A while back I wrote a post titled 6 Signs You’re in a Toxic Relationship. In the months since I published it, the article has attracted a ton of comments—and you know it’s hit a nerve when big, grown-up websites who get paid to post smart grown-up things ask if they can copy/paste it, ostensibly to make a bunch of advertising money off people acting like assholes in their comment sections.
(I know, I’m such a sellout.)
But I think it’s helped a lot of people. Since writing it, I’ve received a staggering number of thank you emails, and around two dozen people told me that it had inspired them to end a relationship (or even in a few cases, a marriage). It seems it served as a kind of wake-up call to finally let go and accept that sometimes, relationships can gag you with a shit-spoon.
(So, I guess I’m a home-wrecker and a sellout. Sweet.)
But along with the praise, I also received a ton of questions like, “So if these habits ruin a relationship, what habits create a happy and healthy relationship?” and “Where’s an article on what makes a relationship great?” and “Mark, how did you get so handsome?”
These are important questions. And they deserve answers.
Granted, in my younger years I had far more experience screwing up relationships than making them work well, but in the years since I’ve started to get it more right than wrong (yes, Fernanda???), so I didn’t want to just write yet another “learn to communicate and cuddle and watch sunsets and play with puppies together” type post. Honestly, those posts suck. If you love your partner, you shouldn’t have to be told to hold hands and watch sunsets together—it should be automatic.
I wanted to write something different. I wanted to write about issues that are important in relationships but are harder to face—things like the role of fighting, hurting each other’s feelings, dealing with dissatisfaction, or feeling the occasional attraction for other people. These are normal, everyday relationship issues that don’t get talked about because it’s far easier to talk about puppies and sunsets.
And so, I wrote this, that first article’s bizarro twin brother. That article explained that many of our culture’s tacitly accepted relationship habits secretly erode intimacy, trust, and happiness. This article explains how traits that don’t fit our traditional narrative for what love is and what love should be are actually necessary ingredients for lasting relationship success.
Letting Some Conflicts Go Unresolved
There’s this guy by the name of John Gottman—he’s like the Michael Jordan of relationship research. Not only has he been studying intimate relationships for more than forty years, but he practically invented the field.
Gottman devised the process of “thin-slicing” relationships, a technique where he hooks couples up to a series of biometric devices and then records them having short conversations. Gottman then goes back and analyzes the conversation frame by frame, looking at biometric data, body language, tonality, and specific words chosen. He then combines all of this data together to predict whether your marriage sucks or not.
His “thin-slicing” process boasts a staggering 91% success rate in predicting whether newly-wed couples will divorce within 10 years—a staggeringly high result for any psychological research (Malcolm Gladwell discusses Gottman’s findings in his bestselling book, Blink.) Gottman’s seminars also report a 50% higher success rate of saving troubled marriages than traditional marriage counseling. His research papers have won enough academic awards to fill the state of Delaware. And he’s written nine books on the subjects of intimate relationships, marital therapy, and the science of trust.
The point is, when it comes to understanding what makes long-term relationships succeed, John Gottman will slam-dunk in your face and then sneer at you afterwards.
And the first thing Gottman says in almost all of his books is:
The idea that couples must communicate and resolve all of their problems is a myth.
In his research of thousands of happily married couples, some of whom have been married for forty plus years, he repeatedly found that most successful couples have persistent unresolved issues, issues that they’ve sometimes been fighting about for decades. Meanwhile, many of the unsuccessful couples insisted on resolving fucking everything because they believed that there should never be a disagreement between them. Pretty soon there was a void of a relationship, too.
Successful couples accept and understand that some conflict is inevitable, that there will always be certain things they don’t like about their partner, or things they don’t agree with—all that’s fine. You shouldn’t need to feel the need to change somebody in order to love them. And you shouldn’t let some disagreements get in the way of what is otherwise a happy and healthy relationship.
Sometimes, trying to resolve a conflict can create more problems than it fixes. Some battles are simply not worth fighting. And sometimes, the most optimal relationship strategy is one of live and let live.
Being Willing to Hurt Each Other’s Feelings
My wife spends a lot of time in front of the mirror because she cares about how she looks. Nights before we go out, she often comes out of the bathroom after an hour-long makeup/hair/clothes/whatever-women-do-in-there session and asks me how she looks. She’s usually gorgeous, but every once in a while she tries to do something new with her hair or is wearing a pair of boots that some flamboyant fashion designer from Milan thought were avant-garde. And it just doesn’t work.
When I tell her this, she usually gets pissed off. And as she marches back into the closet to redo everything and make us 30 minutes late, she spouts a bunch of four-letter words (fortunately, they’re in Portuguese) and sometimes even slings a few of them at me.
Men often lie in this situation to make their girlfriends/wives happy. But I don’t. Why? Because honesty in my relationship is more important to me than feeling good all of the time. The last person I should ever have to censor myself with is the woman I love.
Fortunately, I am married to a woman who agrees that we should always be honest. She calls me out on my bullshit sometimes, and it’s one of the most important traits she offers me as a partner. Sure, my ego gets bruised and I bitch and complain and try to argue, but a few hours later I usually come sulking back and admit that she was right and holy crap she makes me a better person even though I hated hearing her truth-telling at the time.
When our highest priority is to always make ourselves feel good, or to always make our partner feel good, then more often than not nobody ends up feeling good. And our relationships fall apart without us even knowing it.
It’s important to make something more important in your relationship than merely making each other feel good all of the time. The feeling-good—the sunsets and puppies—they happen when you get the important stuff figured out: values, needs and trust.
If I feel smothered and want more time alone, I need to be capable of saying that without blaming her and she needs to be capable of hearing it without blaming me, despite the unpleasant feelings it may cause. If she feels that I’m cold and unresponsive to her, she needs to be capable of saying it without blaming me and I need to be capable of hearing it without blaming her, despite the unpleasant feelings it may generate.
These conversations are crucial if we want we maintain a healthy relationship, one that meets both people’s needs. Without them, we lose track of one another.
Being Willing to End It
Romantic sacrifice is idealized in our culture. Show me almost any movie with romance at its center and it’s bound to feature a desperate and needy character who treats themselves like dog shit for the sake of being in love with someone.
The truth is our standards for what a “successful relationship” should be are pretty screwed up. If a relationship ends and someone’s not dead, then we view it as a failure, regardless of the emotional or practical circumstances present in the person’s lives. And that’s kind of insane.
Romeo and Juliet was originally written as satire to represent everything that’s wrong with young, romantic love and how irrational beliefs about relationships can make you do stupid shit like drink poison because your parents don’t like some girl’s parents.
But somehow, we’ve come to think of the play as a romance. It’s this kind of irrational idealization that leads people to stay with partners who treat them like shit, to give up on their own needs and identities, to make themselves into martyrs who are perpetually miserable, to suppress their own pain and suffering in the name of maintaining a relationship “until death do us part.”
Sometimes the only thing that can make a relationship successful is ending it at the necessary time, before it becomes too damaging. And the willingness to do that allows us to establish the necessary boundaries to help ourselves and our partner grow together.
Shoot myself to love you; if I loved myself I’d be shooting you.
“Until death do us part” is romantic and everything, but when we worship our relationship as something more important than ourselves—more important than our values, than our needs and everything else in our lives—we create a sick dynamic where there’s no accountability.
We have no reason to work on ourselves and grow because our partner has to be there no matter what. And our partner has no reason to work on themselves and grow because we’re going to be there no matter what. This all invites stagnation and stagnation equals misery.
Feeling Attraction for People Outside the Relationship
One of the mental tyrannies we face in a non-honest relationship is the situation where any mildly emotional or sexual thought not involving your partner amounts to high treason.
As much as we’d like to believe that we only have eyes for our partner, biology says otherwise. Once we get past the honeymoon phase of starry eyes and oxytocin, the novelty of our partner can wear off a bit. And unfortunately, human sexuality is partially wired around novelty. I get emails all the time from people in happy marriages/relationships who get blindsided by finding someone else attractive and they feel like horrible people because of it. But the truth is, not only are we capable of finding multiple people attractive and interesting at the same time, it’s a biological inevitability.
What isn’t an inevitability is our decision to act on the attraction or not. Most of us, most of the time, choose to not act on those feelings. And like waves, they pass through us and leave us with our partner very much the same way they found us.
This triggers a lot of guilt in some people and a lot of irrational jealousy in others. Our cultural scripts tell us that once we’re in love, that’s supposed to be the end of the story. And if someone flirts with us and we enjoy it, or if we catch ourselves having an occasional errant sexy-time fantasy, there must be something wrong with us or our relationship.
But that’s simply not the case. In fact, it’s healthier to allow oneself to experience these feelings and then let them go.
When you suppress these feelings, you give them power over you, you let them dictate your behavior for you (suppression) rather than dictating your behavior for yourself (via feeling them and yet choosing not to do anything).
People who suppress these urges are often the ones who eventually succumb to them and suddenly find themselves screwing the secretary in the broom closet and having no idea how they got there and come to deeply regret it about twenty-two seconds later.
People who suppress these urges are often the ones who project them onto their partner and become blindingly jealous, attempting to control their partner’s every thought, corralling all of their partner’s attention and affection onto themselves.
People who suppress these urges are often the ones who wake up one day disgruntled and frustrated with no conscious understanding of why, wondering where all of the days went and saying things like, “remember how in love we used to be??
Looking at attractive people is pleasurable. Speaking to attractive people is pleasurable. Thinking about attractive people is pleasurable. That’s not going to change because of our Facebook relationship status. And when you dampen these impulses towards other people, you dampen them towards your partner as well. You’re killing a part of yourself, and it ultimately only comes back to harm your relationship.
When I meet a beautiful woman now, I enjoy it, as any man would. But it also reminds me why, out of all of the beautiful women I’ve ever met and dated, I chose to be with my wife. I see in the attractive women everything my wife has and most women lack.
And while I appreciate the attention or even flirtation, the experience only strengthens my commitment. Attractiveness is everywhere. Real intimacy is not.
When we commit to a person, we are not committing our thoughts, feelings or perceptions to them. We can’t control our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions most of the time, so how could we ever make that commitment?
What we can control are our actions. And what we commit to that special person are those actions. Let everything else come and go, as it inevitably will.
Spending Time Apart
We all have that friend who mysteriously ceased to exist as soon as they got into their relationship. You see it all the time: the man who meets someone and stops playing basketball and hanging out with his friends, or the woman who suddenly decides she loves every comic book and video game her partner likes even though she doesn’t know how to correctly hold the XBox controller. And it’s troubling, not just for us but for them.
(Side note: if either of those sounds like you or someone you know, it might be a good idea to get a handle on your attachment style.)
When we fall in love we develop irrational beliefs and desires. One of these desires is to allow our lives to be consumed by the person with whom we’re infatuated. This feels great—it’s intoxicating in much of the same way cocaine is intoxicating (no, really). The problem only arises when this desire becomes reality.
The problem with allowing your identity to be consumed by a romantic relationship is that as you change to be closer to the person you love, you cease to be the person they fell in love with in the first place.
It’s important to occasionally get some distance from your partner, assert your independence, maintain some hobbies or interests that are yours alone. Have some separate friends; take an occasional trip somewhere by yourself; remember what made you you and what drew you to your partner in the first place.
Without this oxygen to breathe, the fire between the two of you will die out and what were once sparks will become only friction.
Accepting Your Partner’s Flaws
In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera says there are two types of womanizers: 1) men who are looking for the perfect woman and can never find her, and 2) men who convince themselves that every woman they meet is already perfect.
I love this observation and believe it applies to not just womanizers, but just about anyone who consistently finds themselves in dysfunctional relationships. They either try to make their partner be perfect by “fixing” them or changing them, or they delude themselves into thinking that their partner is already perfect.
This is one of those things that is not nearly as complicated as it appears. Let’s break it down:
- Every person has flaws and imperfections.
- You can’t ever force a person to change.
- Therefore: You must date somebody who has flaws you can live with or even appreciate.
The most accurate metric for your love of somebody is how you feel about their flaws. If you accept them and even adore some of their shortcomings—her obsessive cleanliness, his awkward social ticks—and they can accept and even adore some of your shortcomings, well, that’s a sign of true intimacy.
One of the best (and earliest!) expressions of this idea came from Plato in the form of a myth. In his Symposium, Plato wrote that humans were originally androgynous and whole. They felt no lack, no uncertainty, and they were powerful, so powerful that they rose up and challenged the gods themselves.
This posed a problem for the gods. They didn’t want to completely wipe out the human race as they’d have no one to rule over, but they also had to do something to humble and distract humanity.
So, Zeus split each human into two, a man and a woman (or a man and a man, or a woman and a woman) and doomed them to spend their brief mortal existence wandering the world looking for their other half, the half that would make them feel whole and powerful again. And this wholeness would come not from two perfections meeting, but two imperfections meeting, two imperfections that both complemented and compensated for one another’s shortcomings.
The artist Alex Grey once said that, “True love is when two people’s pathologies complement one another’s.” Love is, by definition, crazy and irrational. And the best love works when our irrationalities complement one another, and our flaws enamor one another.
It may be our perfections that attract one another in the first place. But it’s our imperfections that decide whether or not we stay together.