I was listening to an interview this morning on the Hidden Brain podcast and heard Eli Finkel, a Social Psychologist at Northwestern University, talk about how marriages have become hard in this day and age.
I love the idea of love hacks that Dr. Finkel talked about. Basically, love hacks are ways to experience our relationships with our spouses (or long-time romantic partners if we’re not married) in new and different ways that can make us happier. If our marriages (or partnerships) are so hard, how can we make them easier?
There are three basic problems in our marriages that Dr. Finkel thinks some simple love hacks can help to resolve. See what you think.
Problem #1 (and it’s a common one!) -- Our partner’s negative behavior says something about their character. It’s who he or she is, a personality trait.
Love Hack #1: We should reinterpret negative behavior from your partner in a way that is more sympathetic rather than critical.
We each have control over how our partner’s negative behavior affects us. Our default is to interpret our partner’s behavior in terms of something about his or her character (i.e. He’s a jerk for saying that) rather than thinking of the behavior as a response to some circumstance or condition (i.e. He may have had a bad day at work so his spouting off at me could have nothing to do with me. I’m going to let it ride). It isn’t easy to respond this second way because of our default reaction, but the fact is, there are actually all sorts of reasons why our partner may have engaged in a particular behavior over another. It is OUR choice to think and react how we do. We can be deliberate and interpret our partner’s behavior in a way that’s more generous and kind. We have that choice, and the kinder approach will make us happier in our relationship. Our partners will most likely be happier too.
Problem #2: Our relationship is fixed. We are either compatible or we are not, end of story.
Love Hack #2: Have a growth mindset rather than a destiny mindset.
Dr. Finkel says that people differ in terms of how they think of various attributes, on whether they’re fixed or malleable. Research has shown that compatibility in a relationship is NOT fixed, contrary to what many of us believe. We can actually nurture and grow compatibility with our partners. We can have a growth-oriented mindset instead in which there’s a lot of room to develop compatibility. It’s not a given that we’re incompatible or compatible. We need to pay attention to, build and nurture our ability to be compatible with each other.
In fact, going through difficulties isn’t a signal that we’re incompatible people at all. It’s actually an opportunity to learn to understand each other better and to strengthen the relationship through a resolution of our conflicts. We can choose to adopt a more constructive growth-oriented approach to thinking about conflict in our relationship rather than the destiny-oriented approach of viewing our conflict as a deep-seated incompatibility, which is clearly very destructive for a relationship.
Problem #3: We expect so much of our partners. We expect our partner to meet all of our emotional and psychological needs.
Love Hack #3: Diversify your social portfolio.
Just like our financial portfolio, we have to diversify our social portfolio. It’s smart to have a mix of investments in our financial portfolios—riskier stocks and safer bonds. Yes, we can invest in stocks only. The payoff can be great, but the risk of loss is high. The same is true for our relationships with our partners. It’s important to diversify our portfolios or to develop ways in which we are actually getting different things from different people.
We tend to have an all or nothing approach, expecting high-level things from our partners, but our marriages or partnerships often fall far short of that. As deflating as this can seem at face value, a viable choice for us is to actually ask LESS of our partners.
In what ways can we look at our relationship honestly and realize how we’re chronically disappointed because our partner doesn’t meet a particular need for us? In the face of this, is there some other way that we might be able to meet that need, either through some other friend or on our own? Who can we turn to when we’re feeling different emotions? Who can help us regulate those emotions? To whom can we turn to when we feel sad or when we want to celebrate our happiness? We can choose to look at a small number of people to do all of those things (i.e. our partner), or we can look at a larger number of people to satisfy what we need. Research shows that those who diversify their social portfolios and look to a larger number of people to satisfy their needs tend to be happier.
We’ve lumped a lot of our emotional fulfillment on our one romantic partnership and for many of us, our relationship with our partner would benefit if we asked a little bit less in some respects. Like our finances, when we look to one person to satisfy all our emotional and psychological needs, the payoff can be huge, but the risk is high.
**A bonus love hack tip to help whenever conflict arises**
The last tip that Dr. Finkel mentioned (and I love) is the suggestion to have a shorthand strategy for communicating connection and love between you and your partner.
Every romantic partnership has its own culture, language, and expectations, and we can actually leverage the features of how culture works. We can come up with a special sentence or phrase we say to each other that is unique to us, an emotional shorthand statement that means something big in expressing affection to each other, a statement that contains a huge amount of information about love and respect and affection, but is only a simple one-second phrase we can utter to each other. This is something that can be especially crucial and helpful if we’re going through a difficult time with our partners and maybe things are getting hot or intense. Maybe we’re on the verge of a fight. At that moment, we can utter our special "code" phrase to our partner, which may well diffuse what could have been a problematic episode.