05 January 2011


Conventional wisdom holds that most marriages and long-term relationships founder over two key issues -- money or sex. When we first fall in love, we tend to see the best in our partner, and overlook small quirks. Over time, infatuation and lust gradually mature into more profound love and a deeper passion born of familiarity and ease. If, as sometimes occurs, things take a wrong turn and maturing is displaced by dissatisfaction, those same small quirks may become magnified out of proportion to their importance. What to do? How to judge what is vital to happiness (money? sex? status? comfort? feeling listened to and understood?) becomes a tangle rivaling a Gordian knot. And like Alexander the Great in the legend, our uncertainty may turn to impatience, ending in taking a sword to matters, rather than taking the time and thought to understand and solve whatever is making the relationship difficult to live with.

Couples counseling helps. So does free and open communication between partners. And sometimes a fresh perspective is just the thing. Tara Parker-Pope offers just that in The Happy Marriage Is the 'Me' Marriage. Don't be misled by the title -- the 'Me' part doesn't refer to selfishness or getting one's own emotional, intellectual, financial or spiritual needs met at the expense of the partner's needs. Rather, it refers to an ideal symbiosis in which both partners seek to meet the needs of both partners. (The explanation for the picture above appears in the "symbiosis" link. Click the photo to enlarge.)

Put another way, as Parker-Pope points out, "individuals use a relationship to accumulate knowledge and experience, a process called 'self-expansion'. Research shows that the more self-expansion people experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are in the relationship .... While the notion of self-expansion may sound inherently self-serving, it can lead to stronger, more sustainable relationships. If you're seeking self-growth and obtain it from your partner, then that puts your partner in a pretty important position. And being able to help your partner's self-expansion would be pretty pleasing to yourself.

"The concept explains why people are delighted when dates treat them to new experiences, like a weekend away. But self-expansion isn't just about exotic experiences. Individuals experience personal growth through their partners in big and small ways. It happens when they introduce new friends, or casually talk about a new restaurant or a fascinating story in the news .... Over time, the personal gains from lasting relationships are often subtle. Having a partner who is funny or creative adds something new to someone who isn't. A partner who is an active community volunteer creates new social opportunities for a spouse who spends long hours at work.

"Additional research suggests that spouses eventually adopt the traits of the other -- and become slower to distinguish differences between them, or slower to remember which skills belong to which person .... It's not that these couples lost themselves in the marriage. Instead, they grew in it. Activities, traits and behaviors that had not been part of their identity before the relationship were now an essential part of how they experienced life. All of this can be highly predictive for a couple's long-term happiness."

Speaking from experience, I've always felt most engaged by someone who is articulate and has varied interests, someone from whom I can learn, someone who can learn from me. I once heard a definition of love as being that emotional state in which the other person's happiness is essential to one's own. When you think about it, if that is true for both partners, it becomes a circular, self-feeding cycle which has unlimited potential to enrich the lives of both. And what could be finer? There is no worldly problem -- money, sex, status, comfort, feeling listened to and understood -- which is insoluble, given the creativity and caring of two souls who enrich each others' lives.

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