What’s the most important aspect of a happy relationship? Companionship? Love? Sex? Communication? If you said “communication,” then ding-ding-ding, you win! In a recent study involving 2201 participants referred by couples counselors, researchers tested seven “relationship competencies” previously found to be important in promoting happiness in romantic relationships and discovered that communication and conflict resolution is the number one factor of a happy relationship. In addition, researchers also tested for sex or romance, stress management, life skills, knowledge of partners and self-management to see which were the best predictors of relationship satisfaction. Out of those, only two other components ranked as important factors for promoting relationship happiness. Can you guess what those two components are?
Researchers found that “knowledge of partner (which included everything from knowing their pizza topping preferences to their hopes and dreams) and life skills (being able to hold a job, manage money, etc)” were the only other two aspects of a relationship with strong links to couple happiness. Dude, seriously. I’d say at least half of the letters I receive asking for advice are related to issues that develop in a relationship when practical needs (as opposed to emotional needs) aren’t being met. Think of all the columns lately about income discrepancy or problems with significant others not helping around the house or not making the commute in a long distance relationship.
“It’s an old idea, really,” says Tom Bradbury, a veteran couples researcher at UCLA. “In 1900 a woman or man would think, ‘My partner must be able to provide for me.’ ‘She must be able to help me plant and dig up the crops.’” If the couple had this foundation, they’d consider themselves lucky if they also got their emotional needs met. In Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, historian Stephanie Coontz traces the gradual erosion of this old idea of marriage back about 200 years in Western society as cultural expectations about marriage changed from one rooted in kinship, property and utility to one in which people were expected to get nearly all of their emotional needs met by one person.
So, yes, a life partner needs to meet some of your emotional — and physical — needs, and absolutely, you need to have strong and effective communication. But when there are issues in a relationship, instead of talking so much about your feelings, get practical. What are some of your everyday, real-world stresses that could be alleviated with support from your partner? What practical needs do you have that aren’t being fully met? In a longterm relationship, this is a conversation you need to visit and re-visit frequently. Drew and I do. I know that he feels a lot of burden providing for us financially — being the sole breadwinner — and while I’m limited in terms of how much I can help bring in the bacon if we both want me to stay home with Jackson, there are things I can do to make DW more financially profitable, at least in the long-term, as well as ways I can help cut corners in household spending, so I’ve been trying to do that more often.
For me, I get tired of being responsible for every single meal — all three of Jackson’s daily meals, dinner for all of us every night, and three meals a day on the weekends. Because we’re on a tighter budget, I don’t get the relief of take-out as often as I did earlier in our marriage (or even when Jackson was a baby), so we are working on ways to reduce some of my meal-preparation stress. Sometimes that means I heat up a frozen lasagna for dinner with a homemade salad. Or, Drew takes Jackson to the playground after work so I can at least have an hour to cook in peace (versus cooking with Jackson tugging on my shirt). Drew’s also been pitching in more with preparing Jackson’s meals (when he has to eat separately from us), as well as doing some sous-chef prep work (veggie chopping, etc).
These may sound like small things — small problems and small solutions — but these are the little issues that build up over time and can cause real relationship strife when left unresolved. What practical needs do you have that you want met in a relationship (either a relationship you’re currently in or a future relationship)?