A few years ago I noticed that the majority conversations surrounding relationships fall into one of two categories. They are typically either super negative conversations focusing on divorce, infidelity, celebrity scandals, etc. Or they are hyper-emotional, and unrealistic stories like those seen in Twilight, Disney movies, or The Bachelor.
I got really sick of being force fed these warped and unrealistic expectations of love. I didn’t think Chris Brown, Anthony Weiner, or Tiger Woods deserved to be the spokespeople for relationships… but they seemed to be the only ones getting any relationship-related air time. So, rather than complain about it, I figured I’d hunt down the most amazing couples I could find and give them the microphone. I took my life savings and travelling the country to interview couples.
My hope was that through talking to these couples, some patterns would emerge or that I would at least get some pro tips on how to have a successful long-term relationship for myself down the road.
I was not prepared for the world that I was about to discover, or the amazing stories I was about to be exposed to.
I’ve interviewed gay couples, straight couples, rich couples, poor couples, religious couples, atheist couples, couples who have been together for a short time, and couples who have been together for over 70 years. I’ve even interviewed couples in arranged marriages and polygamous couples.
These are some of the keys–and most surprising things–I learnt that make relationships successful.
The happiest couples always consisted of two (sometimes more) emotionally healthy and independently happy individuals. These people practised self-love. They treated themselves with the same type of care that they treated their partner, or at least they tried to.
Emotionally healthy people know how to forgive, they are able to acknowledge their part in any disagreement or conflict and take responsibility for it. They are self-aware enough to be assertive, to pull their weight, and to give love when it’s most difficult.
After that emotional health came an unquestioning level of commitment. The happiest couples knew that if shit got real, their significant other wasn’t going to walk out on them. They knew that even if things got hard–no, especially if things got hard–they were better off together. The sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
Happy couples trust each other… and they have earned each others’ trust. They don’t worry about the other person trying to undermine them or sabotage them because they’ve proven over and over again that they are each other’s biggest advocate. That trust is built through actions, not words. It’s day after day after day of fidelity, service, emotional security, reliability. Establish that foundation, and you’re in good shape.
Most of the strongest couples had undergone times of extreme hardship, many of which included poverty. For example: Reed and Allene went bankrupt, and ended up selling spoons door-to-door to avoid losing absolutely everything.
What separated couples like Reed and Allene from others is that when hardship hit them, they had each others’ backs, and they went to work and did what needed to be done. Marriage (or any sort of long-term commitment) is about team work, fighting for each other, and using each other to lean on in the hard times.
Finances have very little to do with the quality of love. Actions have everything to do with the quality of love.
How to Resolve Disagreements
Resolving disagreements was one of the topics that came up the most. Here’s what I learned:
Don’t Fight to Win
A huge number of couples talked about how they didn’t fight against each other. I mean, if you’re in love, you should be playing for the same team. Your goal should be to resolve the issue, not to emerge victorious over the love of your life. And let’s be honest, you just feel guilty when you win anyway.
Seek to Understand
If you’re having a hard time playing on the same team, stop fighting and instead try to understand why your partner is upset. Typically what’s being talked about isn’t the real issue. People are inherently bad at being vulnerable, especially in threatening situations. Be willing to ask sincere questions. Let the answers sink in. For example: If your partner is complaining that you’re spending too much time at work, maybe the real issue is that they miss you, and want to feel connected with you.
Rather than arguing about how you’re providing for the family, and he/she needs to respect how hard you work, try to listen to what your partner is really saying. Then hold them. Come home early one day, and surprise them with a date, or some special one-on-one time. Reassure them that they, and your relationship, are a priority for you. If you don’t want that same issue to arise again, keep investing in the solution.
Just Be Nice to Each Other
Seriously. Don’t be a jerk. Don’t call names. Don’t take jabs. Don’t try to hurt the other person. Argue naked if it helps! But just be kind and civil and respectful. It will prevent so many bad things from happening.
This is the icing on the cake. There’s a difference between the couple who drives through the rainstorm and the couple who pulls their car to the side of the road to make out in the rain. (Yes, that’s a true story.) There’s a difference between the couple who kisses for 10 seconds or longer when they say goodbye to each other rather than just giving each other a peck, or nothing at all. There’s a difference between the couples who encourage each other to pursue their personal goals at the expense of their own discomfort or inconvenience… even if it means their partner has to stage kiss another woman.
The couples who try on a daily basis to experience some sort of meaningful connection, or create a fun memory, are the couples who shattered my perception of what was possible in a loving relationship.
One woman in Georgia gave some pretty amazing advice. She and her husband have been married for over 60 years, and after being asked what her best relationship advice would be, she paused and said…
Don’t be afraid to be the one who loves the most.
And this is my favourite quote from all the interviews:
At the end of Ty’s life, I want him to be able to say, ‘Terri was the greatest earthly blessing in my life–the best thing that ever happened to me–and that I’m a better man because of how she loved me.’ And that’s the goal that I live with every day. That’s how I want to love this man.