Surprising secrets of the happiest couples
By Barbara Pierce
Living with another person is tough, even when you’re really in love with him or her.
I lived on a boat for 15 years with my partner. I can talk about tough.
Living on a 40-foot sailboat, I learned much about how to have a happy relationship with another person — a happy relationship in a tiny area, surrounded by ocean, being with one another 24/7. That puts a relationship sorely to the test.
The relationships of most couples that live on their boats don’t survive. At least that was my experience. We became friends with nine other couples, cruisers from the States living on our boats in Mexico. We were close, and kept in touch after we got back to the States.
A few years later, only two of the nine couples were still together. My partner and I were one of the two couples that beat the odds. Here are some of the things I learned about how happy couples are different:
— Happy couples appreciate the strengths of their partner and accept the weaknesses. Happy couples keep score — keep score of the good stuff. While tallying up everything your significant other does wrong is a harmful habit, noticing the good things starts a cycle of nice gestures from both.
Take note of your partner’s strengths and tell him or her over and over. Praise them in front of others.
Accepting the weaknesses of your partner doesn’t mean you turn a blind eye to their faults. It just means you stop fighting it. You work around it. For me, a big weakness was I couldn’t tie a bowline knot. Now, if you’re on a boat, that’s one important thing to know.
I did other knots really well; I just had a blind spot for bowlines. My husband would say that was a major weakness.
But he didn’t fight it; he just worked around it. He frequently told me how happy he was that I did so well in the details of living on a boat. I could prepare dinner using a tiny counter that doubled as a refrigerator and a gimbaled stove that sometimes swung wildly as I cooked. And I could wash the sheets in salt water on the bow of the boat.
— When happy couples must bring to their partner’s attention something that has to change — something unpleasant — they’re not brutally honest. Telling the truth is important in a relationship but make sure to use a kind tone and not be too blunt.
Happiest couples are considerate of each other’s feelings when expressing something that might be hard to hear. Talk to your partner like you would a close friend.
“Try to state what you would like, rather than giving a criticism. Focus on what you want to achieve rather than what your partner does wrong,” advises psychiatrist Aaron Beck in his book, “Love is Never Enough.” I’ve always found this effective.
— Happy couples each have a strong squad. Regular guys’ or girls’ nights out make your relationship stronger. People with large friendship networks are happier than those who focus all their energy on their relationship. It doesn’t take away from the relationship, but enriches it.
I found I was always happier when I could get together with other women cruisers frequently. I came back to our boat in a happy frame of mind.
— Breaking up is not an option for couples that are happy together. They make themselves emotionally vulnerable, and never bring up divorce. Doing so makes couples more likely to work through problems instead of contemplating ending their relationship.
All the things you do to protect yourself just built a wall. The happiest couples jumped in completely with no escape hatch.
An RD.com article, “Surprising Marriage Advice From Happy Couples,” adds a few other things:
— Happy couples fall asleep at the same time. Wives who are happier with their marriage overlapped with their husband’s sleep schedule about 90 percent of the time, according to a study. If your schedule doesn’t let you go to bed the same time, try to find other times to connect. We all have a need for closeness and security.
— And they don’t always put their kids first. Focusing all your attention on your kids leaves little time to give your significant other any attention. Make your time together matter by staying off your phone and not wordlessly zoning out in front of the TV after the kids go to bed. If you do want to catch up on your favorite show, cuddle up with your partner.
— Happy couples compromise, not sacrifice. Relationships should be about mutual happiness, which means you should be flexible when disagreements arise. Instead of automatically giving in to your partner’s demands, find a middle ground you can both agree on. Sacrifice leads to resentment. Compromising means sometimes we do things my way, sometimes your way.
• Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.