Three days a week, I trot up the cement stairs that separate my home from my office. I switch on the kettle and check that the Kleenex box is full. Next, with the ocean reflecting blues and grays on the window, I sit with my palm on my heart and reflect on love and happiness. And then I welcome the first couple of the day.
“He never opens the car door for me anymore,” Desiree gripes. “Yah?” Scott huffs. “Well she says I can’t get a motorbike, and then yells because I don’t feel like some big anniversary party.” She shoots back, “I don’t even know who you are anymore.” And so it begins.
I have the privilege of meeting couple after couple with very different stories. Some are dealing with boredom and emotional disconnect, some with the aftermath of an affair. Some stay together and some break up. But they all have one thing in common—the deep longing to be happy in love.
So what predicts long-term relationship happiness in couples? Take a guess. Do you believe it’s due to personality style, or having a good sex life, or never arguing? If so, you’re wrong. But so are these theories made up by people who are supposed to be love experts, so don’t feel bad.
When a couple is in trouble, it’s usually obvious that their friendship is damaged and their conflict destructive. It’s harder to spot the erosion of shared meaning.
According to the body of research that investigates the actual causes of relationship success, as summarized by the brilliant John Gottman, happy couples show three skills. First, they are great friends—they truly like and are interested in each other. Second, whether they clash frequently or rarely, loudly or quietly, they manage conflict effectively. Third, they share a sense of meaning in their life together. When a couple is in trouble, it’s usually obvious that their friendship is damaged and their conflict destructive. It’s harder to spot the erosion of shared meaning. So let’s explore this third skill.
Shared meaning begins during dating, and over time the couple creates a culture for their relationship through rituals, goals, and dreams.
Rituals of Connection
Habits and rituals create a shared sense of closeness and identity, an oasis of “we” in the desert of “so much to do.” Some rituals are daily, like sending a lunchtime love text, and some are for special events like birthdays. My partner and I have a ritual for unwinding after a challenging workday. We sprawl on the couch and debrief any frustrations and disappointments, and then we take a long steam shower together. (We used to combine the two, but it turns out talking about work when naked feels weird.) Scott and Desiree had a sweet ritual that began when he carefully held the car door open for her on their first date. This made her feel special, and he knew she loved it, so he did it for years. And because they married in a courthouse, they had vowed that every anniversary would be celebrated as a romantic occasion. So now a big part of their marriage therapy is helping them renew old rituals of connection that have lapsed, and create some new happiness habits.
Goals and Dreams
Sharing our history and goals is a natural part of the dating process, and a primary way we create intimacy. Scott had grown up with a strict father who refused to let him get a driver’s license. Desiree knows Scott has saved for a motorbike since his teens and it represents freedom and autonomy to him, but she worries about safety. Whatever the decision on the motorbike, this couple needs to re-learn how to support each other’s goals and dreams.
When rituals fade and dreams are not honored, a couple loses their shared meaning system. They feel lonely and misunderstood. Scott and Desiree, once so happy, now believe they married the wrong person. “You did,” I say, to shocked looks. I then explain that we all chose the wrong person—if we expect that person to make us happy all the time. However, if together we create moments of meaning, rituals of romance, and try to make some of our dreams come true, happiness is available. In fact, it is standing right in front of us.
This article also appeared in the April 2015 issue of Mindful magazine.