Updated: Dec 21, 2020
There are so many messages out there in our culture about how romantic relationships are supposed to be a continuous source of joy and happiness and delight and all sorts of other wonderful things.
So when this doesn’t happen – when our relationship doesn't seem 100% amazing, 100% of the time – we tend to think that something is wrong. Maybe we think our relationship isn’t good enough. Maybe we think someone else would be better for us. Maybe we slide into a pattern of discontent, or maybe we start actively entertaining break-up scenarios. Maybe we start blaming our partner for lots of things, and thinking thoughts like, “If only they were more like ____, I’d be so much happier.” Or, “If they just did more of ___ and less of ___, everything would be fine.”
Or maybe we just ditch our relationships as soon as we feel the slightest sense of dissatisfaction with the person we’re involved with.
And why wouldn’t we think and do these sorts of things? We live in a society in which imperfection is highly suspect. We’re pretty well trained, these days, to constantly look for external sources of happiness and satisfaction, and romantic relationships are billed as a very potent, powerful source of happiness and satisfaction.
But there isn’t nearly as much appreciation for the fact that even the best romantic relationships aren’t always blissful. Even the most devoted, compatible couples experience conflict. Boredom. Frustration with each other. Asynchronous desires, sexual or otherwise. Divergent interests. Different – sometimes wildly different - communication styles.
All of this stuff can be uncomfortable, but it’s also a completely normal part of being intimately involved with another human.
And even though it might not exactly be fun to experience this stuff, none of it is necessarily bad. The richness of the human experience includes a broad spectrum of emotions, and some of them are not as pleasant as others. The experience of being intimately involved with another person can be challenging and confounding, in addition to being wonderful.
And we don’t talk about that side of the coin enough. There aren’t many cultural messages broadcasting the challenges inherent to romantic relationships, and the normalcy of experiencing moments with your partner that are anything other than delightful.
So when we find ourselves unhappy within our relationship, we’re likely to think that the relationship is the problem or our partner is the problem. We’re likely to think that we need to change them or fix them or say goodbye to them.
Here's the thing. Sometimes a change in our relationship status is in order. Some relationships are better fits for us than others. There’s nothing wrong with preferring one person over another, or over all of the other humans on the planet. But it’s incredibly hard to figure out who we prefer, or who is a good match for us, or whether or not a given relationship is “right” or “good enough” if we expect our partner and our relationship with them to make us happy all the time.
No other person, no matter how great they are, is going to make you feel good all the time. Even the best relationship will not be a constant source of joy and satisfaction and love. So if that’s what you expect from your relationship, and you find yourself feeling dissatisfied, I have excellent news for you: you’re looking at things in a way that sets you up for disappointment. If you shift your perspective, you’ll either find a lot more happiness in your current relationship, OR you’ll be able to make a clear decision about whether or not you want to end the relationship (and a lot more likely to attract a partner who is a better fit for you in the future).
The key to your happiness is recognizing that the only person who can make you happy in your relationship is yourself.
I know this might sound counterintuitive or even absurd. Here’s the deal. Although you have presumably felt happy when you’re with your partner and as a result of your interactions with your partner, your partner doesn’t cause your happiness. Your thoughts and feelings about them cause your happiness. You like things about your person. Your positive thoughts about them lead you to feel good about them. These thoughts and feeling may seem to come out of nowhere – many people think of love as a super-natural force that “sweeps us off our feet” and so on and so forth – but they are still yours. Someone else could meet the person you’re in love with and be totally repulsed by them. You could wake up one morning and decide that you are totally repulsed by them! (As you’re probably well aware, this sort of thing happens all the time!)
If the idea that your thoughts about your partner cause your feelings about your partner sounds strange, try this exercise:
Think about a time when you felt deliriously happy with your partner. Intoxicated with love. Amazed with your good fortune to be with them. Call up these memories and really swirl them around in your mind for a few moments. How do you feel?
NOW think about a time when you felt very displeased with your partner. Sit with those memories for a moment. How do you feel now?
Notice that your partner didn’t actually do anything just now. All you had to do was summon thoughts of them in order to relive a few memories… and those memories lead to particular feelings. Your feelings were probably quite different depending on whether you were focusing on the good memory or the not-so-good memory. This illustrates the power of your focus.
You can use your power to focus on the good things about your partner to your advantage.
The FIRST thing you can do to be happier in your relationship is to actively look for things about your partner that you enjoy and appreciate.
Every day, find something new that you like about your partner and compliment them for it. This practice is so simple, yet so powerful. It’s an opportunity to be curious about your partner and notice new, positive things about them. Sometimes we get into a rut with our partners; sometimes we take them for granted even though we appreciate them deeply. Looking for new things to appreciate about them is an invitation to see them with fresh eyes and an open heart.
And saying positive things to your person every day is a gift to both of you. The only thing that’s better medicine for a weary soul than receiving a heartfelt compliment is giving a heartfelt compliment.
The SECOND thing you can do to create more happiness in your relationship is to hone in on the positive aspects of the relationship.
This is a little different from thinking about things you appreciate about your partner as an individual.
Every day, identify a new reason why you enjoy or appreciate your relationship. What have you learned as a result of being involved with your Person? How have you grown and evolved as a result of knowing them? How have your dynamics as a couple contributed to your individual development? How have you had fun together? What have you created together? What have you done with them that you could never have done by yourself, and never done with anyone else you know?
You might share these reflections with your partner, or you might not. Sometimes there’s power in sharing your insights; sometimes there’s more power in keeping them to yourself.
Focusing on the positive aspects of your partner and your relationship are key to generating greater satisfaction with your partner and your relationship. We’re all imperfect creatures, and we all behave in ways that aren’t ideal at times. No relationship is without its rough spots and zones of strangeness. But if that’s what you spend your time and energy focusing on, you’re forfeiting time and energy that you could devote to enjoying the things about your partner and your relationship that you love.
The THIRD thing you can do to create more happiness in your relationship is to figure out what you like to do and then do it consistently.
Do something every day, WITHOUT your partner, that you really enjoy.
It doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can be free, and it can be simple. Just take as much time as you reasonably can every day to do something that you like to do. Maybe it’s taking a walk every morning, or re-committing to an abandoned exercise routine. Maybe it’s painting or drawing or sculpting or knitting. Maybe it’s setting aside 20 minutes to read. But of course, if you have the time and resources, go big! Take private fencing lessons every afternoon if that’s your thing. Go to daily caviar tastings. Take up sky diving or the electric guitar. Just find something that suits your budget and your schedule THAT YOU ENJOY DOING and DO IT consistently.
And if you don’t know what you really enjoy doing, start experimenting immediately! There are so many interesting things to do in this world. There’s so much to learn about. There’s so much to appreciate. If you start exploring options, you’ll eventually discover – or rediscover – things you enjoy doing.
You don’t need to question whether the activity or activities you pick are “good enough.” What you enjoy doesn’t have to be cool or impressive or interesting or enjoyable to anyone but you. The point is not to take up a highly Instagram-able activity and amaze the social media-verse with your adventurousness or talent. The point is to connect with – and cultivate - your capacity to generate your own happiness and joy and delight.
DO THESE THREE THINGS EVERY DAY FOR TWO WEEKS, and be curious about what happens.
When we start to take responsibility for creating happiness, instead of expecting it to come to us from someone or something else, incredible shifts can occur. When we start to release the expectation that our partner should make us happy, a whole new set of possibilities within our romantic relationships open up.
Let me be clear that focusing on what we appreciate about our partner and our relationship doesn’t mean we have to ignore or gloss over aspects of our relationship that we find troublesome and want to change. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing an area of strife or strain, and wanting to do something to address it. But there’s a difference between approaching the trouble spot in our relationship as a puzzle to be solved with compassion and curiosity, and approaching it as a big bad problem that needs to be fixed (upon threat of distain or desertion or an equally dire consequence). There’s also a difference between treating our partner like a wonderful person who happens to be human (just like we are) and therefore imperfect (just like we are), and treating them like someone who has failed at the (impossible) task of making us happy all the time.
In addition, focusing on what we appreciate about our partner and our relationship is an important part of the process of deciding whether or not a relationship is really right for us, if that’s what we need to do. It’s not easy to get clarity on whether a relationship is “good enough” if you’re fixated on its fault lines and weak spots. But if you’re looking at the positive aspects of a person and your relationship with them and can say, “All of this is nice, but it’s just not what I prefer,” that’s a much more positive way to approach a breakup than thinking about all of the things you can’t stand about your partner, and how bad they are for being the way they are.
Final thought: happiness is attractive and contagious.
Your increased happiness may rub off on your partner. Our energetic state can uplift that of those around us. (Although we can’t make anyone change, we often inspire others to change, in other words.)
And if you’re single and hoping to attract a partner, spending time and energy doing things that energize and excite you will help you radiate vitality and joy. And what’s more attractive than that?