As a couple’s therapist, I see relationships of all shapes and sizes. New parents and empty nesters. Partners who demonstrate quiet resignation and others who display fierce anger. I see boomers and millennials and everyone in between. They all have one common trait. Every single couple wants less pain and a deeper more meaningful connection.
If you ask, “Does therapy work?” My answer might surprise you.
“Therapy doesn’t work. Couples work.”
In private practice, I say much of the same things to couples during my weeks. The couples who go home and put in the work get better. The ones that don’t make me wonder how serious they are about wanting real change.
What's interesting about millennial couples, particularly in career driven individuals, is that they can tend to lean on their career for the source of their happiness. What they don't realize is how important the strength of their marriage is to their overall happiness, even more so than career satisfaction.
Millennial Couples Have An Advantage
When it comes to achieving positive change in a relationship, I believe millennial couples have an advantage. Generally, they’re more aspirational. More agile. More willing to try new ideas. More open to solutions delivered in less conventional ways. They want to write their own script for life and marriage and they don’t want to settle for something lame.
Audit Your Behaviors
Your relationship is like a bank book. Every one of your behaviors affects the account balance. Positive behaviors make deposits (e.g. “Thank you for working so hard this weekend. The yard looks amazing!”). Negative behaviors act as withdrawals (e.g. “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you ever be on time?”).
By auditing your behaviors (that is your thoughts, and attitude, and tone, and words, and actions) and making the appropriate adjustments, you can build a substantial balance in your relationship account. It’s never too early to start.
Is Your Relationship Your Priority?
An easy place to look at your priorities is to look at how you spend your time and money. You can learn a lot by looking at your credit card statements and calendars. People will tell me that their relationships are a priority, but I don’t really see it in practice.
I see a lot more couples pursuing exactly the opposite. They say, “When I get my career on the right track, when I make enough money, when I lose enough weight, then I’ll be happy. Then my marriage will be better.” But that’s not how relationships work. Relationships work when couples choose to make them a priority.
Sage Advice From A Research Wonk
Having spent a year looking at all the sociological, psychological, economic and historic data he could get his hands on, Northwestern University psychology professor Dr. Eli Finkel distilled his research to two key findings which he shared at TEDxUChicago.
1. “The quality of your marriage is the single greatest predictor of your overall happiness in life.”
“If you want to predict people's overall happiness with their life, you can’t do any better than to figure out how well their marriage is functioning. The marriage relationship matters twice as much in determining happiness as career satisfaction, friendships, financial well-being, or even health.”
2. “Couples who invest a lot of time and energy in their partnership are seeing unprecedented benefits.”
"Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality, but only if they invest a lot of effort. If they can’t, their marriage will be more disappointing to them than a humdrum marriage was to prior generations, because they’ve been promised so much more.”
What does Finkel mean, when he says “promised so much more”? Think of it. Today we expect our partner to be our everything. Our romantic lover, best friend, life companion, confidant, co-parent, career advisor, financial partner, advocate, and so much more. It’s easy to understand how expectations get set so high.
If those expectations are consistently met, there is most often delight, growing desire, and a deep meaningful connection. But if those expectations go chronically unmet? There is most often disappointment, pain, disconnect, and further distancing.
Bringing It All Together
If you want a happy life you’ll build a high quality marriage. You’ll make your partner your priority. You’ll be intentional and proactive. You’ll invest the time, energy, effort, and money into getting equipped and then you’ll follow through by putting those insights and skills into action.
To help you get started today check out these free resources.
Author Bio: Zach Brittle is the best-selling author of The Relationship Alphabet; a Gottman Certified Therapist with private practice in Seattle, WA; happily married husband to Rebecca for 19 of 20 years; father to Abi and Mari; and cofounder of forBetter.us, an online coaching platform dedicated to equipping couples and transforming marriages – all at a tiny fraction of the cost of traditional therapy.