Relationships matter. The science is in.
The Harvard Grant study is a fascinating long-term study of 724 men who lived in and around Boston in the 1940s. It is still running today, tracking how these men’s lives turned out and why.
And the biggest takeaway from 75 years of tracking men’s lives?
“When the study began, nobody cared about empathy or attachment. But the key to healthy ageing is relationships, relationships, relationships,” – George Vaillant, principal investigator in the Harvard Grant study
You can read about the study here, but suffice to say, strong relationships are not only correlated with happiness, but also with physical health, longevity, and financial success.
Relationships aren’t just a part of life, they are life. And the most potent relationships in your life are your romantic relationships.
This is a worrying thought, however, considering 70% of romantic relationships break up within the first year. If they’re so important and so foundational to all other aspects of our lives, shouldn’t we nurture them more? Shouldn’t we take them more seriously? And why, if they’re so important, do we fail at partnering up so frequently?
I’m no exception. I’ve had a fair amount of long-term relationships crumble.
I’ve lived with several women, I’ve married two (and I’m still married to a wonderful woman today) and I now have a family.
I’ve learned a lot through my mistakes, and every failure has been a tough lesson.
So, with this in mind, I offer up my advice on relationships and tell you the things I wish someone had told me when I was younger.
I’m not special or clever, but perhaps I am a little further down the road than you.
It doesn’t matter if you’re married with kids, a teen in first love, if you’re straight, gay or into polyamory, this advice is still relevant.
At the end of the day, we’re all just people trying to live with one another in a meaningful way.
So let’s get into it.
1. Share the mental load
My wife explained this to me. The mental load is all the tasks and duties needing to be done to keep a household afloat; the washing up, the laundry, the dinner, the school runs, the bill payments, the cleaning, the food shopping and all the other crap no one likes to do but we spend an inordinate amount of time doing.
This mental load needs to be shared evenly and consciously, or else resentment sets in.
It doesn’t matter what the task is, mowing the lawn, cooking dinner, DIY, or picking up the kids, they are equally your and your partner’s responsibility to share.
Divide the mental load how you wish, play to your respective strengths, but share them deliberately. This is a non-negotiable for long-term harmony. An uneven burden will rot your relationship from the inside out.
2. Be polite
Communication is the lifeblood of relationships, but not any old communication. There’s no point talking if all you do is moan or put the other person down.
It may seem trite, or inconsequential, but talking to your partner with decency and respect is crucial. Relationships fall into ruin when politeness disappears.
I’ve seen couples get into the groove of huffing and puffing at each other’s questions or comments, being blunt, belittling what each other says and criticising everything the other person does.
Once a relationship is in that hole, it’s very difficult to dig it out.
I was on the beach a few years ago and an old married couple were near me. They spoke to each other with such polite respect, it blew me away. Their conversation was so decent. They seemed happy. It made me check the way I spoke to my wife. I wanted that relationship. It made me realise how badly I talked to her. Everything to me was an inconvenience, and I often communicated to her with grunts and complaints.
I had stopped talking with her and started talking at her. Don’t fall into this trap. It’s super common and super toxic.
3. You must respect your partner
If you look down on your partner or think they’re a bit of a fool, then don’t be with them. End it. Break up. You can’t love someone you don’t respect.
There’s a difference between sharing a joke about how your partner can’t cook, or how they get into comedy entanglements on nights out, versus genuinely looking down on them for being them.
Often, those feelings come from believing you can do better. You put yourself above the other person, consciously or subconsciously, because you see them as lower status. So naturally, you don’t respect them as you should.
This is indicative you shouldn’t be together. Learn to see your partner as an equal. It won’t work otherwise. And if you can’t do this, you shouldn’t be with them.
4. See a future, not a right now
Here’s a hard to admit fact: You know if you want to be with someone or not. You know it almost immediately. You might not like the answer, but deep down you know the answer.
This has always been the way for me, at least, and how many times do you hear “I knew I shouldn’t have been with them” after someone experiences a breakup?
Listen to your gut, your intuition. Don’t be with someone for stability, company, or status. Don’t seek to satisfy your needs right now, but seek to build something real and true.
Relationships shouldn’t (just) be about meeting your immediate needs. A shit and a shower meet your immediate needs, a one-night stand meets your immediate needs; a relationship is all about the long term.
I’ve learned this the hard way. I’ve even married someone because I thought it would be easier than not marrying them. Denying the truth of a relationship won’t change that relationship.
Know your feelings. Get honest. Get still. Consider your truth, no matter how difficult it is to admit, and honour that truth going forward. It will save you, and your partner, in the long run.
5. Sex matters
Sex is a powerful and bonding experience.
If you stop fucking, you start falling apart. Sorry to be crude, but sex matters. Sexual impulses need attention.
Sex is the foundation of a healthy relationship. This doesn’t mean meeting quotas or doing it when you don’t want to — saying no is as an important aspect of sex as any other — it is about establishing how you both value this activity together.
If you’re not on the same page about sex, you’ve got problems.
Sex is a private secret between you both, the things you do and say, the quickies in someone else’s bathroom, the stolen afternoons when you’re meant to be working but instead you spend it together with the curtains drawn. Remove sex from the equation and you have a housemate you get to go on holiday with.
Don’t worry about doing sex “right”, sex isn’t about skill, stamina or body fat percentage, it’s just the thing you exclusively do together. So make sure you’re on the same page.
An agreement has to be struck about this potent subject. Give it the attention it deserves. It’s foundational.
6. Jealousy mocks the flesh it feeds on
Love and relationships only work if you commit and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Have no doubt, sometimes this sucks, especially when you have a couple of messy breakups and no longer trust anyone. But if you want a healthy relationship, if you want to be happy, you have no choice but to trust the other person implicitly.
You cannot go into a relationship guarded. At least, not in the long term. You cannot see the other person as an enemy or a spy on a mission of emotional espionage. If you have issues hating men, or women, you have to address those before partnering up.
People assume they can come to the table all fucked up and let the relationship heal them. It doesn’t work that way. No one wants a project, no one wants to fix someone else before they can be loved.
You have to do the work to make yourself emotionally available for someone else.
No doubt, a little bit of jealousy is nice to hear. It’s a compliment. But no one wants to be under constant scrutiny.
Jealousy has eaten me up in the past, and it always came from not feeling enough. I projected insecurities onto my partner and then made her pay for crimes she didn’t commit. Ironically, this drove her further away from me.
I have no good answers for jealousy other than to remind myself this is my failing, not theirs.
It’s hard to hear, but if your partner really is cheating, or trying to cheat, they weren’t worth being with anyway.
This is so very difficult to accept, but it’s the only hand we can play. Gnashing your teeth will get you nowhere.
Life isn’t a destination. You can’t judge a relationship purely by its ending. Open up, be vulnerable, and let jealousy go, it’s only you driving yourself mad.
7. Take pride in your appearance
This is controversial, but no matter how taboo it might be to suggest, looks matter. As said, denying reality won’t change reality.
Your partner is with you because, in part, they found you sexually attractive. If you let yourself go and take no pride in your appearance, you’re removing a cornerstone of the relationship, you’re changing the contract to which you both agreed.
Of course, you can love someone for who they are, but you’re also with them because of how they look.
There’s a tacit agreement you make an effort for each other. If you sit around the house all day unshowered, in dirty clothes and you quit the gym, what signal does that give the other person? It says I don’t value myself, so why should you? It says I don’t value your opinion either.
Effort is attractive. Make the effort.
Dress smarter, stand taller, keep your waistline in check. It’s all holistic. Health and looks go hand in hand. If you feel and look better, so will your partner, and so will your relationship.
We’re told our partner is meant to make our life complete and happy. So when you are unhappy, it’s easy to blame them, but as always, your mental and physical health is your responsibility, no one else’s.
8. Relationships are perfected in the mundane
A relationship therapist once said to me, “Couples know where they are when arguing and they know where they are when they have sex. The dynamics are clear. The real problems lie in being together in the uneventful moments, like watching television or eating dinner.”
Relationships are perfected in the mundane, in the quiet moments where you just be with each other.
If you need to argue, fuck, drink or distract yourself with phones and social media to spend time together, you are avoiding one another. A healthy person can sit quietly with their thoughts. A healthy couple can sit quietly together.
Perfect the art of co-living. You and them, side by side without drama, doing the uneventful things like morning routines, putting a wash on, tidying the house or a listless Sunday.
If you can’t be around each other for the ordinary moments, the extraordinary moments just become escapism.
9. Show how you feel
James Clear wrote that you know yourself from what you think, while everyone else knows you from your actions, so don’t be surprised when you’re misunderstood.
This is a huge problem in relationships. You think the other person should know what’s upsetting you, or you assume they do know but don’t care.
The more people spend time together, the more communication becomes non-verbal, and this can cause assumptions and misunderstandings. Worse, we do communicate, but in misleading ways, dropping hints and muddying waters, wanting the other person to reach out and help when they have no clue there’s a need to.
In The Four Agreements’, author Don Miguel Ruiz writes:
“If others tell us something we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something we make assumptions to fulfil our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don’t understand we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.” – Don Miguel Ruiz
Be clear with your partner. Be explicitly clear. Help them help you. Even if you feel something deeply and passionately, they may not know. Having to tell them isn’t a sign the relationship isn’t working, it’s a sign you’re communicating and in a good place.
10. Don’t tolerate people playing with your emotions
Finally, this. Understand your value and develop self-worth.
Don’t fall into the trap of chasing a relationship that is ultimately going nowhere. This is a common blind spot. Rejection breeds obsession. If someone treats you badly and is half-in, half-out of a relationship with you, you’ll like them more and you’ll chase them more. It’s perverse but the brain says “this person must be of high value” so you strive to capture them, and you become obsessive in your pursuit.
Who hasn’t fallen for someone like this?
But in reality, what’s happening is you’re giving the other person consent to treat you badly.
There is a huge cost to this behaviour. There are literally thousands of people who would happily be with you if only you looked for them. You don’t need one person half-committing, taking you off the market, your time and attention are precious, and there is a limited amount to go around, so invest wisely.
You can’t trick someone into wanting to be with you. If they’re not committing after months, or years, it won’t change. Do what you’d tell your friends to do —leave them and start over. Happiness is around the corner, all you’ve got to do is walk there.
There are myriad more points to mention, such as making time for interests outside a relationship, not having kids or pets to save a relationship and accepting your partner’s family come as part of the relationship deal, but hey, this is a bottomless topic where the learning never ends.
Hats off to any and all of you looking to improve to make your relationships healthier. Most people don’t do this. But change is only one decision away and there’s no reason why you don’t deserve happiness, as well as making someone else happy.
Life isn’t a competition with anyone else. It’s not a race, it’s a dance, a song. There isn’t a destination. Enjoy it all and don’t stop learning.
Thanks to Alessandro Butler
This post was previously published on medium.com.
You may also like these posts on The Good Men Project:
|White Fragility: Talking to White People About Racism||Escape the “Act Like a Man” Box||The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer||What We Talk About When We Talk About Men|
Photo credit: Candice Picard on Unsplash