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The real, REAL secret to a happy relationship

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

We all try to understand why our relationships are so...problematic. So...not easy. Why!?!?! There are zillions of explanations and just as many blue-sky promises, but real help is hard to find, especially without real work on the part of both people in the relationship.

So why are relationships so hard? Here, now, for the first time, someone is going to tell you the truth about this whole thing. If you’re looking for a fairy tale, don’t bother reading any further.

The great Billy Wilder, winner of five Oscars for directing and screenwriting (nominated a total of twenty-one times!), including Some Like It Hot, once said that if there’s a problem in the third act it’s because there was a problem in the first act. Yes! And the same is true of relationships.

Here’s what we now know a couple needs going in to give them a good chance of success:

They have similar and realistic expectations. People are usually happy with their McDonald’s meal not because the food is so great but because it’s pretty much just what they expected. The Quarter Pounder lived up to their expectations, all the more so if they were hungry. It’s that simple. So if you expect marriage to be all fire-works-y, with rainbows and moonbeams, you’ll be disappointed. If you expect a lot of routine and a lifetime with a real ordinary imperfect human being, you might never be disappointed at all.

Then, to go further, if your expectations are similar, you’ll be in even better shape. If you both expect you won’t be rich and you turn out not to be rich, you’ll be fine with that, and good for you! If you both expect Daddy won’t help a lot with the childcare and he doesn’t, you won’t be having huge fights when he doesn’t help. If you both expect to be spending a lot of time with your in-laws, then you’ll be okay when that happens.

So many third act problems in a relationship come from wildly different first-act expectations.

Happy people are happy. Guess who are most likely to be happy in a marriage? Happy people!! Yeah, this sounds obvious, but we live as though it were a giant revelation. Jo and Mo—not in and of themselves the happiest of people—somehow expect that their marriage can make them happy.! Because you know who’s happy? Happy people!!

The point here is that a lot of the unhappiness you see in a couple—the writhing around in mutual misery, the sniping in dissatisfaction, the fingers pointed in acrimony—is really just due to the unhappiness of the individuals.

Problem people poison relationships. I know: god forbid we should be judgmental. But all I’m saying is, Who do you think will have a happier marriage: a depressed person married to an anxious person, or two people who are neither anxious nor depressed? Someone who makes bad decisions married to someone who falls into rages, or two people who make good decisions and are fairly easy going? An idiot married to a nut, or two people who are both smart and sane?

Temperament is everything when it comes to choosing a partner, but most of the time we don’t choose partners on the basis of temperament.

They see the world in similar ways. Fine, maybe I like beef and you like chicken. We’ll be able to get along fine. We might be able to get along fine in a relationship if I like meat and you are a vegetarian. But if you see meat eaters as cruel people who want to destroy our planet, then that might not be bridgeable, no matter how attracted we are to each other.

World view is a huge subject. Do you see the world as full of conspiracies to make terrible things happen? Do you think trust is for suckers? Is your first instinct to think about what others think about you? Do you believe that people are primarily responsible for their own misfortunes? Do you believe that truth is more important then kindness?

The happiness of your relationship depends on how similar your answers are to these and countless other world-view questions. Unless you want to spend your lives grinding your gears.

They know how to get their needs met while being nice. This is the skill of skills in relationships. It’s easy to ignore your needs for the sake of maintaining an overall niceness. It’s easy to try to get your needs met in a not-nice way. But to say what you want at the right time and in the right way, neither neglecting your needs nor the other person’s feelings, that requires a diplomatic sensibility few are born with.

Skills? So what about all the skills that therapists are teaching us that are supposed to make such a difference? They do make a huge difference. In fact, for most couples they make all the difference. We are where we are right now. We can’t go back and choose the perfect relationship with the perfect prerequisites. We have to make this one work. That’s why a book like our Why Couples Fight can make all the difference. In that book we don’t talk about the prerequisites. We just offer the missing skills you need right now.

By the way, this last pic is of Dave Franco and Alison Brie, who've been together for 6 years and seem to be not only a happy couple, but a happy couple who work together.

If you care enough about each other to make the other person’s happiness and wellbeing as important as your own, and to learn from a book like Why Couples Fight, you have a good chance of having a happy, healthy relationship.


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