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Apr 20 2009

The Subtle Stuff: Creating a Relationship That’s Worth Staying In

Published by at 6:22 pm under Advice

What’s the biggest challenge in dating at midlife? I don’t think it’s finding an available single. The dating at midlife sub-culture is enormous. Census figures suggest that more than 30% of all adults are not married. It’s easy to find another single person who is looking for a relationship. The question is what kind of a relationship and the challenge is in creating a relationship that’s worth staying in.

In midlife dating relationships it’s strange how easily people get ahead of the relationship their riding in. What happens when people try to force a relationship to go somewhere is that they end up being dragged behind it. A good example of this is what happens when people become lovers before they become friends. When this happens, it makes friendship building more complicated.

Every friendship has its little storms. The challenge in dating at midlife is creating a climate that, despite the ordinary storms, is so pleasant you want to settled down and live in it. How do you do that?

The Gottman Ratio.

John Gottman, psychologist at Washington University, wrote a book with the audacious title, “Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.” He and his team could predict with 90% accuracy whether a couple would still be together five years later. They did it by observing the friendship between the partners. Couples that stay together have five times as many positive interactions as negative. The percent of positive time together would have to be 83%. That, in a college grading system, is a B. If a relationship got a C, it wouldn’t last. It is this ratio that predicts longevity.

Therefore, if you want a relationship to last you have to do two things from the outset. You have to manage the negative stuff so it doesn’t take over and you have to create habits between yourself and your partner so the relationship is pleasant and positive for both of you. People do this naturally in courtship. They are on super-good behavior. The challenge is maintaining that goodness as the relationship deepens. This takes some skill and knowledge.

In this article we’re going to look at increasing the positive stuff, but in passing I want to notice one of the weird quirks of midlife dating. A lot of people get into compartmentalized relationships, ones with a guarantee of no future. These relationships are often very pleasant because people over look the little things that would ordinarily bother them. It’s when a partner starts looking at a life-time of co-habitation and commitment that things usually over looked start to matter. But laying the early groundwork for successful conflict management is a different topic for another time. For now we are going to focus on the little things that make life together sweet.

Reciprocal Altruism.

Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist named the principle of nature that creates deep friendship. He called it Reciprocal Altruism. His theory has been successfully measured and tested, but it also seems to reflect deep common sense. It’s an amazing mechanism. It’s what makes people happy to be with each other and binds us into enduring marriages, friendships and business relationships.

It works like this: There are ten thousand small efforts I can make for you, which cost me next to nothing, yet the value of these things to you is enormous. A casual kind word to someone who’s had a bad day can be all the difference in the world to them. If you are starving and I have more than enough food, the cost to me of one more plate on the table is negligible while the value to you is extraordinary.

Low cost to the giver, high value to the receiver: this is the principle of reciprocal altruism. It not only makes you want to return the favor, it bonds you, and it makes returning the favor a pleasure.

Now in a new relationship, if I know what little things I could do, which cost me next to nothing, yet which my partner would deeply appreciate, then how wonderful and easy it would be to do those things and how much both our happiness would be increased!

Little gifts that shape a relationship.

The challenge, though, is that people are astonishingly uncommunicative about the genuinely positive, appreciative and admiring experiences they have with each other. Psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey point this out in their book, How The Way We Talk Can Change The Way We Work. The same principles apply in the way we make friendships.

People are often vague about what pleases them. If you are dating someone, you may gather, indirectly, that your partner appreciates certain things about you, but you don’t always know how well they really get you in all your special particularity. And when you share evidence of it, say in a perfectly chosen gift – “Ah just my taste! How did you know?” – it’s a thrill. What you want to do is make it easy for them to understand what you like and what pleases you.

Try this exercise. Pick someone you are getting to know and like as a dating partner and then think about what you might spontaneously tell a third person about your new friend. Well, she’s just a great person. She’s really smart, considerate, funny and sweet and kind. Great figure, too. What wrong with that? Not a lot, except if that’s all that happens, it misses four key opportunities to build a solid friendship. What could you do in addition?

First, be direct. If you feel it strongly enough to tell someone else, or even to be spontaneously thinking in an idle moment, say, when you doing the dishes, then be deliberate and direct and say it directly to your dating partner. “You know I was thinking about something I appreciate about you…”

Second, savor the specifics. As good as that statement about being sweet, considerate and funny may sound, it’s still vague. Exactly what were the tiny things that led you to have those sentiments? Specifically, what did she do that was “considerate”? What exactly was it that was “funny,” or “sweet,” or “kind”? “I liked that little joke you made at the table. I like it when you make me laugh.”

Third, be precise. This is as much for you as it is for your partner. In the early stages of a relationship you are not just figuring out whether you like this particular person, you are also trying to clarify for yourself what it is you want in a long-term relationship. In relationship coaching, we ask people to make lists of what it is they want long term. But these lists are always hypothetical. They have to be. You can’t be too specific because you want to allow for happy surprises. And besides, everyone pretty much makes the same list. We all want partners who are smart, physically attractive, kind, sensitive and so on. But we differ in how we want those qualities to show up in our lives. Some men like women who are smart in the way they listen. Others like women who are smart in the way they talk. Those are big differences. What counts as being kind, sweet, or funny for you? You want to become more aware of those things, and one of the best ways is to comment on it to someone else.

Finally, you want to let your partner know how she affects you and you don’t want to fall into the trap of handing out grades. The first is generous and the second is a bit arrogant and doesn’t wear well. This is the hardest one to get.

Instead of saying, I’m so glad you are good with money, which is giving out a grade, you want to say something more specific and self-disclosing like I’m so glad you reminded me to check the restaurant bill because I wouldn’t have noticed that the tip was already included and I would have ended up tipping 35%. In the first comment your partner might be flattered. She might also figure that you don’t know enough about being good with money to even make a judgment. In the second, she can say to herself, Oh, he likes it when I do that. He didn’t think it was obnoxious of me. I can feel comfortable about doing it more.

It’s subtle stuff, and yet, if you practice these rules of thumb until you can be smooth and effortless with them – Being Direct, Being Specific, Noticing your own reactions and Sharing News of your happy experience of the other person – you will have the habit of doing very small things that have solid, positive results. Without making a Big Deal out of anything, you will be shaping the relationship the way you want it. You will be increasing the positive feelings to make the relationship worth wanting. You will be developing your own clarity about what you want. And finally, as promised in the poem, you will have things right in your relationship and you’ll know why. Not bad. – P.B.

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Looking for free help with Internet dating? I’m willing to help one person write their ad and evaluate responses if I can use the material (suitably disguised) in an article. Volunteers?

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One Response to “The Subtle Stuff: Creating a Relationship That’s Worth Staying In”

  1. Kaydenon 19 Dec 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Thanks for starting the ball rolling with this inshigt.