Successful romantic and social relationships

Surprisingly, while we have a hedonic adaptation to material goods, and need bigger and better houses, cars, and electronic goods to please ourselves, the same is not true for our romantic and social relationships.   Our desire to maintain strong interpersonal bonds does not change, even as we achieve success in these domains. 

The vast majority of Americans will get married (90%) and married individuals report significantly higher levels of life satisfaction than those who are single, divorced, or co-habiting.  Marriage provides many sources of support and stability and provides protection against more difficult times.  Similarly, there seems to be a strong correlation between rising divorce rates and increasing levels of clinical depression over the last few decades.  Marital satisfaction is more important to our overall happiness than satisfaction with our job or finances, and it behooves us then to invest our time and energy into maximizing this vital relationship.   Dr. John Gottman, the leading marital researcher from the University of Washington, has documented that couples whose relationships improve over time spend an extra 5 hours a week working towards this effort.  Some of the vital activities, applicable to unmarried couples as well, include connecting at the beginning and ending of each day, having a date night, expressing affection and admiration towards each other, and reveling in each other’s successes and dreams. While happy and unhappy couples spend similar amounts of time fighting, happy couples are less likely to use criticism, sarcasm, contempt, defensiveness, or disengagement as a means of handling the conflict. 


Not surprisingly, happy people not only excel in their romantic relationships but they are also masterful in maintain strong connections with their families and friends. As with romantic relationships, having a strong support network of family and friends can both increase positive emotion as well as serve a buffer during times of stress or trauma.  There is a bidirectional relationship between friendships and happiness. Those with a number of close friends are likely to be happier, while happier people generally tend to attract more people who are interested in being friends with them.


 It’s not always easy to widen your support circle, especially as an adult with multiple demands on your time.  Joining an organization centered around a hobby/interest that you have is one good way (i.e. volunteering club, religious organization, hiking group, softball team, etc.).   Not only do you need to increase your socialization time in order to make friends, but you must take some risks as well.  For example, striking up a conversation with someone new, asking someone out for coffee or lunch, or initiating a get-together all involve a level of risk as the person on the receiving end may reject your bid for friendship.  However, if the friendship does blossom, the rewards can be substantial.   It is good to do a self-examination to determine whether you are demonstrating the attributes that makes one a good friend.   Good friends are loyal, reliable, trustworthy, and generous with their available resource, be it with their time, emotional support, or material goods.   They frequently express admiration, fondness, and gratitude towards those they are close with.   They are there for their friends through both good and bad times.     


Exercise #1: Dr. Gottman recommends that couples spend an extra 5 hours each week working on improving their relationships.  Here is how he allocates the time

  • 10 minutes should be spent with each other in the morning, finding out what their partners will be doing that day. 
  • When couples return home at the end of the day and reunite, they should spend 20, minutes talking over the events, activities, and stressors they experienced.  Each partner should take turns speaking and actively listening.
  • Every couple should devote 2 hours a week to a fun, date night, where they have a chance to reconnect and bond.
  •  Throughout the week, couples should spend a few minutes each day showing each other physical affection, whether it be through kissing, holding hands, or cuddling. 
  • Couples should also spend several minutes every day, showing admiration and appreciation for their partner’s strengths, positive traits, goals achieved, chores accomplished, etc. 


Have a discussion with your partner about which (if not all) of these activities you believe you can begin doing tomorrow.  Try out the activity or activities for 1-3 weeks and have another discussion about what are the pros/cons of inserting these activities into your lifestyle on a permanent basis.


Exercise #2:  Knowing that your partner admires and values the unique characteristics and traits that you bring to the marriage is vital.  Sit down with your partner and have each of you separately write down five positive adjectives that describes the other and a recent scenario that illustrates and supports your rationale for picking that adjective.  Then, take turns discussing the adjectives you selected for each other and discussing the associated events.  


Exercise #3:  Intimacy is deepened by knowing your partner’s inner and outer world……their goals, aspirations, likes/dislikes, stressors, hobbies, friends, musical taste, etc.    As individuals grow and change over time, it is important to stay connected with what comprises your partner’s world.   Towards this effort, have you and your partner write down 15 questions each, on slips of paper and put them in a jar.  Take turns selecting a slip of paper, and asking your partner the written question.  After you complete this, come up with one activity you can do with your partner to share in something they are passionate about (i.e. listen to a favorite song of theirs together, play a tennis match, meet a new friend from their workplace, etc.)


Example #4:  Take a risk today, either small (starting up a conversation with someone new) or big (asking someone to get-together for a social outing).  Whether or not you enjoy the experience, congratulate yourself for making an attempt to broaden your social circle.  Do this enough times, and you will find someone that you connect with!