about them all the time, year after year, doesn't mean they ever go away. In fact, sounding like a broken record just harms and hurts your relationship.

Again, what science suggests as the better option is to change yourself. Don't become an enabler or a masochist, just become a better you (whatever that means for you).

Is there a problem in your relationship that can be solved simply by you changing something about yourself? What is your advice for a happy relationship?

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