How Do I Maintain a Happy Relationship?
Every night, millions of Americans sit down in front of their TVs, in crowded movie theaters, and in their own private reading nooks, all to watch characters navigate a romantic relationship. We’re obsessed with this question: How do you make love work? How do you get to the happy ending?
Yet it seems like no matter how many love stories we watch, no matter how many sitcoms about married couples we sit through, we haven’t learned the secrets we seek. Too many marriages end in divorce, and too many of us feel powerless to make our relationships work.
It’s not as hopeless as it might sometimes seem, though. With conscious effort, you too can build and maintain a happy relationship. That process starts with identifying the root of your problems, making a conscious decision to work on the relationship together, and learning to speak your partner’s love language.
Identify the Root of Your Problems
Let’s begin at the beginning. Before you get into the specifics of the state of your current relationship, let’s trace your relationship issues back to the source.
As we grow up, we’re dependent on our families for survival. Children are essentially training to become independent and learn to handle themselves on their own. You can see kids always yearning and demanding to demonstrate this independence—“Don’t help me! I can do it myself!”
However, that’s only half of the equation. We want to be partly independent and partly dependent. We’re social creatures, and we have social needs. Learning to stand on our own feet is just the first step to learning to be nourished, first by ourselves and then by others.
To nurture that independence, it’s up to our parents to give us the training we need to navigate the world. That means using chores to teach us basic life skills, as well as using school and social situations to teach us to deal with others.
When we’re short on those skills, we don’t know how to nourish ourselves or stand on our own feet. As a result, we hope relationships will make us happy because we haven’t learned to make ourselves happy. When they inevitably fail to do that, we grow resentful.
Often, unhappy couples will have children to try to save their marriage. This just adds yet another, bigger problem instead of solving the previous problems. Instead of learning to love yourselves, you entered a relationship to cover up the first problem. Instead of learning to love each other, you had a child to cover up the second problem. Now you have to learn to care for yourselves, each other, and your children, and have three massive tasks at hand instead of one.
Yet, you can still make your relationship work. Lots of people do it every day. You just have to take a close look at yourselves and make a conscious decision to work on loving each other.
Make the Conscious Decision to Love Each Other
Ideally, a relationship goes like this: first, you like yourself and are comfortable being yourself and don’t feel desperate to be with another person. Then, you decide that having a partner could be a good thing, so you figure out your criteria for what you want. Next, you find someone where both your sets of criteria match up and both sides have grown up. Finally, understanding that the other person sees things their own way, you use dating to test things out and figure out if things work.
However, most people don’t follow this ideal path. If you find yourself in an unhappy relationship or marriage, is there still hope or should you just call it quits?
The answer to that depends entirely on you. You can save even the unhappiest of relationships if both people decide it’s worth it, and both people really commit to working things out.
We’re often propelled into relationships and marriages by the experience of being “in love”. This feeling of infatuation makes us blind to each other’s flaws. A big part of that is our natural drive to reproduce. Evolution drives us to couple for just long enough to produce a child and raise it through infancy—about two years. When those two years pass and the infatuation dissipates, what’s left?
This isn’t the end of love. It’s the start. Being propelled towards someone by that infatuation, that feeling that you can’t live without them—that’s not love. Love is the devotion that comes after—when you decide, consciously, every day, that you will love them.
Marriage is a crucible. For those who don’t know, a crucible is a contraption that heats up gold so all the impurities float to the top so they can be removed. Likewise, when you marry someone, your problems rise to the surface. You learn who you both really are. If you use marriage well, this makes it a great tool for mutual growth.
If you both make a conscious decision to love each other, you can use your marriage to strengthen your understanding of yourselves and each other. You can go from getting angry and not communicating, to working your disagreements out with empathy. You can identify your life purposes, and support each other in them. You’ll still argue, but you’ll argue with respect.
Can you and your partner make a conscious decision every day to love each other? If so, then you can save your relationship.
Learn to Love Your Partner in Their Own Language
Sometimes, one of you may say something upsetting to the other, and not even realize it. Likewise, one of you may show affection to the other, and they don’t even feel it. This is why building a good relationship and keeping each other happy requires you to learn how to speak each other’s love languages.
As outlined in Gary Chapman’s #1 New York Times Bestseller, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, everyone has their own “love language”. This is how they’ve learned to express love. It’s how they like to receive love, and so it’s also how they think everyone else likes to receive love.
Those five languages are:
- Words of Affirmation: Compliments, encouragement, and kind words where you try to see through your spouse’s eyes. Requests instead of demands.
- Quality Time: Not just time sitting next to each other, but rather giving our undivided attention. Quality time means learning to both talk and listen, so you can have quality conversations.
- Receiving Gifts: It’s not about monetary value, but about symbolic value. Gifts act as reminders of love, and your presence in key moments can be a gift too.
- Acts of Service: Not expected or coerced, but freely given. Reexamine your stereotypes of gender roles and who does what. It might mean a lot for a husband to help out by cooking or washing dishes, for example.
- Physical Touch: The way you enjoy touch may not be how your spouse enjoys touch. Sexual touch, casual touch, comforting touch in times of crisis—for all of these, explore how your spouse likes to be touched instead of assuming that what’s good for you is good for them.
If you want a happy marriage, you have to learn to use your spouse’s love language. You have to do the hard work of learning to be a good spouse. If you’re open to that, you may also realize that your spouse doesn’t know how to love you, either. It’s not that they don’t love you, they just don’t know how to express their love in a way that you can take in. Fortunately, that’s something you can work on.
So, are you ready and willing to be satisfied and to satisfy your spouse? Making your relationship work is a big investment, but it’s definitely possible, and definitely worth it.