Within the first year of our relationship, at a time when most couples are basking in the glow of a new romance, my wife and I had the unusual experience of falling in love while navigating a major challenge.
To J’s everlasting credit, she didn’t bat an eye when I told her, just a few dates into our courtship, that I wanted a family…now! What we had no way of knowing was that my immediate efforts to get pregnant would lead us on a 2-year infertility journey (at which point I passed my baby baton to J).
Now, almost 7 years later, with a magnificent 3 year-old daughter and a baby boy on the way, we refer to our struggles to create a family as a testament to our love:
“If we made it through that, we can make it through anything.”
I don’t think we’re alone in assuming that weathering challenges bodes well for relationship longevity. Given the range of life’s stresses, which seem to increase exponentially after we have kids, having a partner with whom we can tackle obstacles and survive them intact, if not more strongly bonded, is noteworthy.
Yet a 2006 UCLA study suggests that the greatest boon to relationships might not be how we handle bad times, but how we respond to good ones. Specifically, what we say and do when dealing with positive events are better predictors of relationship wellbeing than how we manage negative events. Bottom line:
How well or poorly we respond to each others’ triumphs, and positive life experiences, is a pivotal factor in strengthening or undermining our bond as a couple.
Granted, the couples studied were dating (for at least 6 months) versus being married. Still, I believe the UCLA data are important for long-term relationships and, especially, our connection as parents. Why?
For starters, once we have kids our alone time with spouses is reduced by about 66%. What’s left has to accommodate new stressors, like conflicts about children and childcare duties (2 of the 3 most common topics parents argue about; money is the 3rd).
Meaning, the more time we devote to exchanges with spouses that are negative in tone or topic, whether related to parenting or other spousal challenges (e.g., illness or work issues), the less time we have to appreciate their wins (e.g., job promotion or their ability to get our infant on a nap schedule).
This is especially true if we believe challenges are worthier of our limited time and energy than successes. In which case, we might not only miss key opportunities to nurture each other when something good happens, but we might inadvertently have the opposite effect.
The research shows that downplaying or demeaning our partner’s good fortune can have lasting negative impact (it was a factor in break-ups among the dating couples). This seems especially pertinent for those among us who feel we’re constantly putting out fires, whether it’s because we wrangle kids or a demanding job all day.
If we feel put-upon most of the time, it’s easy to lapse into the perspective of: “What’s the big deal if something goes well for my spouse? I’ve got a fire to put out!”
The big deal is that by missing the chance to fan the flames of appreciation when something good happens to spouses, or by minimizing their positive experiences, our relationships might well get burned.
How do we shift perspective from tackling the negative to cheerleading the positive?
We don’t, insofar as our individual and relationship challenges don’t disappear, decrease in importance, or benefit from being ignored if something good occurs. So, in the absence of magically adding more hours to the day, it’s worth inventing quick ways to celebrate our spouses’ wins and vice-versa.
Quick Congrats: No time for a congratulatory conversation? Go for a quickie: Look your spouse in the eye and genuinely say how happy (and if appropriate proud) you are about their good news. Say you wish you could celebrate now, and promise to devote more time soon.
How can you make good on that promise? Here are some suggestions:
(1) CELEBRATION PAGE: Post a sheet of paper, with your spouse’s triumph on top, in a visible place on your bedroom wall. Whenever you have a minute to spare, record words or phrases of praise on it. Present the page to your beloved at the end of the week and, if you have time to do so, elaborate on what you were able to record.
(2) FAMILY POSTER: Tape a family poster to your fridge or kitchen wall. Record everyone’s “wins” on a weekly or monthly basis (no matter how young—e.g., baby slept 10 hours straight—or old they are). Together, review the list at a family dinner.
(2) DINNER TOAST: Do a celebration toast at dinner on a daily or weekly basis to acknowledge any successes during that time period.
(2) CELEBRATION DATE: Book a celebration date with your spouse on a monthly (or more frequent) basis. Spend at least 10 minutes congratulating and praising your spouse’s accomplishment/s, and vice-versa.
(3) NOTABLE NOTES: Jot a brief congratulatory note—seriously, brevity works—and slip it into your spouse’s wallet.
(4) CONGRATULATE OVER TIME: Many of us consider relishing a success over time to be self-indulgent and we short-change our accomplishments in the process. As spouses we can ensure the celebration lasts by, for example, putting pop-up reminders on calendars to send our spouse a quick text to acknowledge their efforts.
Go ahead: Create quick acknowledgements to suit your spouse’s personality (and your own). Whatever you devise, rest assured that celebrating the good times will not only please your beloved, it will enhance your relationship, and teach your kids the importance of acknowledging their own and others’ positive experiences.