Why is it that some people can stay in love for decades while others fall out of love as soon as the novelty wears off and the rose-colored glasses become clear? Surely, the attitude we bring to a relationship before it even begins contributes greatly to its longevity. We must know that love requires a lot of attention and is hard work at times. To expect magic instead of mutual growth within the connection can be a fatal mistake. It is also extremely helpful if the couple has loving habits (see “Ten Zen Things to Save Your Marriage”) as well as loving skills, such as rewarding the partner’s attempts to learn and grow.
But what about the commonly spread idea of keeping one’s expectations low? Is it true that we must accept our loneliness and that the other has nothing to do with the pain we might feel within the partnership? We hear from many self-help books that we must accept the other exactly as she or he is, practice the art of compromise, and take one hundred percent responsibility for our own feelings. The other would not have any power over us as we ourselves decide what to think and generate our own feelings. Are loving partners really this independent from each other?
When I met my husband, I believed just that. I thought that I was responsible for my happiness and he for his, which was also in alignment with my training as a psychotherapist. Taking care of the other was deemed neurotic, an attempt to get from a partner that which one needed originally from one’s parent. Accordingly, I felt a little guilty about the fact that we spent a lot of time on tending to small psychological injuries that occurred in both of us. Were we doing too much psycho babbling because I was a shrink or overthinking everything because I loved philosophy? Should I even reveal when I felt lonely and burden my poor man after a long day of work? As my husband was neither tainted by self-help books nor by psychological training, he did not suffer from such guilt. To him, taking care of and feeling responsible for each other was only natural. Thank goodness. As it stood, we both had enough to learn about how to promote each other’s growth. Because of him, I relaxed significantly, albeit I maintained a little bit of guilt when I shared our habits with others, especially with other psychotherapists and inner-peace-aspiring Buddhists. Until now.
Three researchers from Washington University, namely John Gottman, Catherine Swanson and James Murray, examined the hypothesis of keeping expectations for marriages low. They observed couples closely and used mathematical models to ascertain what exactly loving couples did while not so loving couples did not. They registered a point at which a partner becomes frustrated in a conversation, so that he or she would respond negatively to the other. They called such a point the “negativity threshold.” If one were to believe popular culture, one would expect that successful couples have a very high negative threshold, meaning, they would not get triggered easily by the other and would let things slide readily. The opposite was true. Successful marriages, that is marriages that are satisfying and loving, have a low negativity threshold. During a Ted talk, mathematician HannahFry puts it this way,1
“In those relationships, couples allow each other to complain, and work together to constantly repair the tiny issues between them. In such a case, couples don’t bottle up their feelings, and little things don’t end up being blown completely out of proportion.”
So much for wanting to have a so called low maintenance partner…. It is very important to not let negativity build up in a relationship. In addition, the three authors conclude, people with the highest expectations of their marriage have the best marital outcomes. They recommend that,2
“In courtship, a couple may first establish a lower negativity threshold to deal with problems before they become too escalated. This would act to minimize the degree of reciprocity of negativity that leads to escalated conflicts and could be beneficial in the long-term stability and happiness of the relationship.”
I wish I had known this nineteen years ago, when I got married. The study by Gottman et al. was released that year, in 1999. But at least I practiced what I did not know with certainty: I did not sweep my disappointments of my partner under the carpet. The best-kept secret of love to me is therefore that interdependence in a relationship is normal and even desirable. It is more than okay to be vulnerable with each other. We should share our loneliness and let the other know when we get hurt. Loving people do have an impact on each other and must be open to discussing this impact. Love is the most rewarding of all human experiences, the greatest predictor of happiness, and it is precisely for this reason that it takes humility, effort and time.
© 2018 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.
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