The Challenge: In relationships, it is easy to take our partners for granted and for excitement to fade away.
The Science: You can rekindle that spark of magic!
The Solution: Learn how to be Positive, Interested in, and Grateful for your partner.
Sting famously sang: “If you love someone, set them free.”
Psychology adds: “…and be a PIG.”
PIG stands for Positive, Interested, and Grateful (I got you there, didn’t I? ☺).
Why do you need to be a PIG?
Remember the you that was courting your beloved? Yes, that you that was funny, optimist, charming, always smiling? That’s brilliant. Are you ready for Comedy Central? That you that was very attentive, and always listening? Never distracted by the phone? Remember that person? Well, what happened?
Chances are that you settled into the new normal of “having” a partner: you habituated. Like all of us, you start taking things for granted. Slowly but surely, a blanket of “Yes, honey” greets any statement uttered by your partner. Your brilliance is invested elsewhere — goodbye, jokes; hello, complaining.
But not all is lost. We can be PIGs to recover our bliss.
Nobody wants to be with someone who wears rose-tinted glasses all the time. But nobody wants to be with someone who is a grouch all the time, either. The key is finding the right balance.
John Gottman has been studying what makes relationships work for the past forty years, and he swears that the optimal balance between positive and negative interactions in a couple is 5:1. Regardless of the exact number, the idea is simple: if most of the time you and your partner support each other, you smile at each other, and you pay attention to each other, then the occasional rebuke or frown does not have long-term consequences. Like a pinch of salt in a sweet dessert, it does not ruin it — it might even make it better. But if that background of positivity is missing, things are different. Now, that would be like adding salt to a dessert that has no sweetness: it becomes sour. It’s the same principle at work in diets: if you eat healthily and once in a while you indulge in a guilty pleasure (say, a slice of cheesecake), no big deal. It is not going to impact your health long-term. But if the cheesecake comes after an order for big fries and a super-sized soda, you might want to check in with your doctor sooner rather than later.
While working on complimenting your partner more, take the opportunity to have a fresh look at what is going on in your life by adopting an optimistic “explanatory style.” After a moment of initial disappointment, here is how an optimist explains a failure to herself and to her partner: I failed the test, but I will do better next time; it is a difficult project, but I will succeed in the end, as I did in other similar circumstances.
And this is how a pessimist explains the same failure: I failed the test, I will never pass this; I am a disaster. Who would you like to be listening to? No wonder research shows that optimists and their partners both report greater relationship satisfaction.
And remember that karma is at work. Positive emotions travel in networks and are contagious — that means that if your friends, neighbors, or co-resident partner become happier, chances are you will become happier, too. So, being happier for your partner makes them happier, which in turn makes you happier. How about that for a virtuous cycle?
Your partner excitedly tells you about a new opportunity at work. How do you react?
- “That means more stress. I do not envy you”.
- “Oh, yeah? Hey, you would not believe the cat video Matt shared on Facebook today. So sick!”
- “That is nice”.
- “That is great news! How did you manage to get that opportunity? Tell me more!”
Option (a) and (b) are destructive comments, the former “active destructive” and the latter “passive destructive.” They are “destructive” in reference to the bid for attention your partner is making — not in absolute terms. You can have the positive intention of warning your partner about stress, or you might be genuinely stoked about cat videos, and you urgently want to share the latest feline cuteness to hit the web. Still, that kills the positive emotion your partner wanted to share with you.
Option (c) and (d) are constructive comments. The “that is nice” comment is… nice! But nothing follows. It does not stimulate conversation. It is more like the “how are you” randomly thrown at people as you hurry past them. Option (d) is… the jackpot! ☺ Do more of that! Researchers call option (d) Active Constructive Responding (ACR for short), and they found it is associated with higher relationship quality and well-being.
Research by Sara Algoe and colleagues shows that feeling grateful for something your partner does leads to an increase in the sense of connection and relationship satisfaction.
As Amie Gordon writes, if taking each other for granted is the poison, gratitude is the antidote. She and her colleagues found that you can start a virtuous circle of positivity simply by being grateful for your partner. When you do that, you see the value of the relationship, and you are more willing to work for it; as a result, the partner feels appreciated and, therefore, grateful. That leads your partner to recognize your value and to be more willing to work for the relationship, which makes you feel appreciated and, therefore, grateful. And so on. Isn’t that cool?
The takeaway — how do I become a PIG?
- To become more POSITIVE:
- Create micro-moments of connection, as Fredrickson suggests. During the day, find three opportunities to connect with others with warmth, respect, and positive intentions. You might share a laugh with the barista at your coffee place or have a quick conversation with another person standing in line at the post office, listening to them and wishing them well. And smile! ☺ This exercise works your love muscles and spreads positivity all around, including in your relationship.
- To become more INTERESTED:
- Practice ACR. Next time your partner shares good news or a positive thing, be active (ask for more details) and constructive (increase positivity) in your response!
- To become more GRATEFUL:
- There are different ways, but one of the more effective ones is to keep a gratitude journal focused on the relationship. For a few weeks, once a week, write down 5 things you are grateful for in your partner: something they did or something you noticed about them. Go for depth, savor the feeling, and focus on what most positively surprised you during the week.