Here’s some good news for a change! There is now scientific research actually supporting the notion that long, happy marriages are possible – and occurring.
Humans are born to love, but because of the escalating divorce rate in our society, we have become cynical. The assumption has been that long-term love, while desirable, is unrealistic and hence next to impossible to obtain, not to mention lasting for decades. The news media and entertainment industries don’t focus on good, high-quality relationships, but love can and does last. We are wired to do this, to be monogamous.
Published research in the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Journal found that specific brainwave activity in couples who had been married an average of 21 years was similar to people who had recently fallen in love. Proven with brain MRIs, both groups revealed high activity in the reward and motivation centers of the brain, suggesting that not only can we love for long periods of time, but we can stay in love with our long-time partners.
Sustained romantic love has cognitive rewards, including “the reduction of anxiety and stress, feelings of security, a state of calmness, and a union with another,” stated Adoree Durayappah, psychological researcher, in Psychology Today. There’s no surprise then that our lifespan is longer if we’re in a (loving) relationship!
Another study conducted by the University of Geneva came to the interesting conclusion that only one personality trait predicted long-term romantic passion: “love blindness.” At first, it’s easy to worship the ground your lover walks on. But, as we become familiar with their habits and other traits, holding the same high opinion can be difficult. Being able to maintain positive illusions about your partner, despite knowing all their negative attributes, helps couples remain happy with each other over time.
Other research has shown that if a potential partner has every single desired quality you’d want in a mate, with the exception of being in love, we are not inclined to marry them (91% of women and 86% of men would not marry if not in love).
In summary, some good points to remember include:
1. It is advisable to maintain a sense of awe about your partner, and focus on the positive traits, instead of the little things that bother you.
2. Keep your relationship fresh and interesting by trying new things together, and by going to new places. Self-expanding activities will make life more enjoyable for both of you over the long term.
3. Maintain some individual independence in order to avoid suffocating or stifling each other. There is no neediness or caretaking in desire. Watching your partner do something he or she excels at can definitely add to the spark and mystery. Encouraging and sharing in each other’s success (and failures) increases intimacy and keeps you connected.
4. Having a passion for life in general will carry over into your relationships, and can help sustain them in the long run.
5. Try to think of your marriage as a life journey together, and use this intimate partnership as your vehicle for self-fulfillment.
Our generation actually has a better chance of finding, and keeping, long-term love than couples in the past. Research today also supports this theory, finding today’s long-term marriages to be stronger and happier, compared to those years ago.
Perhaps the social mores of past generations, as well as gender role expectations, kept relationships intact, but today’s marriages are about more than meeting basic needs for survival. We want them to be satisfying and contribute to our personal sense of well-being and fulfillment. However, maintaining a long-term passionate relationship still requires a sufficient time and energy commitment by both partners to live happily ever after.
Let’s face it. In some circles, couples counseling has had a bad rap. Some believe that it is not worthwhile and rarely leads to a positive outcome. Others may have heard of someone who didn’t have a good experience. Couples counseling skeptics, who end up giving it a shot anyway, will unfortunately face the cruel irony that they are unlikely to have a successful outcome in couples counseling. The worst part is that they mostly have themselves to blame. Attitude affects everything, including therapeutic outcomes.
In their book The Heart & Soul of Change: What Works in Therapy, Mark A. Hubble, Barry L. Duncan, and Scott D. Miller examined what factors matter the most in determining therapeutic success or failure. They concluded that there are four factors which determine therapeutic success. Of these four, their research concluded that “client factors,” impact therapeutic outcome the most! So what are “client factors”? Client factors can be thought of as what the client brings with them into the therapy office. This includes their attitudes (about themselves, their partner, their therapist, etc.), beliefs (about couples counseling), and even the amount of social support that they have in their lives.
Interestingly, at the bottom of the list of most impactful factors is the specific therapeutic technique, or approach, a therapist uses in therapy. The second most influential factor is the relationship between therapist and client, which illustrates the importance of finding a good match in counseling.
The bottom line, however, is that while your marriage counselor plays an invaluable role with his or her guidance, observations and suggestions, how hard you work with, and implement the tools and suggestions offered in couples counseling, is far more influential than the actual tools or techniques presented to you.
This research is in fact very consistent with my experience in working with couples: Those who are motivated, have at least some hope, and work hard on improving their relationship, do in fact have the most successful outcomes! One other very important factor (not part of the above research) influencing the success of couples counseling is how long a couple has endured an unsatisfying relationship before seeking help. The longer a couple waits to come in for couples counseling (research suggest the average duration is six years), the more likely at least one partner is short on hope or motivation in working on the relationship.
If a client isn’t persistent in working with their partner or therapist in marriage counseling, it may be telling of their attitude toward the relationship in general.
Unfortunately, couples are too often looking for (or even expecting) a quick fix. When that magical fix inevitably isn’t realized, sometimes one partner will give up and stop coming to the counseling sessions, saying it didn’t work. Another pitfall that leads to a less-than-successful outcome is when one or both partners experience a mild improvement in their relationship, and end couples counseling prematurely, before some of the deeper issues are explored and worked through. For the vast majority of couples, attending couples counseling for less than 8 to 10 sessions is not going lead to lasting positive change in their relationship.
Here are five recommendations to improve the likelihood of a successful outcome:
1. Realistic expectations are needed. Five years of resentment won’t disappear in a few sessions. The longer issues have been festering, the more time it will take to resolve them.
2. Look inward. Start by first focusing on yourself, instead of automatically blaming your partner. Follow the Mahatma Gandhi quote, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world [or in your relationship!].”
3. Be persistent and continue to hold out hope. There really is no substitute for persistence and hard work.
4. Don’t wait — as soon as you recognize things could be improved between you and your partner, get the help your relationship deserves!
5. There is no magic wand. Working hard, both inside and outside of the therapy office, is what makes a big difference in a successful outcome.
So, clearly getting the most out of couples counseling depends largely on what each partner brings into the therapy sessions. It’s the therapist’s responsibility to point out unrealistic expectations, but ultimately, they can only provide the tools and the roadmap for success. It’s up to the couple themselves to use them, work hard and follow the necessary steps to improve their relationship.
Dr. John Gottman, researcher and cofounder of the Gottman Institute, has found through his research that most couples are unhappy for years before addressing their relationship issues. This long delay is not only harmful to the relationship, in many cases it can seriously jeopardize its survival as well. Longstanding problems, mixed with years of resentment, is a recipe that unfortunately spells doom to many relationships. When couples seek assistance from a couples counselor as a last resort, it often occurs too late to repair the damage.
Most couples can benefit from couples counseling. This is true even when issues are minor. However, longstanding, entrenched conflicts may require more intense work, as often at least one partner’s motivation may be compromised. Identifying problems and seeking therapeutic support early on can make a huge difference. By learning to recognize potential red flags, you can stay ahead of the game, and keep major relationship difficulties from developing.
Early Warning Signs of Relationship Trouble
- You’re feeling more like roommates than soul mates. Couples can feel disconnected for many reasons. It’s important to figure out why, and realize it might be a sign that there could be deeper issues lurking below the surface.
- Lack of passion or interest in sex; loss of libido. While it’s possible some couples might be happy with an inactive sex life, there are usually other relationship issues contributing to the situation. If your sex life isn’t a priority, reasons should be investigated.
- You’ve drifted apart, living parallel lives and have few shared activities. Why is there a lack of effort put into finding activities you’d both enjoy?
- Frequent conflict over little things. Or you keep having the same argument over and over again without being able to communicate and resolve the issue. Often in this scenario, there’s a power struggle or underlying resentment going on. Or, the real problem may just be too scary to deal with and thus it stays buried, negatively manifesting in other ways.
- Anger. If one partner is angry in general or seems easily frustrated, it can reflect problems in the relationship. These emotional outbursts might also be reflective of an individual problem, but couples counseling could still be beneficial.
- Men who frequently text their intimate partner (connected to hurting their partner in the process) may indicate a relationship problem. According to recent research, there is a negative association between men texting their intimate partners and their relationship satisfaction. The study, conducted by Brigham Young University, has found that the more men text within the relationship, the more unhappy they are.
- If major decisions are avoided and never made (perhaps about getting married, having children or moving), couples counseling could help resolve the impasse.
- Financial disagreement is a huge issue among couples, and deserves its own category. A couples counselor can help you work through this difficult conflict area.
- If one partner is controlling and refuses to compromise in order to resolve conflict, bigger problems are likely ahead.
- Major life transitions such as a death in the family, birth of a new baby, dealing with a long-distance relationship, or having your mother-in-law move in, will require major adjustments. Make sure you and your partner are on the same page. Plan ahead and work out a strategy to manage the transition with a couples therapist.
- If you and your significant other have stopped reaching out to one another, or quit making repair attempts (What’s a repair attempt? Look here) after a disagreement or conflict, this is another red flag that indicates your relationship needs attention.
- Infidelity or trust issues usually require supportive couples counseling. Most couples can’t navigate these serious problems on their own. If one partner is even contemplating an affair, counseling can help. One warning sign to watch for is the inclination to seek emotional support outside the relationship with the opposite sex (or with the same sex in homosexual relationships).
Even if you don’t identify with any of the above 12 warning signs, it’s a good idea to have a “tune up” counseling session from time to time, to make sure you and your partner are maximizing the quality of your relationship. If these warning signs uncover areas in your relationship that need to be addressed, don’t wait. Take action now to make your future together as fulfilling as possible!
An interesting study recently conducted by the University of Rochester, and discussed in The New York Times, found that “sappy relationship movies made in Hollywood can actually help strengthen relationships in the real world.”
This finding came as a surprise even to the researchers, especially since their intended purpose was to evaluate two different types of therapist-led counseling interventions (one focused on acceptance & empathy in a relationship, and the other on a specific communication style for discussing issues). Along with comparison to a control group, they wanted a fourth option that allowed couple interaction, but didn’t involve any counseling intervention. Thus, the movie group was born, where couples were assigned to not only watch movies, but to also have a guided discussion about the movies afterward.
The research revealed that couples who viewed these “chick flicks,” and discussed the issues raised in the movie, were less likely to separate or divorce than couples in the control group. The unexpected discovery, however, was that watching and discussing these movies was as effective as the two therapist-led counseling interventions!
Researchers stated that although this is a preliminary study, it could prove to have some important implications for couples counseling techniques. “Movie interventions” could be a good alternative for couples resistant to counseling, or who live in remote areas where therapists are not readily available. In addition, it may prove helpful for couples who are already in counseling. They may find it valuable to watch and discuss certain movies together.
So, is watching “chick flick” movies as therapeutic as couples counseling? Highly unlikely! But, if a couple is relatively stable, these movie intervention could serve as the ice breaker to bring difficult topics out in the open in a non-threatening way. However, it’s important to remember that many relationship issues are just too overwhelming for the average couple to handle alone. While it may enhance the relationship for some couples who aren’t in significant distress, it won’t be the answer for those relationships that are struggling with more serious problems such as infidelity, sex-life problems, financial disagreements, or communication issues. Simply watching and discussing a movie would likely not improve relationships experiencing these serious and unresolved difficulties.
On the positive side, watching relationship-oriented movies together could beneficially serve as a conversation starter on issues couples wouldn’t normally talk about. If both partners actively participated in the guided discussions after, and assessed their own situation relative to problems brought up in the movie, this could potentially strengthen their relationship, but is not a substitute for couples counseling.
As a couples counselor, I can see the benefit of asking couples to watch select movies together as a homework assignment. Sitting together to view “Date Night,” or any movie on the long list provided by the researchers, might be helpful in certain cases, if a couple’s issues were matched with those addressed by a particular movie.
In the end, of course, the success of movie intervention will depend on the couple’s participation. While it would certainly be appealing to be able to say to a couple “go watch and discuss this movie and your issue will resolved,” there is no magic bullet or easy fix. The effort you put into improving your relationship is what matters most, regardless of how you go about it.
As stated by Dr. Ronald Rogge, lead researcher in the study: “… it’s the depth of the discussions that follow each movie, and how much effort and time and introspection couples put into those discussions that will predict how well they do going forward.”
Perhaps the determining factor boils down to this: Would guys rather sit through chick flicks or come to couples counseling? Which would be less painful? While those questions may sound humorous or flippant, they are worth considering. And while it’s interesting to wonder whether some men would rather sit through a “chick-flick” or go to couples counseling, one is not a substitute for the other! Motivation and commitment to do the work, by both partners, are the true ingredients to any successful couples therapy.
Entering into a serious and committed relationship is not something to be taken lightly. It’s important to examine why exactly you’re seeking an intimate commitment, and make sure you’re ready for this life change. Consider whether any of the following “red flag” situations might apply to you. Let them serve as a warning that you might not be ready to proceed and would benefit from working out any issues beforehand. If you are already in the midst of a committed relationship and any of the following warning signs apply to you, it’s in your best interest to not ignore them.
- Reason #1: Desperation. If you want to be in a relationship simply to avoid being single, you run a very high risk of making a poor choice in a partner. When you are operating in a desperate state, it’s not the right time to make a clear-headed decision about your future.
- Reason #2: You’re not necessarily desperate, but you have a sense that you’ll “only be happy when you meet Mr./Ms. Right.” This is another unhealthy scenario, as it represents a lack of feeling complete and at peace with yourself as an individual or single person.
- Reason #3: Repeated relationship failures without working through the reasons why they failed. The lack of successful relationships, especially if similar relationship dynamics recur with multiple partners, is a sign that you really need to understand the issue and yourself, before moving forward or embarking on another relationship.
- Reason #4: Negative childhood history or dysfunctional family background. As mentioned in one of my posts last month, Did You Mary Your Parent, if we have/had a painful relationship with a parent, we often end up re-experiencing this painful dynamic again in an intimate partner, as a desire to try to correct or master the situation. Often this means unconsciously seeking out a partner with traits similar to the parent and reenacting the past for the purpose of working through it. Recreating a dysfunctional relationship of this type is also unhealthy.
- Reason #5: You’re searching for someone to save you. Looking for “your savior” is possibly a component of reasons #2 and #4 above, and another sign you aren’t ready for a lasting adult relationship.
- Reason #6: You’re not over your ex, or on the rebound, without working through the pain and reaching closure.
- Reason #7: If you’re obsessively pursing a relationship, “doing what you think is the right way to meet someone,” but not enjoying the process, it’s time to step back. The courtship dance should not feel like work, but pleasure.
- Reason #8: Ignoring significant feelings of uncertainty about your potential mate. If you’re dating someone and find yourself hesitating about commitment, listen to your gut. To quote Dr. Maya Angelou, “If someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
- Reason #9: Trust issues. Perhaps related to #3 or #4 above, an unfaithful partner in the past, or even witnessing one parent’s infidelity in childhood, may have created feelings of limited trust that need to be worked through before entering a new relationship.
- Reason #10: Dealing with pressing life situations that interfere with your emotional energy (stressful job, school, illness). Resolving the crisis or time/energy drain is a necessary first step, freeing space for a relationship to develop and become a priority.
- Reason #11: If you’re an “accommodator,” or someone who’s there to please the other person without knowing what you want, it could be a red flag. Similar to desperation in #1, this situation will likely result in poor partner decisions.
- Reason #12: Feeling driven to have children — with the biological clock ticking — can result in settling for an unsuitable or unsatisfactory partnership.
Once you’ve worked through any personal issues that might prevent you from obtaining a lasting and healthy relationship, take off the “rose-colored glasses” and be aware of the compatible/incompatible signs of potential mates.
Putting out positive energy is the key to attracting suitable partners. Set the intention in motion by learning to be truly happy and content where you are as an individual. It’s okay to want more and positive vibes can help manifest that. Relationships can happen when you’re not looking, and the best ones will complement — not complete — you.