The authors of a new book on long-term relationships have some science-based advice for maintaining a solid partnership.
Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts (Tarcher Books, 2018), from husband-and-wife team James Pawelski, a philosopher and professor of practice in the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, and science writer Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, applies Aristotle’s ideas and the field of positive psychology to modern-day relationships.
“Aristotle claims we humans love three basic kinds of things: those that are useful, those that are pleasurable, and those that are good,” Pawelski says. “And he points to a type of friendship that corresponds to each love.”
Useful friendships spring up between acquaintances like business partners and are born of necessity and convenience. Pleasurable friendships are based on the enjoyment that comes from spending time together. The third type—and in Aristotle’s philosophy the most mature and desirable—is friendship based on goodness.
“We don’t actually want someone who can’t breathe if they’re not with us.”
“We see the good character in someone and it makes us want to be around that person,” Pawelski says. “It can also inspire us to want to become better ourselves.”
In the book, Pawelski and Pileggi Pawelski take a twist on this third type of friendship, seeing it through the lens of a committed, loving relationship. With that as a framework, they apply the main tenets of positive psychology to create a roadmap for a healthy, strong, and satisfying relationship.
“There is much more focus in our culture today on getting together rather than on being together, and on continuing to be happy together,” says Pileggi Pawelski. “What happens after the happily-ever-after? A wedding day is magical, but what about all the days and years to come?”
Here Pawelski and Pileggi Pawelski offer five tips for partners in all stages of a relationship, from those just starting out to married couples many years in:
1. Foster passion, not obsession. In the beginning stages of a normal relationship, partners often feel a strong desire for one another. As time progresses, however, such passion and preoccupation can be a sign of obsession and result in loss of individuality.
“We don’t actually want someone who can’t breathe if they’re not with us,” Pawelski says. In a healthy relationship, these feelings morph into a deep love that allows each person to maintain friendships and hobbies and an overall sense of identity. “If you feel like you’ve lost yourself—and often it’s friends who first notice—it’s important to recall those interests and activities you were involved with before your relationship,” he adds. “That can help balance you out.”
2. Put the positive first. Positive psychology contends that positive emotions can help people flourish, but “we can’t just wait for them to happen,” Pileggi Pawelski says. “Couples that are the happiest actively nurture these emotions.” Doing so takes practice and requires grasping that these sentiments fall on a continuum, from those of high arousal like passion, amusement, and joy (often experienced at the start of a relationship) to calmer emotions like serenity, gratitude, and inspiration. If cultivating these feels unnatural, she suggests “prioritizing positivity,” which means scheduling the types of activities into your day that naturally lead to experiencing these emotions.
3. Savor the good, reframe the bad. “Positive emotions tend to exist in spades at the beginning of a relationship,” Pawelski says. “But we eventually have to go to work, get the car fixed—real life kicks in.” When that happens, he adds, we can wind up harping on the problems, the aspects of our partners that come to bother or annoy us. Instead, he recommends reintroducing balance by consciously focusing on the shared positive moments and experiences—past, present, and future—and intentionally shifting away from the negative. Doing so can “lengthen and strengthen” healthy emotions.
4. Play to each other’s strengths. Partners often dwell more on each other’s weaknesses than strengths. Pileggi Pawelski recommends that couples discover each person’s top five character strengths, commonly referred to as “signature strengths” and then plan dates that emphasize one from each partner. For example, if one person’s top strength is zest and the other’s is love of learning, they could take a Segway tour around a historical city to engage both.
“Research shows that when you’re exercising what you’re naturally good at, your individual well-being tends to go up,” she says. “This activity allows you to come together as a couple to exercise strengths from both partners. It’s a unique and powerful way to approach dates.”
5. Get grateful. “As we move further into a relationship, we may begin taking our partners for granted. Gratitude is one way to help us continue seeing the goodness in the other person,” Pawelski says.
To that end, it’s important to express that feeling by employing what’s called other-focused gratitude, which shifts the attention from “I” to “you.” Instead of appreciation stated with phrasing like, ‘Thank you for taking care of our child when I needed to finish this project,’ it’s said as, ‘Once again you stepped in. You are such a kind and thoughtful person.’
“This can begin a whole conversation about what aspect of the interaction our partner really valued,” Pawelski says. “Except in fairy tales, ‘Happily Ever After’ doesn’t just happen. Practicing these tips can help us develop the healthy habits needed to continue to be happy together.”