Do Happy Couples Really Exist?
Do happy couples exist? Absolutely. Research from around the world shows that at least 10% of all married people are really happy. What’s more, marital happiness contributes far more to personal happiness than anything else, including work and friendship satisfaction!
Why Should You Care?
This is a key question, whether you are single, newly divorced, dating a person who could be the One, or involved in a relationship that has lasted a while but you are struggling to get a commitment! If your goal is being in a happy, committed lasting love relationship, then you need to understand and clearly visualize that goal or vision if you hope to be successful. Which means you have to know what a healthy relationship looks like. If you don’t, you’ll just stumble around, facing heartbreak after heartbreak, feeling alone and lonely. Unfortunately, a soul mate does not just come to you as a perfectly fitting puzzle piece or twin personality. A soul mate is a person who develops and maintains a state of living love in word and deed with you.
Chances are you have had few role models of a win-win relationship; the kind of true love that makes you healthier, happier, and wealthier. It may be hard to envision this kind of relationship for yourself and challenging to learn the skills that happy couples routinely use. Until now! In this blog we look at the eight key habits that make happy couples work, so that you can learn how to master them. These eight habits are made of the all-important skills that make love work and create lasting love.
The Great News
The great news is that you can learn these skills and practice them with people around you (they will immediately make you happier!). This, in turn, will help you become the person who could be in a healthy, loving, lasting love. We have seen this happen in our coaching program with people from all kinds of challenging childhood and relationship backgrounds, including those who were abandoned or experienced traumas in childhood and those who have been betrayed, left or wounded in their love relationships as adults! Which means there is hope of finding lasting true love, no matter what you have been through.
How Happy Couples Work
There is a commonality among happy couples. The ways in which they talk and act with each other are strikingly similar and 180 degrees different from what goes on in unhappy relationships. Researchers have identified almost all of these healthy patterns, or what I call the Habits of Living Love, by studying tens of thousands of happy couples. My husband, Sam, and I studied the skills of happy couples at our Institute for Comprehensive Family Therapy and have used them in our own lab, our marriage.
Practice the Eight Habits of Living Love with Everyone
To some extent, most of the habits of happy couples can be practiced with everyone, including friends, children, family, and especially your partner if you have one. Practicing these habits is a lifelong endeavor that truly will allow you to be the change you want to see in your life. The habits help you conquer fears and develop self-discipline and allow you to know, appreciate, and love yourself. You will have better relationships all around, which means your life will improve and be richer.
Keeping your loving skills sharp will serve you well in many relationships, but most of all they will allow you to create love that is deep and fulfilling. You will be the brightest light you can be, attracting a light of the same magnitude. The habits will carry you and your Beloved into the flowering of a beautifully shared future.
As the Baal Shem Tov says:
From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to heaven, and when two souls that are designed to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together and a single, brighter light goes forth from their united being.
The Love Journey
The eight habits of happy couples form the backbone of the growing and lasting love journey. They provide a model of a healthy relationship, which is grounded in intimacy, appreciation, devotion, respect, and good collaboration. First we will go over the love journey, then the habits. After each one is presented, I will show you how to build it into your daily life.
If you are in a committed relationship, examine to what extent the light is shining through in the relationship as it is right now. Make sure that you are regularly experiencing and practicing most of these habits with your chosen one. Remember, the beginning of a relationship should be a very fulfilling time. If you are still evaluating whether a guy is the One, observe, for example, if the current contender is truly a devoted giver (Dedication). If you find that the love habits are hard for either of you to practice with each other, make sure you have a master Love Mentor who will help you directly experience many of the habits.
Falling In & Out of Love
All those dopamine-fueled falling-in-love fireworks, the brain chemicals that fire you up and get you hotly addicted to your Beloved, are designed to fade with time. After about two to three years, the biologically based craving and passion for each other die down and the lovers invariably wind up disappointing and wounding each other.
But there is a flip side to this story: We have selected prototypes of the very people we so dearly wanted to love us—our parents. When our mates break our hearts, they do so in ways that echo our childhood wounds. This means they become even more like our parents. And therefore our mates also have the unique and powerful opportunity to help us heal from our past hurts.
How Happy Couples Heal Each Other
In a healthy relationship, the partners work through the wounding process and healing slowly takes place. Instead of simply reacting to each other like hurt children, they work to transcend their reactivity, be mature, and give each other forgiveness, attention, understanding, and validation. This creates an intense bond that is totally unique—you get at last exactly the love you desired from a person who represents your mother or father. It is symbolically having the good parent you have always wanted.
My dad was not very interested in me and certainly did not look at me very much. When I first met my husband Sam, he had a hard time making eye contact when we were discussing emotional topics. This would upset me no end; my childhood wounds flared and I was sure it meant that I was not important and that he didn’t love me. Luckily, I learned about Positive Shaping Talk and asked him to look at me. And he did. His look, his attention, was profoundly healing for me. Still is.
The Healing Process in Happy Couples
In happy couples, each partner functions as a master Love Mentor to the other. In this powerful coming together, both lovers have their unmet needs filled so they feel secure and understood (roots) as well as supported in pursuing their own dreams (wings). The Tender and Tough Loving Care (TTLC) rhythmically flows both ways based on their deepest needs. It is a spiral of giving and taking that gets better and better over time.
The lovers quarrel. One partner really needs to be grounded, held, and reassured that she or he is lovable. The other comes through. The receiving partner becomes reassured, feels more whole, grateful, and able to give more back when her turn comes. The partners heal each other and become more secure and empowered over time, which means they can help each other more effectively. This cycle of benevolence leads to deepening gratitude, commitment, and dedication. Out of this healing love relationship the partners grow together and each evolves to his or her fullest capacity. Many studies have shown that spouses in happy couples shape each other positively over time.
The Healing Spiral
As this healing spirals on, there is less fear and wounding of each other and room for deeper emotional and physical intimacy. This creates a flow of brain chemicals that generates attachment. More of that feel-good oxytocin for women and vasopressin for men. In order to keep these tend-and-befriend hormones going, the members of a couple have to continue to communicate, nurture each other, and team together in a loving win-win way that weathers all the disputes and storms of life.
But what about the passion?
You might wonder: what about the sparks, the irresistible yummy passion? Here’s a love news flash: Partners who are healing childhood wounds and growing through their relationship are automatically regenerating chemistry! As they evolve, their behavior becomes more novel and spontaneous—and novelty leads to more dopamine. The personal transformation of the partners means they say and do unexpected things; funny, creative, thoughtful, or intimate openings occur and create the opportunity to fall in love all over again.
Happy couples shepherd this regenerative process along by having an ongoing affair—with each other. They create novel and exciting ways to flirt with, romance, and bed each other. In this way they create an established and committed relationship that gets progressively richer and sexier instead of diminishing with time.
The Eight Habits of Happy Couples
Tolstoy and Happy Couples
All happy families resemble one another.
Each unhappy family is unique in its grief.
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Tolstoy’s powerful observation was this: There is a commonality among happy families. The ways in which they talk and act with each other are strikingly similar and 180 degrees different from what goes on in unhappy families. As I said earlier, researchers have identified almost all of these healthy habits by studying tens of thousands of happy couples. My husband, Sam, and I have used these habits for many many years. They have not only allowed us to weather the family upsets, setbacks, losses, and other assorted slings and arrows, but they have also given us increasing emotional connection, happiness, personal empowerment, and moments of rapturous bliss. In our coaching practice, we have prescribed these powerful practices to help thousands of other couples create real lasting love.
The Eight Habits:
- Cultivating Intimacy
- Acting Out of Dedication and Service
- Acting from Enlightened Selfishness
- Considering the Cost of Loss
- Showing Appreciation and Gratitude
- Practicing Care-Full Communication
- Following Fight Club Rules
- Collaborating as Teammates
THE HABIT OF CULTIVATING INTIMACY
It’s not just the fabulous hiking adventures, the deep conversations about delicate issues, relishing exotic meals or surprising each other with the simple gift of a heart-shaped rock. On a deeper level, it’s the ineffable intimacy evoked by a glance, an outstretched hand, a smile that matters most.—Anne, on her two-year-old marriage
Intimacy is the creation of verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual sharing and closeness. In long-term happy couples, the partners know each other. They spend time together, talk, share, and listen. The partners are genuinely interested in each other’s past, present, and future, their work, and social and daily activities. They spend time discovering each other’s deeper needs and wants. The lovers are authentic with each other and speak their truths. They are compassionate and feel for each other.
Happy Couples Share Rituals
Happy couples share rituals that bond them and create intimacy. They have little signals and signs that set the stage for sex, dates, and romance. Healthy partners may routinely have quiet time together after coffee, say silly endearing things to each other before bed or when they leave for work. Happy couples have their ways of cooking and eating a meal together and taking care of each other when one is sick. They may take ritualized vacations, like “We always go skiing in Colorado after Christmas.” Celebrations of each partner’s triumphs are very important, even more important than rituals of consolation after a setback. All these rituals create a sense of “we”-ness and lay the foundation for more loving interactions.
One of the key research markers of a happy relationship is spending time alone as a couple. In fact, about 80 percent of people who divorce say that the reason the marriage ended was that they grew apart and lost the feeling of being loved, appreciated, and being close. Thus, spending time together and away from friends, family, and children is crucial.
Sexual Intimacy in Happy Couples
Happy couples also share physical and sexual intimacy. As we’ve already discussed, dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin are primary contributors to the focused attention and infatuation and, later, attachment and intimacy in couples. Testosterone, the sexual hormone engine for both men and women, also generates connection. Researchers have found that there are three primary ways in which couples interact with each other sexually: sexual trance, partner engagement, and role play.
- Sexual trance is an inward focus in which very little talking takes place. Each partner focuses on his or her own pleasure and sensations and creates a fulfilling sexual release.
- Partner engagement is interactive sex and sex play. This includes foreplay, kissing, hugging, and eye-gazing. Sex talk revolves around romantic endearments. The Beloved is seen as a separate person whose happiness and satisfaction are as important as one’s own. At the highest level of partner engagement there is rapture and bliss, plus a feeling of oneness with each other and humanity.
- The last type of sexual intimacy comes from role play. The couple creates a kind of magic theater where sex is a stage for each partner to share and enact fantasies with each other. This helps the partners to explore all the different aspects of self.
• If you are not used to it, give and receive hugs, kisses, and affection.
• Whether you are in a couple or not, ultimately you are responsible for knowing your body and creating the conditions for your own sexual pleasure. You can work on sexual trance by using what the legendary sex researchers Masters and Johnson described as sensate focus. This simple but effective technique requires only that you be in an undisturbed place where you playfully touch parts of your body and learn about what sensations feel good to you. The more you know about your own body the better you and your lover will be able to please you.
THE HABIT OF ACTING OUT OF DEDICATION AND SERVICE
Stephen did all the research and was the desire for my vision; I am so grateful for his mind’s creation, this clear, crisp world that doesn’t cloud over, this absence of pain.—Byron Katie, describing how her husband arranged for trailblazing cornea surgery that restored her failing vision
The Habit of Acting Out of Dedication and Service starts with commitment. Both partners completely commit to each other and the relationship for the long-term future. They talk the talk and walk the walk, speaking and acting in ways that show they have made a decision to maintain a love relationship solely with each other. It is dedication and commitment that get a healthy couple through the inevitable wounding, conflict, and hard times so that they can heal and grow together. Commitment is related to better relationship quality, greater happiness, better communication, and less destructive behavior.
Commitment includes the practice of fidelity, which means that the partners do not have affairs with others. Faithfulness is a key to a happy marriage, and ongoing infidelity can be a death knell. However, contrary to urban legend, it is not infidelity that usually kills marriages; many couples have weathered an affair through apologies, reparations, and forgiveness. Paradoxically, working through the affair can strengthen the relationship as the partners discuss what led up to the affair, acknowledge their part in it, confess their unmet needs and wants, and recommit to the Eight Habits.
Who comes first?
Dedication and commitment mean that the needs of the couple or the other partner come first before personal needs. The partners consider each other’s needs and wants as if they were their own. Each member is willing to sacrifice and invest time and energy for the sake of the relationship. Service to the Beloved is the action of love. Service makes love real.
Emotional affairs are avoided—this is when a parent, family member, or best friend comes between the partners. In triangles such as these, the partner having the emotional affair shows dedication by choosing to satisfy his or her mate’s needs as a number one priority—the partner’s needs come first over others’ needs.
Dedication also involves a willingness to function as a master Love Mentor for your partner. Even after quarreling, feeling wounded, or being in a funk, a healthy partner eventually gets back to being dedicated to healing and giving to his or her Beloved.
In happy couples, partners act from healthy selflessness and true generosity of spirit. They work to understand the TTLC (Tender and Tough Loving Care) the other requires and try to fill those needs. When one falls, literally and figuratively, the other holds him or her as needed, providing a safe haven of care, listening, reassurance, and emotional communion.
Finally, after some healing, when it comes time to go back out there, a loving partner gives encouragement, advice, prizing, and, at the moment of success, heartfelt celebration. In happy couples, loving partners co-create a vision of success, often seeing real potential unnoticed by the Beloved herself. Then, each encourages the other to dream big and go for it.
Happy Couples and the Diamond Self
In short, happy couples are dedicated to developing each other’s Diamond Self. This is not pie in the sky. I am describing this from direct experience. I could not be the “me” I am, writing this book for you, without the dedication Sam has shown me for over twenty-five years. Yes, we fight. But we come back together; we suck it up and apologize for the sake of the relationship. Sometimes I’ll bring him some yummy quiche even when I’m still mad, because I know food means a lot to him. And he’ll give me a tender little kiss on the cheek, which jump-starts the physical connection I need. This is how dedication works. You give more than 100 percent and more than 100 percent comes back to you. And, as study after study has shown, it works this way in many other couples.
• You can practice Dedication with your best friend, with family members, and, most importantly, with your man. Simply be more thoughtful, giving, and in service to them. This practice is especially important if you tend to be more diva-like and self-centered.
• Work on understanding the needs that people who are close to you have and be dedicated to helping them grow and manifest their Diamond Selves.
THE HABIT OF ACTING FROM ENLIGHTENED SELFISHNESS
I came to realize how much he needed to stretch, to prove himself in the world in order to please me! Like a knight wearing his lady’s colors in battle, he loved winning for and with me. My silence, my fears about asking for too much, my not saying what would make me truly happy, were crippling him and stunting his joy. I decided to give him that chance as my knight. The more I asked, the more he brought. And the happier he was. And guess what? I became his knight, too.—Kimberly, on her insights into her husband of fifteen years
The Habit of Acting from Enlightened Selfishness goes hand-in-hand with Dedication. This habit comes from understanding that in helping your partner give to you, you are giving to him. You are furthering his sense of competence as a loving, dedicated man. Whenever your needs and wants are fulfilled, you can, in turn, give more back to him. Because you are content, soothed, recharged, and in a state of appreciation and gratitude, you can give in a whole, real way, with your full time and attention.
Enlightened Selfishness and Women
Often, the Habit of Acting from Enlightened Selfishness is hard for women, since they are used to being the givers. Nonetheless, this habit must be followed. If the giving flows only one way, the relationship becomes boring, stagnant, and rigid. Healthy relatedness is based on a rhythmic give-and-take where the partners fluidly play out different roles. Partners may function as best friends, teammates, lovers, mentors, parents, or children with each other. Fulfilling each other’s needs in the many roles helps them to develop all the different sides of themselves.
Individuality in Happy Couples
In a loving, happy couple, each partner acknowledges their own TTLC needs and even their more superficial wants and shapes the other partner to succeed in fulfilling them either directly or indirectly. This includes pursuing one’s real interests and dreams at play and at work that may be separate and apart from the other partner. He plays golf on Saturday mornings and she supports it. She studies tai chi Monday and Tuesday nights and he supports that.
As the poet Rilke wrote:
Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.
The partners are free to be their authentic selves
Acting from Enlightened Selfishness, they explore themselves, learning how to self-soothe when they are upset and self-validate when they need it. In this way, they are more whole as individuals and not so dependent on the relationship to fill all of their needs. Each partner becomes more mature and capable of delaying self-gratification. Having given themselves needed attention, support, or space and time alone, they are less anxious, irritable, or needy in the relationship.
In happy couples, the partners not only know but also appreciate their differences. He loves sports while she hates watching games. He is a Republican while she is a Democrat. And it is okay. As one study points out, over 69 percent of long-term couples have a few irreconcilable differences and yet still stay together. What is more important is the couple’s self-and-other love and self-and-other caretaking. In happy couples, the inner world of the self is more fulfilled and mirrors the outer world of the couple’s interactions.
• Build on the positive shaping work you have already done with yourself, family, and friends. Pay close attention to what you need or want and get it for yourself or ask someone to get it for you. Attention, a warm bath, that crazy turquoise ring, a trip to St. Lucia? It’s all okay. People who really love you love to make you happy.
• Practice Enlightened Selfishness with dates. Experiment by asking for more than “what you deserve.” Do you want him to take you to the Four Seasons for dinner? For a stroll on a faraway beach? To come hear you play guitar at a student concert? Go for it.
• Consider taking a personal growth course that will help you get more in touch with your authentic self and what you really want. My clients and students have successfully used the Landmark Forum, Transcendental Meditation, the Art of Living, and many other transformational courses.
THE HABIT OF CONSIDERING THE COST OF LOSS
He can be oblivious, self-centered and come back way late from surfing sometimes. Then I think about moving out. But I don’t. I don’t want to be crying, up nights, restless in a cold bed. Plus the rent would be so high. Then I think: but we love each other. And he warms my feet at night.—Zoe, 35, on thoughts of leaving her live-in love
Happy couples are realistic in thinking about and considering the costs of losing their relationship. First and foremost is the major cost of a broken heart: the emotional, psychological, and physical pain of loss. We know that separation and loss can cause high stress, the depressive spiral, the aches and pains, sleeplessness, appetite problems, loss of motivation, and other negative changes in brain chemistry. Even the immune system goes downhill.
Second, there are the economic and other real costs, including a lower standard of living, division of assets, extra labor, and potential loss of custody or time with the children. Many researchers believe that these exit costs serve as barriers to separation and therefore are major underpinnings of stability. Happy couples can look ahead and assess the harsh realities a breakup would bring. This possible future helps keep them together through the hard times. It also helps them appreciate what they have in each other.
The Fear of Loss
But healthy partners do not stay together simply out of need. They do have the emotional capacity to leave each other, which engenders a healthy respect and creates the reality that loss could really occur. This frightening possibility tends to keep the members on their toes and minimizes verbal and nonverbal abuse. Each person knows that he or she cannot get away with repeated disrespectful, thoughtless, mean, or cold treatment of the other.
How do they deal with an Affair
Oftentimes in healthy couples a partner will use a fear-of-loss maneuver when the other partner steps too far out of line, say, after an affair. At that point the offended person may be on the verge of moving out or starting divorce proceedings. Fear of loss hangs over the emotionally devastated couple like a deadly saber. Nonetheless, the potential for growth at this time in a healthy couple is very high because they are willing to consider the emotional turmoil, depressive disentangling, economic hardships, child-rearing difficulties, and other costs that they will have to pay.
The odds of this being a coming together for the partners are good if they start couples therapy with a therapist who is a knowledgeable sea captain and can guide the couple through the straits and help them avoid the dangerous reefs. As they heal, the unfaithful partner becomes contrite, cuts off the other relationship, and makes it up to the Beloved. The Beloved expresses anger but over time accepts reparations that have symbolic meaning. This often leads to a rekindled relationship, which has grown out of the Habit of Considering the Cost of Loss.
• When a friend, family member, or your man does something that offends you, where you might normally distance or cut off from the relationship, consider the cost of losing this person. How would you feel? What would your life be like without him or her in it? What would you miss? How valuable are these things to you?
• If you have had the experience of losing a relationship that had a lot of good aspects, what do you wish you had said to yourself about the cost of loss before it ended?
THE HABIT OF SHOWING APPRECIATION AND GRATITUDE
He who is in love is wise and becoming wiser, sees newly every time he looks at the object beloved, drawing from it with his eyes and his mind those virtues which it possesses.—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Because they know that loss can occur, loving and happy couples appreciate and are grateful for each other. Each partner appreciates who the Beloved is, who he or she can be—that is, the Beloved’s Diamond Self—and what is received from the Beloved. Both live in a state of gratitude. This habit leads to great personal and shared happiness in the couple.
In happy couples, the partners tend to see each other’s positive qualities rather than their negative ones. Everyone has flaws; there is no perfect person. In the practice of this habit of loving, the partner’s flaws are not the focus. Instead of grimacing about her husband’s flabby paunch and being grumpy about his snoring, a happy wife sees a sandy-haired hunk getting into her bed. Instead of zoning in on his wife’s cellulite and complaining about her failed MLM business, a happy husband sees a warm, funny vixen who lights up his life.
Positive Paranoia and Gratitude
Healthy, happy couples live most of the time in a state of Positive Paranoia. They give their partners the benefit of the doubt when they do something that is disappointing or hurtful. They often see good or simply uninformed intentions underlying what their partners do or say instead of mean-spirited criticism, rejection, or attack. In contrast, in unhappy couples, the partners can never win. Even when one spouse tries to be nice, he or she is greeted with negative paranoia; the other spouse is suspicious about underlying intentions and thinks that the loving act is simply a setup to be disappointed and hurt once again. This makes it hard and, at the very end, almost impossible to simply take in a love gesture. There are few such barriers for happy couples.
Happy couples are naturally focused on blessings and feel grateful in their relationship. As you now know, research clearly shows that appreciation and gratitude lead to happiness. Daily counting of one’s blessings leads to less depression and a more elevated mood and joy. For example, a “gratitude visit,” is where you write a letter of thanks to a person who has helped you and then go to them and read it. Members of a healthy couple are continuously making gratitude mini-visits to each other in verbal or written form. They express thanks, give each other appreciative, gratitude-based gifts, and exchange loving e-mails, notes, and cards.
The Habit of Showing Appreciation
Showing Appreciation and Gratitude is critically important. When you are in a state of appreciation and happier in general, it is a lot easier to make your partner happy. Conversely, when you are depressed, worried, or busy counting your misfortunes, it is next to impossible to create happiness in your relationship.
This Living Love Habit also lays the foundation for Care-Full Communication.
• Make it a point to notice and appreciate all the wonderful qualities, large and small, that your family members and friends have. Practice telling them about it. Notice how they respond.
• Be truly appreciative of your partner. Be sure to thank him for outings, gifts, or helpfulness.
• With problematic people, polish up your Positive Paranoia skills. When someone seems unsupportive, negative, or ignores you, think thoughts like, I bet Mom is proud of my music gig even though she hasn’t called. Or My boss wants to help me succeed, even though he’s critical. See how that changes your relationship with these difficult people. You can tip the scales to the plus side and reap more positives from them by changing the focus of your own outlook.
THE HABIT OF PRACTICING CARE-FULL COMMUNICATION
Mend your speech a little,
Lest you may mar your fortunes.
This is the habit of caring and positive verbal and nonverbal communication. Psychologist John Gottman, PhD, a leading love researcher, found that happy couples, no matter what their communication style is, show a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative interactions. That is, they are very kind to each other and their words and actions are full of care. Some loving couples have an even higher ratio of positive to negative strokes, like ten to one! Politeness, affection, humor, benevolence, praise, and niceness count—big time. When there are disagreements, the partners agree to talk about them, appreciate each other’s point of view, and may agree to disagree.
How Happy Couples Listen
Listening and paying attention are linchpins here. Happy couples listen and know each other’s fears, problems, wishes, and dreams. When I did couples therapy, a simple prescription for daily ten-minute listening sessions, where one spouse played therapist by just listening with full attention and reflecting back what the other was saying, could remake a failing marriage.
Positive Shaping Talk and Fighting
Positive Shaping Talk is the other side of the Habit of Practicing Care-Full Communication. The spouses warmly and clearly explain what they want and need so that they help each other win, and come through for each other. Gottman calls this having a “soft start-up,” where, instead of accusing or complaining, you simply tell your partner what you need and give him or her a way to succeed with you. “Honey, I need attention,” and “Sweetheart, I would really love it if you rubbed my back,” are the kind of requests that can work miracles.
Happy couples do fight
Fighting is an important way to air anger and be authentic. However, they return to and maintain a more kind and loving way of relating most of the time. Their pattern is a mirror image of the heart-rending dance that is characteristic of a couple that is dying. Partners on the verge of breaking up live in a cascade of criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt that color almost all of their interactions. They feel caught in a whirlpool of anger, insults, disinterest, dismissal, eye-rolling, and undermining. This downward-spiraling pattern leads to the hopelessness, loneliness, and lack of intimacy that in the end kill off love.
In contrast, happy couples work to avoid nitpicking, harsh judgments, belittling, abusing, or freezing each other out. When such incidents occur, they repair them as soon as they can. In great measure, loving couples speak and act out of honor, respect, and appreciation; they speak as the best of best friends.
• Notice how you communicate with friends, family members, and the guys you are dating. How many positive interactions do you have for each negative one?
• Notice whether you tend to be negative, pessimistic, critical, defensive, or withholding of positive prizing statements or gestures.
• Examine how you act with your parents or stepparents. Oftentimes we can be quite unconsciously (or consciously) negative with parents or stepparents.
• Go into Care-Full Communication mode: practice listening to people with your full, undivided attention.
• Try giving people five positives for every negative comment and see what happens.
THE HABIT OF FOLLOWING FIGHT CLUB RULES
Beware of entrance to a quarrel.
All couples belong to what I call the Fight Club because they all fight. Couples who don’t fight are the ones therapists worry most about. In fact, couples who do not fight have double the mortality rate of those who do. Loving couples air their differences, but they follow certain rules. And that’s to ensure that their disagreement does not turn into World War III with mutual assured destruction.
Fight Club Rule #1: Anger and Criticism Do Not Take Over
Anger and criticism lead to “flooding,” a stress explosion in which the heart beats more rapidly, blood pressure soars, and adrenaline surges. The whole body tenses up as fear, confusion, and then more anger take over. Reason goes out the window. In experimental studies of conflict, even when couples are asked to calm down, men simply aren’t able to, while women can. Biologically speaking, men are wired to react more quickly and for a longer time period, probably for vigilance and safety reasons.
So that’s why it’s best to start an interaction that could become a fight in a soft, sweet, or affectionate way with Positive Shaping Talk. While a man can often be triggered by mere criticism, it usually takes contempt or strong denigration to flood a woman. Happy couples tend to avoid flooding and practice Positive Shaping Talk with each other. They keep anger and upset levels down. If anger swirls out of control, they may use breathing, time out, humor, or other Fight Club Rules to defuse the situation.
Fight Club Rule #2: Agree to Disagree
A healthy couple agrees to disagree, discussing differences with respect and self-control. They often show each other that they understand the other’s point of view. The partners realize that ultimately, they both want the same thing: closeness and a sense of shared love. If they feel heard and understood, like their opinion matters, they can often let go of the issue, back down, and reenter an intimate connection. In loving couples, who is right and who is wrong matters much less. In fact, these couples operate out of a fundamental paradox: “I accept you as you are,” on the one hand, and, on the other, “Now will you please change.” This paradox is so well known that it became the title of a long-running off-Broadway show, written by a long-term couple, called I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.
Fight Club Rule #3: End Conflict in a Win-Win Way
There are several ways you can help end conflict on a positive note. I have often used the Take Two technique with couples, where either of them was able to call out “Take Two” when a fight erupted. And they would start their “scene” all over again, but from a loving place. Couples do this naturally when one of them says something like, “Can we talk about this in a different way?” Or perhaps one partner affectionately teases or soothes the other who is in the midst of flooding and the fight is over then and there. Or they might compromise. The couple may follow a rule, like, Don’t let the sun rise on your wrath. Of course, one key to ending a fight is that a partner realizes he or she is wrong, apologizes, and/or makes it up to the Beloved.
How Happy Couples End A Fight
In general, healthy couples fight, but their fighting is less out of control. Often, it ends on a sweet note that carries them back to intimacy. Here is how Gina, a therapist, herself and client of our program, describes following Fight Club Rules with her husband:
He gets so wounded and growls a lot if he thinks I am criticizing him. So I usually bring stuff up when we are lying in bed, feeling close, with our feet touching. It’s funny, but doing it this way means we fight a whole lot less.
• Notice whom you fight with. Maybe it is siblings. Maybe other family members or certain friends.
• Practice doing whatever it takes to come out of your anger and create a dialogue. In the midst of a disagreement, take a break, breathe, soothe or calm yourself. Try on the other person’s point of view. Ask yourself honestly whether you need to back down or make an apology to this person. When you are fighting, which is more important—being right, or being close?
• If the other person gets flooded with anger, practice using humor or giving him or her space. If possible, soothe him in some way so that he can calm down.
THE HABIT OF COLLABORATING AS TEAMMATES
Partners in a loving relationship recognize that they are co-managers of their life together. They cooperate and team together with mutual support, respect, affection, and emotional connection. And this habit of effectively teaming and coordinating activities is a key factor in their happiness. Each partner takes into account the other’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions before making a major decision. In other words, there is shared power where both members of the couple influence each other.
There is also a fair distribution of household chores, child care, and management of the couple’s intimacy. Studies show that men who do housework are more likely to be healthier and have more sex. This is because they have better relationships with their partners: women love this type of gender-stereotype-bending support and teaming.
In happy couples, teamwork actually gets better and better over time. The partners work out any issues of control or needing to be right. Instead, they come to realize that when they team together, they meet their goals more easily and successfully. They come to know, respect, honor, and use each other’s strengths and gifts. These couples make their dreams come true on the home front, with the children, and in their careers.
• When you plan outings, dates, or vacations share your thoughts and opinions about the experience and ask for theirs.
• If you tend to be the one running the show, practice stepping back. If you tend to be more passive, practice taking a leadership role.
• Research shows that even if you love each other, poor teamwork could prevent you from being fully happy.
The Eight Habits of Happy Couples: Exercises
Choose from among the following suggestions, according to your own intuition.
Total Time for completing all of them Total Time: 30 Minutes.
EXERCISE 1: SELF-PRACTICE
Look through the habits once more. Now think about practicing them toward yourself via your own self-talk and actions. Almost all of them can be adapted this way. Happy couples automatically do this through the Habit of Acting from Enlightened Selfishness. Imagine new levels of: cultivating intimacy or considering what you might lose if you give in to an addiction. Or appreciate and talk sweetly to yourself. For instance, soothe and calm yourself when your temper flares. Remember, the outer world of relationships comes to mirror the inner world of the self.
EXERCISE 2: WHICH HABITS ARE MOST CHALLENGING?
Reread each of the eight habits. Notice any negative thoughts or pessimistic feelings about implementing them in your life. Write these down in your journal.
EXERCISE 3: YOUR SKILL-BUILDING AFFIRMATIONS
Make a list of affirmations that counter your negative self-talk and any other problematic beliefs. For example, if intimacy sounds scary, you could create an affirmation like, I open to the experience of intimacy. If your temper tends to explode and take over, create an affirmation like, Anger means I need to breathe.
EXERCISE 4: LETTER OF GRATITUDE TO YOURSELF
In your journal write a letter of appreciation and gratitude to yourself for all the growth you have accomplished.
EXERCISE 5: LETTER OF GRATITUDE TO YOUR BELOVED
Write a letter of appreciation to a perfectly loving partner, as if he were partnered with you right now. Here is an excerpt from Dawn’s letter, which reflected the guy she met and married after she wrote it:
To my Beloved,
You are a gift from God, the man I have been waiting for all my life. Thank you for loving me and accepting me as I am. For always finding the humorous side in me and caring about how I feel. Thank you for reassuring me that you are there for me, that you appreciate and adore me; that I am beautiful and amazing. For supporting me in my work, being real with me and encouraging me to grow. Thank you for making our relationship the first and top priority.
Your loving partner and wife,
Remember, happy couples are not practicing the habits all the time, just most of the time. And they hone their skills and get more and more competent at loving as the years go by. I just met an affectionate couple from Belgium who have been married for fifty years. When I asked what their secret was, the wife smiled and charmingly answered, “Laugh, say, and do love every day.”
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