Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

The Secret to a Happy Relationship May Surprise You

interrracialWhat’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)?

22 comments… add one
  • kerrycontrary August 19, 2013, 1:22 pm

    Love this! I really believe that quality relationships come out having 2 (or 3 or 4 for those poly couples) quality people.

    I really don’t have any complaints about practical stuff right now, but I’m glad I’m with an engineer because he always tackles problems with a practical solution (i.e. how can I remove stress for you).

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    • Christy August 19, 2013, 2:00 pm

      Love your inclusiveness here for the polys!

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  • lemongrass August 19, 2013, 1:49 pm

    I absolutely agree with this. Mr. Grass and I do check in with each other often, and bring up issues as they bother us so that they don’t bubble under the surface and create tension. We both make a big effort to always being open to hearing each other out and never keeping hurt feelings to ourselves. I realized just yesterday as I sat on the couch feeling lazy, asking Mr. Grass to get me a glass of water, that he never says no. Never tells me to do it myself. He does little things that for me with a smile and kiss, it makes me feel loved.

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  • Liquid Luck August 19, 2013, 2:26 pm

    This is really what sets apart my current relationship from the ones in my past, and it’s why this one works. We both work full time, though her usually works about 60 hours a week to my 40. I work from home, so I manage most of the household stuff, all of the cooking, and most of the dog care. But when I have a long week or am just stressed out, he picks up the slack. Sometimes it’s making mac and cheese for dinner so I don’t have to think about meal planning, and sometimes it’s taking the dogs to the park so I can finish a project without them shoving their toys in my lap trying to get me to play with them. When he needs some help, I do more of the cleaning, pick up some extra hours to cover a bill we didn’t account for, or take on all the household responsibilities when he travels for work.

    We’re also big on appreciation, which I think is absolutely necessary for a happy relationship. For example, he thanks me every single day for making him dinner, and I thank him every time he takes the dogs out in the morning so I don’t have to get up early. Even though those are things we agreed to and are our “jobs” around here, being grateful and verbal communication appreciation for each other when they get done really makes it easier to overcome resentment when we each feel a little overwhelmed.

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    • lets_be_honest August 19, 2013, 2:30 pm

      I think appreciation is huge too, at least it seems to be big for my partner.

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  • John Farrier August 19, 2013, 1:36 pm

    It makes sense to me. There’s got to be overlap in life skills and maturity with romantic relationships. A person who can handle a job, getting along with people and managing normal adult tasks is more likely to be successful at a romantic relationship than someone who can’t. The traits that make a person successful in the working world would also carry over into personal relationships.

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  • iwannatalktosampson August 19, 2013, 2:49 pm

    My boyfrannnnd told me I should probably go to therapy this weekend. He did it in a much nicer tone, but still, haha.

    Also I’m a huge helicopter parent. And so is Colin clearly. He checked the puppy cams at day care and told me I should call them and have them put him in with the bigger dogs because he looked sad and like he wasn’t having fun. Annnnd I called. What a psycho.

    Sorry about those two random stories. I just had to get them out. I feel better. Carry on.

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    • iwannatalktosampson August 19, 2013, 4:13 pm

      Also this study reminds me of love languages. I completely agree with this study, but I think that’s because my love language is service. I get really hot and bothered thinking about Colin picking Sampson up from day care on Friday and dropping my friends and I off at canvas and cocktails so none of us would have to drive.

      People that have “quality time” and other things as their love language chime in. How do you feel about this study.

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      • lets_be_honest August 19, 2013, 4:14 pm

        Psh, quality time as a love language. Try CASH! Cold, hard cash is my love language.

      • Fabelle August 19, 2013, 4:23 pm

        Dude so yeah, my “love language” is quality time, words, & physical affection… I think that’s why this study isn’t clicking in my brain. I mean, my boyfriend & I definitely do each other favors (& we’ve been part-time “living” aka playing house at his neighbor’s while they’re away for the summer, so I’ve gotten to see a bit the way we’d potentially divide chores), but I dunno. I think it’s hard for me to relate to this because I’m the kind of person who’ll shirk all the chores in exchange for cuddle time?

      • lets_be_honest August 19, 2013, 4:26 pm

        I don’t like this study because I know I do less favors than he does.

      • iwannatalktosampson August 19, 2013, 4:41 pm

        See to me there is nothing sexier than getting chores done together. I can’t cuddle or relax until the house is clean.

      • GatorGirl August 19, 2013, 5:17 pm

        YES!! Me too. help me vacuum and I’ll gladly hop into bed with you.

      • theattack August 19, 2013, 4:28 pm

        Ehh… I don’t know how related they are. I’m a Words of Affirmation and Quality Time person, so like Fabelle, this study doesn’t exactly resonate with my feelings of being loved. I do think life skills and knowledge of partner are probably more important than love languages though. If my husband had no life skills, he couldn’t give me enough quality time or words of affirmation to make up for that. When he slacks off on telling me how awesome I am or cuddling with me, I feel less close to him and have fewer butterfly type feelings, but it doesn’t change the essence of how our relationship works.

      • theattack August 19, 2013, 4:31 pm

        I think the line is more blurred for you because of how close your love language is to life skills, Iwanna, but it’s also effort. If Colin had skills but didn’t choose to marinate them in love and give them to you, I’m guessing you wouldn’t feel that way.

  • katie August 19, 2013, 3:59 pm

    aw ok i am both sad and happy. i do think that jake and i are very good at meeting practical needs. but, i dont know if i know him as well as he knows me. actually, scratch that, im POSITIVE he knows me better.

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    • Lindsay August 19, 2013, 4:51 pm

      I kind of felt like maybe the part about couples knowing each other well was more of an effect rather than a cause. Like that the reasons a couple knows each other well are the big things, like that they are more likely to know the big things, like values, or that they spend a lot of quality time together.

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  • Daisy August 19, 2013, 4:10 pm

    My fiance (wow haha, I think this is the only place I actually use the term ‘fiance’ – I can’t bring myself to say it out loud!) and I always joke about the answers we’d give if we were on the Newlywed Game or whatever that game show was called. Like, how his favorite TV show would be the in-flight information channel they show on long plane trips. We laugh about it and this was obviously a very superficial example, but there’s something amazing about knowing someone that well. Although now all of you know his favorite TV channel too haha, so I guess I kind of shot myself in the foot!

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  • GatorGirl August 19, 2013, 4:36 pm

    I’ve always told GGuy the more he helps around the house the more I want to have sex. I think this is related somehow…

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  • bittergaymark August 19, 2013, 4:50 pm

    Some are easily surprised, I guess. 😉

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  • fast eddie August 19, 2013, 5:20 pm

    We’ve always divided house work by time available. When she worked and I didn’t the house was completely my responsibility. Now we’re both retired and hire help when needed. For nearly all our years together we had a cleaning service to do a proper job of it and picked up after ourselves in between. We didn’t have children which would have drained our time to empty in all respects. The biggest advantage on this topic is having enough money to hire backup or relief help when needed.

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  • Lyra August 19, 2013, 9:12 pm

    This solidifies that just because you love someone deeply doesn’t mean that’s enough to sustain a lasting relationship. I loved my first ex so deeply and truly thought I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, but there were so many glaring issues that we had with practical things — financial issues, immaturity on his part, and lack of ability to resolve conflicts quickly and effectively being some of the big ones. Love isn’t enough.

    In regards to love languages, my top one by far is physical affection. If I could spend all day cuddling I would. My last boyfriend didn’t get this. He was really good with helping out around the house which I appreciated, but he didn’t give good hugs and wasn’t the best cuddler. Not to mention he would rarely initiate a hug or cuddling or whatever. That became an big issue for me at the end of our relationship. The guy I’m seeing now also is big on physical affection, which I really like. Being on the same page is so great. 🙂

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