We all have those relationship moments: you’re feeling weird, your boyfriend just did something a little iffy, and you’re not sure how to feel about it. You think to yourself, “Is this normal?”
Chrisanna Northrup set out to answer that question when her marriage started to feel a little lacklustre. She’s co-authored the new book The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples and What They Reveal About Creating a New Normal in Your Relationship to find out what her peers were up to.
She worked with AARP, AOL, The Huffington Post and Reader’s Digest to get more than 70,000 participants from around the world to take their OnQ survey (created by two of America’s top sociologists, Yale Ph.D. Pepper Schwartz and Harvard Ph.D. James Witte). She based the book’s measurements against these results.
Here’s some of the most fascinating findings:
1. Two-thirds of couples don’t agree with each other’s politics
2. 56 percent of people say they never or rarely kiss passionately
3. 70 percent of couples in England say they laugh often or all of the time
4. Two-thirds of men say their female partner criticizes them a lot
5. 75 percent of men and women in France and Italy keep secrets from their partner
6. 25 percent of men and women do not talk to their partners about how much they earn
7. Over half of men and women pretend they’re happier with their partners than they really are
I asked Northrup about her how her experience researching and writing The Normal Bar changed her marriage.
Q: Where did the idea for the normal bar come from?
A: Fourteen years into my relationship with my husband — three kids and both of us working full time — I started to question how happy we were and if there wasn’t something else. I felt like we were constantly in survival mode. He thought that this was normal, and that we were in a “work hard, raise kids” phase. I wanted more passion and love and fun in the relationship. I started looking at the normal we had created, and if we could create a happier, healthier normal.
Q: How did you go about establishing what is normal?
A: I canvassed the media to see if I could find something. I wanted to know if I was asking too much. A lot of tension built in our relationship, and I even moved out for a year while we underwent counselling. I wanted to know who was doing it better, but I couldn’t find much. I decided to do it myself, to explore my peers around the world and what was realistic.
Q: The idea of “normal” is interesting when it comes to relationships. Isn’t it better to focus on your needs and what makes you happy rather than comparing yourself to the people around you?
A: Whenever you’re taking on any kind of job or project, you look to your peers to see who’s been successful. You can take it or leave it, but if they’re happy 25 years into a relationship, aren’t you curious about what makes them tick? Why not ask?
Q: Is there anything you found out about these couples that was particularly surprising to you?
A: A lot! I was particularly surprised to find that men and women really want the same things out of a relationship: they want affection and they want to be loved. But there’s a serious disconnect between couples. If you ask someone if they communicate well with their partner, they’ll say yes — but their partner might say no. We also found that couples with the happiest sex lives said they had variety — but those who wanted more variety, both men and women, weren’t talking about it with their partner.
Q: What did you find that the happiest couples do that less happy couples don’t?
A: Kissing passionately is one thing that extremely happy couples do. And that’s something I wanted, the passion and warmth and intimacy. If it has disappeared over the years, why have you lost it?
Q: What are some of the biggest factors spurring conflict?
A: Money and communication problems. We found that our middle class couples argued more about money than people in lower income brackets. Another problem is that couples often prefer to not rock the boat by not addressing issues — and you can go five, 10 years just wishing and wanting and not knowing how your partner feels about it.
Q: How has working on this book helped your relationship?
A: It has, a lot. I came up with this “High Five” tool, and each of us made a list of the five things in life we need to be happy (not including each other or the kids). It was very eye opening to see how disconnected we were, and how few things I thought he would need were on his list. We realized we needed to support each other’s needs, and we needed to talk about our needs. It’s amazing to get really far off track if you make assumptions instead of talking about things. Every day, we got closer and closer and we really became best friends. We got to know each other so much better, and we got back to laughing together. No matter how happy you are, there’s always room for more intimacy. Why not explore it a little?