How to cultivate relationships

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 2 of The Year of Happy‘s month on relationships. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

 

Countless books and websites will tell you how to make friends and master the art of seduction, but this week we’ll be focusing on loving the ones you’re with already. As we’ll see in Week 3, quality is more important than quantity – it’s those close, quality relationships that bring you many of the benefits of social connection.

So how do you improve your relationships? Spend more time together, sure, but also take some time to change the way you think and react to your nearest and dearest. Read through the practices below and try to find one that suits your current relationships.

1. Feeling connected

Take time to think about a moment in your life when you felt very connected to someone. It might have been while having a conversation, supporting each other, celebrating success, mourning a loss, or witnessing something historic. Then, write about the experience and your feelings of closeness and connection at the time.

This practice has been shown to make you feel more connection, concern, and intentions to be altruistic toward others.

Maria Scileppi did this exercise daily for a full year – meeting one new friend every day and writing about the encounter – and experienced profound benefits:

2. Mental subtraction of relationships

What would life be like without your romantic partner or cherished friend? This exercise challenges you to imagine it. Think about how you met this person, and then imagine all the ways your meeting might not have occurred – you went to a different university, or accepted a different job offer, or bought a different apartment. Write down all the events and decisions that led you to meet this person but could have turned out otherwise. Then imagine a life without them, without all the benefits they have brought you. To finish up, remind yourself that – thanks to a lot of luck – this person is in your life. Feel grateful for everything they bring to it.

This practice has been shown to boost feelings of positivity and gratitude – it’s a way to prevent us from taking people for granted.

3. Capitalizing on positive events

Studies have shown that the way we respond to positive events in people’s lives is even more crucial to our relationships than the way we respond to negative events. This exercise challenges you to respond actively and constructively to someone’s good news.

Invite a friend, family member, or partner to tell you about something good about their day. Then, follow these guidelines in your response:

  • Show interest by making eye contact and nodding.
  • Show positive emotions through a smile or tone of voice.
  • Ask questions to solicit more details (e.g., “How did you find the new bike trail?”; “Were there many other bikers out?”)
  • Comment positively about the event and its future implications (e.g., “I love exploring nature!”; “That’ll be a fun way to de-stress on the weekends”).

Positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman explains how to respond actively and constructively in this video:

4. Telling your marital story

The last two practices, from John Gottman’s book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail and How You Can Make Yours Last, are designed to help you learn more about your partner, your relationship, and how to enhance the positives in it.

During his research, Gottman noticed something curious: couples in healthy vs. unhealthy relationships tend to talk about their history together very differently. Stable couples glorify the struggles of the past as bringing them closer together, while seeing the past in a negative light is a sign of trouble.

Sit down with your partner and ask each other these questions, trying to focus on the positive or talking more about where your negative feelings are coming from. (Although the questions focus on married couples, they could easily be adapted for committed partners.)

  1. What was your first impression of your partner? Was there something about this person that made him/her stand out?
  2. Think back to the time you were dating. What were some of the highlights? What were some of the tensions? What made the relationship worth pursuing?
  3. How did you decide to get married? Were there obvious differences that you knew you’d have to overcome? How did you overcome them?
  4. What do you remember about your first year of marriage? Did you have to make certain adjustments to being married? How did you do it?
  5. What about your transition to becoming parents? What were the most difficult and most rewarding aspects of this period in your lives?
  6. Looking back, what moments stand out as the really good times in your marriage so far?
  7. Looking back, what moments stand out as the really hard times in your marriage so far? Why do you think you stayed together? How did you get through these difficult times?
  8. How would you say your marriage today is different from when you first got married?

5. How do we compare?

This is another practice from Gottman that you can do together with your spouse. It’s designed to increase self-awareness about the good and the bad in your relationship. Sit down together and follow these steps:

  1. List four couples you both know: two “good” relationships and two “bad” relationships.
  2. Explain why you think the good ones work and the bad ones don’t.
  3. Talk about how your relationship compares to them. What behaviors do you want to avoid or imitate?
  4. Talk about any hardships you’ve weathered and how you managed it.

This approach reminds me a bit of “conscious coupling,” a strategy that Married with Luggage founders Betsy and Warren Talbot used to save their marriage. Although they didn’t compare their relationship to others’, they did focus on reducing the bad and improving the good (step 3): 

Read “Conscious Coupling”

The two fundamentals of a romantic relationship

After more than two decades of study, Gottman has a decidedly realistic view of relationships. “A lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship,” he writes. “The happiest, most stable couples are those that accept that all marriages – and all spouses – have their limitations.”

Last week, we learned that the two fundamentals of a successful partnership are positivity and a healthy relationship style. In addition to the exercises above, think about implementing these tips:

  1. Increase positivity. Rather than focusing on minimizing the negatives, Gottman reminds couples not to neglect the cultivation of positivity in their relationship. Show interest, concern, and caring for your partner. Express affection and joy. Be accepting, empathic, and appreciative. Make jokes. Praise them. All of this will mean that conflicts don’t weigh so heavily because you have a solid base of warm connection.
  2. Negotiate a style. Validating couples believe in togetherness, companionship, moderate emotional expression, and traditional domestic roles. Volatile couples favor romance, honesty, active discussion, and high emotional expression. And avoidant couples emphasize minimal emotional expression, traditional domestic roles, and shared beliefs and philosophy. Which one best fits your relationship? 

Choose your happiness practice

Which relationship-enhancing practice appeals to you?

  • Feeling connected: Do this 10-minute exercise at least once a week during the month of May, focusing on a different experience each time. (It’s up to you whether to focus on one relationship or several.) This practice is useful if you’re feeling distant or disconnected.
  • Mental subtraction of relationships: Do this 15-minute exercise at least once a week, focusing on a different relationship each time. This practice is ideal if you are starting to take someone for granted.
  • Capitalizing on positive events: Do this 5-minute exercise at least once a week. Soon, you may find yourself responding this way naturally in conversations.
  • Telling your marital story: Try to find time to do this practice once with your spouse. It can be enjoyable to reminisce about the past and help you see the arc of your relationship in a positive light.
  • How do we compare?: If you want to dig deeper into the present – not the past – of your relationship, this exercise will give you some perspective. Try to find time to do it with your spouse once this month.

Which practice did you pick? Share on the Year of Happy Facebook group.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 1: What are happy relationships? 

Move on to Week 3: The benefits of happy relationships

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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