Q: What surprised you most in your research about couples?
A: I believed the myth that people break up these days at the drop of a hat when actually most couples seem to want to work at their relationship; it’s just that they don’t know where to begin or what might be going wrong. If anything, it is the other way around – that people just hope that next week, next month it will all be better and many stick at something which has atrophied to the point of no return for far too long.
Q: In what ways do couples most commonly make each other happy?
A: It’s that sense of companionship, having that best friend, where each can acknowledge the other’s space and respect their autonomy. It’s the little things, too: sharing a sense of humour, the crossword, a bar of chocolate, with all that shared narrative of your past together, past memories, past triumphs over adversities which make you feel less alone in the world, supported and loved for who you are. It’s everything – the bad and incompetent as well as the good.
Q: And how do they make each other unhappy?
A: Blaming each other for their own disappointments in life, put downs, withholding intimacy, contempt… a whole myriad of ways which usually means that you are unhappy with your own life. It is unrealistic to expect another person to make you complete.
Q: Do you think that a relationship with a spouse or partner makes people happy in a way that no other relationship can? How?
A: Yes. In the sense that we are relational beings, we crave the safety that comes with a stable relationship, and we need to be accepted for who we are in order to be able to go out into the wider world and flourish. The attachment needs we now recognize a child needs from their parent/s goes on. We need to feel strongly connected to another person throughout life.
Q: And can that kind of relationship also make you uniquely unhappy?
A: Yes, of course. There is abuse, neglect and torment just as there is in all families. The important thing is to understand our own psychological roots and not to repeat them. We also have to learn how to make relationships work, rather than just assuming that true love will find a way and see us through.
Q: Any advice for making a coupled relationship happier?
A: Respect each other in exactly the same way you would with anybody else you would share living space with – manners, courtesy, consideration, kind words and gestures. The more you give in this way, the more likely it is that you will get back the sort of behaviour you, too, would like from your spouse. And don’t expect them to fix you, to make you happier, richer or more successful. We have to do that work first on our own.