What is the key to a happy relationship? The joke goes: “Love. Love and money. Love, money, and a very big boat. Love, money, a very big boat, and a beach house. Love, money, a very big boat, a beach house, and a couple of dogs.”
“But wait a minute—that’s asking for too much.”
“Okay, then. Just money, a very big boat, a beach house, and one dog.”
Now if you ask most people what the key to a happy relationship is, they’ll say love or communication or compromise or having things in common.
These are good things, but the problem with answers like this is that they’re like saying the key to making a great cake is the flour. Yes, the flour is important. But so are a lot of things, and you’d be amazed at what a good chef can accomplish with run-of-the-mill flour.
So there may not even be any one key! Asking about a key may be like asking what is the number that unlocks the combination to the safe. Well, it’s a bunch of numbers, actually.
Still, the search for a key goes on. One study appeared in the October 2020 issue of the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, which I know you all subscribe to. (Because you’d never want to read the Journal of Out-of-Context Behavioral Science.) In the study, they looked at 174 studies involving 44,000 people. They determined that it was something they called “psychological flexibility” that’s most likely to optimize family functioning.
What is “psychological flexibility”? Well, according to the British Psychological Society Research Digest, people who have it are generally open to and accepting of experiences, whether they are good or bad; they try to be mindfully aware of the present moment; they experience difficult thoughts without ruminating on them; they seek to maintain a broader perspective when faced with a challenge; they continue to pursue important goals despite setbacks; and they maintain contact with “deeper values”, no matter how stressful a day might be.
Now you tell me. How would you characterize someone like this? I’d say it was someone who could go with the flow, without losing sight of his or her most important goals. Someone easy-going but not easily driven off the path. Something like that. What do you think?
One thing you need to know is that this study did not look at what causes relationships to function well! It just looks at correlations, things that go along with relationships functioning well. So if you thought that having a partner who was very hard to deal with might make you end up being way less able to show less “psychological flexibility,” you’d be right! It’s very easy to be flexible and relaxed on vacation.
So one thing this study says, then—which is unintentionally hilarious—is that if you’re an easy-going gal in a relationship with an easy-going guy and you share goals, then, gee, I kinda think you two are gonna have a pretty easy time of it!!
And of course, this is why when so many couples fight, the person who’s raising a ruckus hears this: “Why are you making such a big deal about this?” Sure! If I’m easy going enough, you’ll have your way pretty much all the time!!
So what is the key, or keys, to having a well-functioning relationship?
Well, before you get married, please, please, please try to find the sanest, most level-headed, easy-going person you can find. You can’t go wrong there. There are, though, other things you need to look for too, which you’ll find in our book Is He Mr. Right? And you need all of them. At least a good amount of all of them.
But once you two get going, then what do you need?
The first key here is what we call essential maintenance. This is chapter two in our book Our Love Is Too Good to Feel So Bad. We’ll do a blog post about this pretty soon, but it’s pretty simple at heart. There are basic things like being affectionate, showing interest in one another, not putting each other down, and not holding onto grievances that if you do them regularly will keep things alive and healthy between you. More of the good stuff, less of the bad stuff, daily.
The other big key is what we write about in our new book Why Couples Fight. Let’s face it: you could be a psychologically flexible as a psychological pretzel and as easy going as a tub of warm molasses, but there are going to be times when your needs are going to conflict with your partner’s needs and easy-going flexibility won’t even get you out of the driveway, never mind the rest of the journey to a full, mutually satisfying, and sustainable agreement.
The key here is (1) understanding how the power dynamics we all fall into in our frustration derail our search for good solutions and (2) the process that by-passes all of our tendencies to turn toward power moves because it prevents us from feeling disempowered in the first place. You’ll get all this in Why Couples Fight which you can pre-order now.