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Single people want to be with someone. Meanwhile, coupled people eye the door. Sometimes, single people meet coupled people on dating apps and pretend that each got what they wanted. Roughly 50% of first-time marriages end in divorce, and the other 50% of the remaining 50% can't stand each other. A glutton for punishment, people find themselves in a second marriage within 3 to 4 years of a divorce. About 60% of them split up in less than seven years, on average. Wait, but there's more! Most try again to face a 73% failure rate within five years.
Meanwhile, science sings praises to relationship benefits - improved well-being, increased longevity, companionship, emotional support, and even things like reduced stress, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Couples build wealth faster compared to single people, on average. There are tax benefits for couples, inheritance rights, and even possibly access to better health care through a partner. Theoretically, couples share friendships, communities, and responsibilities. For some, marriage aligns with their cultural or religious beliefs and provides a sense of fulfillment and spiritual connection.
Reading relationship research and talking to my clients and friends, I feel similar to watching "super couples" on social media, while in real life, they argue about not getting enough sex, attention, validation, or credit for what they do. Or worse, #besthusband and #bestwife sitting at the divorce lawyer's office splitting the family china.
Why is there such a mismatch between science, expectations about relationships, and the lived experiences of so many?
Here's what my clients and friends currently deal with in their relationships – jealousy, financial problems brought about by the other person, extended family disagreements, uncomfortable political differences, financial entanglements that make it very costly to separate, partners plumping up beyond desirability, no sex for months and even years, arguments over chores and obligations, infidelity, sleeping in the same bed with someone they can't stand, losing friends because of their partner, sacrificing hobbies, career, and personal time, compromises. Some are waiting for the kids to grow up so they can finally leave. Mental and emotional health issues. Some live with alcoholics, rageaholics, workaholics, and other "holiks." Most don't seem to have the best time of their lives despite what their social media posts portray.
Experts say we are redefining the relationship space and suffering in the flux. Out with the old, still unsure about the new, people face many choices, temptations, and personal challenges. None of it helps the stability and satisfaction of relationships. Your grandparents' marriage is hard to achieve today, and many question if they should or want to.
Ideally, a relationship combines two parts (or more), and the total is greater than the sum of the parts. But in reality, after the honeymoon, often comes the sinking feeling that this will be tough, not that much fun, and possibly a mistake. Especially if a cute "other" shows interest in us, a career demands more of our time, the in-laws suck, or the other person loses their job, mind, health, or all at once. Bring in changing values, personal priorities, and kids, and a relationship becomes a demanding enterprise with little time off and very expensive. If people make it together to their individual mid-life crises or senility, the whole thing could explode in chaos.
And yet, and yet… people strive to be with someone, so much so that the dating market made $5 billion in 2022. I, personally, like being single. Research from the London School of Economics says the happiest subgroup is single, middle-aged women without children. "Married people do come out as the happiest sub-group, but only when their partner is in the room during the interview; their recorded happiness levels drop significantly when the partner is not present," they said.
But even I question why I am single sometimes. It usually leads me to say a somewhat reluctant "yes" to someone looking for a companion when all I really want is time with my dog, books, dancing, and the bed to myself. I always regret it, and within a short time, I re-establish homeostasis by ditching them apologetically. Call me avoidant, even though I have a secure attachment style. I prefer simplicity, independence, and all my friends to a stranger with something possibly fragile, flammable, or hazardous in their baggage.
Attachment styles greatly influence how people form and behave in relationships. I wrote about it HERE. But so do other things.
For example, I can't help but wonder how the members of an individualistic society differ from those in a more community-focused one. To individualistic Americans, everything is a quest to fulfill personal goals and desires. I know someone who picked a wife based on wanting to have three kids. He got it. He's been unhappy for the last 20 years of their 23-year marriage. But they look great in family photos. I also know someone who set out to get a rich husband within a year and to stop working. She got it and on schedule. They've been fighting about money since the wedding and spending lots of it on couple's therapy. But she drives a fancy car, they live in a big house, and she spends her time not working badmouthing her husband to her girlfriends.
Relationships can be a "personal goal," not unlike getting a promotion or a nicer car. But if so, then it will only bring short-lived satisfaction, just like when people achieve their other random goals while running on the hedonic treadmill. There's a big difference between a "me" relationship and an "us" relationship. Committed to "me," a person feels less inclined to tough it out when necessary and is probably also more likely to compare their relationship to others just like they compare houses, jobs, and vacations. This can't be good.
At the same time, people in relationships could find themselves more isolated and lose touch with friends that no longer fit the relationship. It could simply be because, with very little free time, the relationship does not leave any for outside friendships. It would explain why one would expect the other in the pair to be the everything person – the sexy beast, the emotional support animal, the trusted friend, the comic relief, the caretaker, the guiding light, etc. That's too much pressure, too much expectation, and too much reliance. Something's gonna give and clearly does, as divorce rates show.
Are single-parent households raising kids without the necessary skills to be in long-term demanding relationships? Are movies and pop culture overfocussing on the love story and not enough on adulting and relationshiping?
I know "happily" married couples who say, "It's hard to live with someone," and sometimes sleep in different bedrooms because they can't stand looking at each other, even if only temporarily. I know other "happily" married couples who say if they could do it again, they wouldn't. None of this gives me the confidence to give up my life as I know it.
A functional relationship requires functional people. Whatever dysfunctionality they bring to the table will impose on the other person and challenge the relationship. But how many people "train" to be in relationships? How many prepare and learn the skills necessary for teamwork? Most just jump in and hope it works. Sometimes it does. At least half the time, it doesn't, statistically speaking.
If you show me a couple still holding hands 20, 30, or 40 years later, I'll show you a successful relationship because, apparently, the hardest thing turns out to be "still liking each other" after all those years. Most people treat each other like furniture. They stay together by default and because they think it's easier than splitting up the household. Others like the fight.
A recurring question I can't answer is how exactly people change each other through relationships. No doubt in positive and negative ways. No doubt, few think about how they impact the other on a deeply psychological level. We can easily measure the material, count dollars, and account for social status, but we can't easily quantify the psychological impact of careless communication, power dynamics, compromises, and trauma, big or small. We can see who each person becomes while in the relationship. But we can't ever know who they would have been had they chosen differently.
So, yeah. Relationships are hard. They don't have to be, but I can't see how they won't be. If not all the time, at least some of the time. The question is, are they worth the trouble? Some will say yes when their partner is in the room. Those same people may think otherwise when the shit hits the fan in their relationships. There's also the "endowment effect," which predisposes people to value what they already have regardless of how irrational it is. So, you guys can't be trusted!
IT IS possible to have a fulfilling relationship as long as you don't expect it to feel so all the time. Keep your expectations low, and you'll do just fine. Also, pick wisely after a deep soul searching. Your life depends on it. Literally! Because when in a relationship, it becomes your life. So, if you don't want to hate your life, don't get into a relationship that makes you miserable.
If you want a good, relatively happy, fulfilling, and enriching relationship, you'll have to prepare for it and keep sharpening your tool kit as you are in it. You can't fall asleep on the couch with a potato chip in your mouth every night as soon as you find "the one."
Here are some things you can do instead:
Know Yourself: Understand your own needs, values, and goals. This includes recognizing your strengths and areas for growth and working on them!
Heal from Past Relationships: Work through any baggage from previous relationships so you don't bring unresolved issues into a new one. Yes, you do it. No, it's not fair to your new partner.
Develop Emotional Intelligence: Learn how to identify and express your emotions, understand the feelings of others, and manage your emotional responses. Learn emotional regulation, self-soothing, about your triggers and how you behave when triggered, then develop better and more productive ways.
Practice Effective Communication: Learn how to express yourself clearly, listen actively, and resolve conflicts in a constructive manner. If I had a dollar for every time someone gave this advice, I'd have too many dollars to count. Yet, most people just assume they've got this down pat. Nothing can be further from reality.
Establish Boundaries: Understand what you're comfortable with and what you're not, and learn how to communicate and enforce these boundaries. Also, learn to respect other people's boundaries.
Cultivate Interests: Have your own hobbies, interests, and passions. This makes you more interesting and less likely to lose your identity in a relationship. No one wants an extra shadow that follows them everywhere. It's enough to deal with one's own shadow…
Build Self-Esteem: Work on building a strong sense of self-worth and confidence. Whining people aren't sexy. Period. They personally annoy me, but others may have more extreme reactions. One thing is for sure, though: whining people rarely get respect. I asked Alexa once, "Can you gain respect for someone once you lose it." She said, "Gaining back respect is impossible." If your own self-esteem is down the drain, chances are others don't esteem you any more than you esteem yourself.
Develop a Support Network: Maintain close relationships with friends and family. They can provide support, perspective, and a social outlet outside of your romantic relationship. You can quilt with your friends or shoot guns. You don't have to drag your significant other into it.
Learn from Others: Observe relationships around you, both positive and negative. This can provide valuable insights into what does and doesn't work in a partnership. I've been doing too much of that… Hence, I am still single.
Manage Expectations: Understand that no relationship is perfect. Be prepared to compromise and adapt. However, if you are the only one compromising and adapting, your relationship might have an unhealthy power dynamic. If you are the one insisting the other person do all the compromising and adapting… you know what you are. Starts with the letter "A." The only healthy way to live without compromising is to enjoy a single life. Every other arrangement requires, at least occasionally, some difficult conversations and negotiations. That's a given. Be ready.
Develop Empathy: Practice understanding things from your partner's perspective. This can lead to a deeper connection and better conflict resolution.
Prioritize Self-Care: Maintain your physical and mental health. The best predictor of a healthy and happy relationship is how happy and healthy people feel before they enter a relationship. I repeat this loud and clear for all the people in the back. Please, don't look for someone to save you or to save someone! Be happy and healthy on your own first.
Work on Patience: Be patient with yourself and with your partner as you navigate this journey together. Zip the lip unless what's about to come out of your mouth will positively impact the situation and your partner. Treat a relationship like a railroad crossing back when they used to have signs that said, "Stop. Look. Listen."
Learn Conflict Resolution Skills: Disagreements are inevitable in any relationship. Learn strategies for resolving conflicts in a way that is respectful and constructive. See above under "work on patience."
Be Open to Change: Relationships evolve, and so do people. Be open to growth and change in yourself and your relationship. Do not develop a false sense of security. Just because this person is with you now does not mean they will be there forever. Do your part in being a good partner.
Know your worst-case scenario: What could go wrong, might. So, consider ahead of time what your downside is, how you would handle it, how you can protect yourself against it, and whether you could live with it. Yep, that's prenups, separate bank accounts, whatever it takes. If this is not your first rodeo, hopefully, you've got some assets, money left over from the first rodeo, whatever. It's OK to assure your stability if this new relationship turns out to be a bridge you bought. Trust God and tie your horses. That’s all I am saying.
For the ladies out there - unmarried women are happier than their married counterparts, they live longer and have better health. That’s not me saying this. That’s science from the London School of Economics.
“Men, however, do appear to benefit from marriage. Dolan said, “You take more risks, you earn more money and you live a little longer. She, on the other hand, has to put up with that, and she dies sooner than if she never married.”
Call me a cynic… but I don’t often argue with science…
The book referenced in the article I’ve been linking to is “Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life” by Paul Donald.
If you are already in a relationship and feel miserable, you may have to call me so we can explore why, what keeps you there, and what you can do. Trust me. No matter what your story is, I probably already heard it from someone else. No shame in getting stuck. Just don't stay that way.
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