Positive psychology research indicates that one of the most important factors in human flourishing is building close relationships with others. In fact, social psychologist Christopher Peterson coined the term “other people matter” to describe the foundational finding of positive psychology, and Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of the field, designates relationships as a key pillar in his PERMA model of flourishing (Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, Accomplishments).
Romantic relationships, in particular, have an enormous influence on our well-being. When they are going well, and we feel supported by our spouse or significant other, for example, we experience an emotional and mental boost. We not only feel better, but we also do better.
However, unfortunately, the opposite is also true. When our relationships are faltering, we feel the negative effects, which dampen our mood and decrease our performance at work.
As divorce rates indicate, it is not always easy to maintain a long-term relationship. And of the relationships that do stay intact, many are languishing.
Part of the reason that relationships and marriages often fail is that we expect love to be easy with no effort on our part. In every other domain of our lives, we are expected to work hard if we want to succeed. For example, with our physical health, it would be foolish to think that one trip to the gym would magically tone our muscles and make us fit. If we want to be stronger and more flexible, we know that we need to work out regularly to train our bodies. Similarly, with our professional lives, we don’t expect to skip the corporate ladder and float into the corner office. We work hard and take classes to improve our skills if we seek to excel in our career.
So, why is it that when it comes to our romantic relationships—probably the most important domain of our life—we seem to leave it to chance or fate?
From fairy tales to films, the way love is popularly portrayed is that it just happens. You meet your prince (or princess) charming, fall in love, get married, and live “happily ever after.” No one ever tells you what it takes to get to “happily ever after.” A wedding day is magical, no doubt, but we need more than a special day to prepare us for all the days to come if we want to live happily together in the long term.
While there is no single, simple answer to these matters, there are a number of promising findings from positive psychology research that can be applied to romantic relationships.
As we discuss in Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts, research shows that happiness doesn’t just happen. Rather it is healthy habits that lead to long-term love. In particular, focusing on what is going right in your relationship and working to build more of it, rather than dwelling on what is wrong. Four areas of research that are especially important to cultivate thriving romantic relationships are passion, positive emotions, savoring, and strengths.
Promoting a Healthy Passion
We all naturally desire passion in our romantic relationships. We tend to think that the more passion, the better. However, that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, research shows that it’s not how much but rather the right kind of passion that’s correlated with thriving relationships. A relationship characterized by a “harmonious,” or healthy passion, is one in which we are able to make conscious choices. In contrast, in a relationship based on an “obsessive,” or unhealthy passion, we feel swept away by uncontrollable urges.
Unfortunately, obsession passion is heralded everywhere, from music to movies, with song lyrics like “I can’t live without you” and lines like “you complete me.” Not surprisingly, it’s what many of us come to expect and crave in a relationship. When we don’t experience this all-consuming feeling, we think something is wrong and may give up on the relationship. While obsessive passion may feel good momentarily, research shows it also leads to negative emotions. Additionally, it can be as detrimental to your relationship as having no passion at all. In fact, women have reported being less sexually satisfied in relationships with men who are obsessively passionate about them. They also tend to lose their sense of self and are no longer able to focus at work.
One way to maintain your identity and cultivate a healthy passion is to think back to times before your relationship. What activities did you enjoy doing? Was it your weekly book club with friends? Perhaps your group fitness class? And who did you do these activities with? Are these friends still in your life? Remember to continue engaging in your interests and hobbies, and not feeling that you have to do everything with your spouse or significant other. It’s important to nurture all of your healthy relationships, those with friends and family members, not just your romantic partner. Additionally, don’t ignore concerns from your close friends who, research shows, often see red flags of obsessive passion before you do.
Prioritizing Positive Emotions
Positivity, like passion, is another factor correlated with thriving relationships. However, like lasting love, we can’t expect positive emotions to just happen, or at the same frequency as they may have during the honeymoon phase of our relationship. Many people tend to obsess about happiness, forcing themselves to be happy with thoughts like “I must be happy,” which research shows tends to backfire, making you feel worse. Instead, we have to actively and consistently cultivate feelings of joy and contentment.
The most effective way to generate positive emotions is to “prioritize positivity,” or make choices and decisions about how you will plan your day. Think about activities and interests that evoke positive feelings, both individually and as a couple, and prioritize them when planning your day. These activities will differ from person to person and couple to couple. For some people, perhaps it’s quietly working side by side with your spouse tackling the New York Times crossword puzzle together or exploring a unique part of your town. For others, maybe it’s an outdoor hike with friends or checking out a new local restaurant. Whatever it is that appeals to you, remember to engage in solo activities as well as shared ones with your significant other that help trigger positive emotions.
Mindfully Savoring Experiences Together
Feeling acknowledged and appreciated by one’s partner is associated with more satisfying and sustainable relationships. However, in our modern-day culture, we tend to race through life and miss many wondrous moments for connection. Our minds naturally tend to settle on problems and let the positive pass by unnoticed. The good news is that we can practice slowing down to savor the positive moments rather than taking them for granted. Research shows the truly joyous understand the importance of savoring as individuals, and with their partners. Specifically, they acknowledge the small magical moments together and appreciate their partner on a daily basis rather just waiting for the big momentous occasions to celebrate each other.
If we can pause and truly savor small positive moments, we are more likely to feel happier. Over time, these moments add up. One great way to savor is to create a “positive relationship portfolio.” It can be a physical portfolio or an electronic file where you gather special mementos that are meaningful to you. Maybe it’s a beautiful letter from your spouse, your wedding picture, or a keepsake from your first date. Spend 15 minutes every day for a week savoring these items together, talking about the beautiful memories and warm feelings they evoke.
Seeking Out Strengths in One Another
All too often those intriguing differences that initially attracted us to our partner tend to be seen as annoying deficits years later in the relationship. Rather than feeling grateful for all we have in our relationship, we fall into the negative habit of focusing on what we feel is lacking. We may even compare and contrast our relationship with others. Stop scanning your social media feed and fixating on pictures of those seemingly perfect couples smiling on luxurious vacations. Instead, find and feed the good in yourself and your partner to help build a stronger and more authentic bond. One way to do that is to focus on strengths.
Positive psychology researchers have identified 24 strengths that have been valued across time and cultures. Qualities like kindness, creativity, leadership, and love of learning. We all have strengths and have them in different configurations. Our strengths—along with our personalities, upbringing, and experiences—are what makes us unique from others. Focusing on our strengths, things we are naturally good at, rather than dwelling on our deficits can help us experience greater individual and relational well-being.
Discover your top five strengths, commonly referred to as your “signature strengths” by taking the free VIA Survey of Character Strengths. Now put them into action by planning a “strengths date,” an outing that complements one of your top strengths and one of your partner’s. For example, if zest is your top strength and your partner has love of learning, try renting Segways to tour the historical part of your city. After the date, your sense of adventure will be sated and your partner’s intellectual thirst quenched. Take turns planning the dates. Research shows that when we help facilitate strength use in our partner, we experience greater sexual and overall relational satisfaction. So why not give it a try!
While there’s no magic potion for the perfect relationship, integrating these evidence-based habits into your everyday life will likely strengthen your bond with your partner, making you feel happier.
About the Author
Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, MAPP is a co-author of Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. She has a Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.