Few Dutch researchers study relationships; that is more of an American habit. Psychologist and Pedagogist Catrin Finkenhauer of the Vrije Universiteit knows a lot about love relationships. Her group followed almost 200 just-married couples for four years and questioned them extensively about their relationships. She has twelve pieces of advice.
Find someone similar to you…
‘Opposites attract’ doesn’t work if you want a long-term, stable relationship. For that you’re much better off being as much like each other as possible. Did you both study, do you both come from ‘t Gooi or Kinkerbuurt, and are you both frugal or just love spending money? That makes life a lot simpler. The same goes for the goals you want to achieve. Finkenauer: “We need security. We want the other to be able to take good care of us and react kindly when we need help or support. It helps when someone knows your world and shares your aims.”
…But accept the differences
What you absolutely should not try to do – but what most partners still stubbornly persist in doing – is to change your partner. Finkenauer: “We asked people how much they had changed or given up for their partner. The more they had done so, the unhappier they were. If you have the feeling that you have to change for your partner, because he or she doesn’t accept you the way you are, then you will become unhappy. Conversely, if you try to change your partner, you send the message that you don’t like them just as they are”. Your partner will only be prepared to accept things from you when he or she is a hundred percent certain of your love and feels that you understand him or her. He or she knows then that you just want to help.
‘It doesn’t matter how well you know your partner, if you just think that you know your partner well’
Or exploit them
It’s ideal if your partner has qualities that you would like to have, and vice versa, so you can copy them from each other. Everyone has points for personal improvement, such as becoming better organised or more assertive. A partner with these ideal qualities can provide an example for what you need to do in order to strengthen these qualities in yourself.
Sculpt your partner
Encouraging each other to exploit existing but not yet developed capacities is good for your relationship. Helping each other gives you both a good feeling and strengthens your bond. Finkenauer’s colleague Caryl Rusbult (who passed away in 2010) researched this so-called Michelangelo effect. Michelangelo believed that the statue was already present within the stone, and that he only needed to remove the superfluous stone to make it visible. So if there is a good writer concealed within your partner but the courage is missing, just give it the necessary boost.
Trust each other
If you and your partner trust each other, you give each other a great deal of credit. You feel safe in your relationship and know that your partner is there for you, even if you are vulnerable or stressed. If your partner suspects that you are hiding something, then you are suspicious and untrustworthy, whether there really is a secret or not. An adventure with someone else or problems at work: it doesn’t matter much what the secret is. If you keep something secret, you are implicitly saying: “I don’t trust you enough.” Finkenauer: “A partner generally interprets that as ‘I don’t love you enough’. We asked our test subjects whether they ever read their partner’s journals or text messages. The lower participants scored in trust, the more they tended to spy. That spying is fruitless, because if you don’t find anything, you still distrust your partner.”
‘Just like people, relationships have good and bad days; conflicts are unavoidable’
Show that you can control yourself properly, and you will receive more trust. If you can postpone a purchase until a financially better time, then you can probably suppress the urge to have a wild night with someone else. Research even indicates that people who can control themselves well have less of a wandering eye. Another valuable application of self-control: if your partner says something nasty to you, you can say something nice back all the same and thus prevent escalation.
Don’t cheat. Although…
Most people say that they could never forgive their partner for cheating on them. Ultimately however, partners often remain together afterwards, for example because the other shows genuine remorse, or the betrayed partner is more forgiving than expected. “Or because he or she realises that leaving a partner is actually difficult”, says Finkenauer. If you cheat and no break-up follows, it will still be difficult to repair the significant dent to the essential trust within your relationship.
Trust comes on foot and leaves on horseback. When the trust in a relationship has been violated, it takes a lot of work from both partners to restore it once again. Self-control is also useful here. By showing restraint – keeping your promises and not passing on people’s secrets to others, for example – the betrayed partner gets the signal that he or she is safe and that you have the willpower to repair the trust and continue the relationship.
If you feel grateful for your relationship, then that is the sign that the relationship is good for you and you should do your best to maintain it. You do this by taking good care of your partner, keeping to your agreements, avoiding arguments, and so on. Your partner will also be grateful for this. The level of gratitude appears to predict changes in the relationship, more so than satisfaction, for example. Finkenauer: “If the gratitude decreases, people are less inclined to put any effort into each other, and after a year we see that the relationship is going worse.”
“One of the most important human needs is to feel understood”, continues Finkenauer. “Give the other the feeling that you are not in the relationship despite his or her shortcomings, but thanks to them. Just like people, relationships have good and bad days; conflicts in relationships are unavoidable. Being accepting of each other, even when you’re stressed or grumpy, forgiving each other and making things good between you, are all signs that you care about each other and care about the relationship, even when you’re going through a rough patch. Everything you can do to bring this across contributes to a good relationship.”
Knowing each other well is not necessary
Finkenauer and her colleagues have discovered that it doesn’t matter how well you know your partner, as long as you think you know each other well. If the test subjects were aware of their partner’s weaknesses, they didn’t appear to be less happy with their partners. “People mainly just want their partner to see the world as they do, and to understand them. Their partner is thus predictable and they can feel safe and accepted and have the experience that the other cares about them”, says Finkenauer.
‘Keep talking to each other. Especially over daily things’
If your relationship comes under pressure, for example through a family argument, financial problems or the birth of children, you will probably discover that you didn’t know your partner as well as you thought. For example, you may find out that you have very different ideas about bringing up children. Finkenauer: “Partners then often blame each other for not asking their opinion.” Make sure to do regular ‘reality checks’ and keep talking to each other. Not only about important things, but also about daily things. Identify your similarities and differences and your dreams and expectations by listening to each other, and then you can seek compromises and find solutions.”
Admire each other a little
“If you and your partner feel that you admire each other, you will be happier in your relationship. This works just as well as gratitude”, says Finkenauer. But too much admiration is not good, she warns. That can bring the relationship out of balance. Ideally, the partners admire each other and are a little proud of each other.
Decide together what makes good sex
Finkenauer does not yet have any research results on sexuality. Erik van Beek, a sexologist at the GGZ in Geest, can complement our guide. “Sex is just one type of contact, but it is the most intimate”, he emphasises. The meaning of sex can differ from couple to couple. This means that the sex can be great while there is also a lot of tension in the relationship. Or vice versa: some couples find each other mainly in bed, others outside of it.
Van Beek encounters two myths in the consultation room: ideal sex means reaching orgasm together, and masturbation is a betrayal of your partner. Van Beek: “You determine together what good sex is. Solo sex can even reinforce your desire for one another. It is often the case that the partner is surprised and excited to hear that you masturbate.”
Most relationships encounter sexual problems sooner or later, which can often be resolved very well. Relationships in which sex no longer plays a part often wither, particularly if there is no consensus. A common problem is that, after a time, one partner has less need for sex than the other. “Do it somewhere different than at home or in bed, then, or during a stolen moment somewhere in the day”, Van Beek advises. Talking about it can give greater understanding and bring up feelings of desire once again.
Children or no children?
Should you have children or not? It’s impossible to say, according to Finkenauer’s research. “Children give your life a purpose and more meaning, and if you succeed in their upbringing and agree on how to go about it, you will be very happy. However, you also have more responsibilities, stress and worries. People who want children should realise that they will need to make sacrifices.”
Sociologist and demographer Aat Liefbroer, also a relationship researcher at the Vrije Universiteit and at NIDI, calculated that well-being increases on average by 0.71 on a scale of 1 to 7 when children arrive. “But the figures depend very much on the questions you ask”, he observes. “People feel happier overall, but we have not asked about side-effects such as stress and fatigue. It’s therefore hard to make statements about this.” There may also be an acclimatisation effect in which the feeling of happiness is high around the birth of the child, but gradually decreases to the level it was before that time, just as happens after the start of a new relationship or a marriage.
This article is an updated version of the one that appeared in 2010 in the print Vrije Universiteit Magazine.