Joy Nordenstrom, founder of Joy of Romance shares her unique take on the “we-ness” business of marriage or long term relationships, inspired by a Harvard Study showing that the key to a happy and fulfilling life is love – and finding ways to avoid pushing the love away.
You searched, found love and are ready to profess your undying commitment to your partner. Congratulations! When you walk down the aisle, in front of your family and friends, you are creating a new entity – a “we” that needs to be cared for properly. Consider yourselves entrepreneurs who have just started a co-venture together.
This “we-ness” business could very well be the most important thing you do in your life. In the longest study of humanity to date, the Harvard Grant Study followed 268 male Harvard undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 for 75 years, collecting data on various aspects of their lives over regular intervals. George Vaillant, the psychiatrist who directed the study during it’s last 30 years, wrote a book about the findings called Triumphs of Experience. Overall the study showed that love is key to a happy and fulfilling life. As Vaillant puts it, there are two pillars of happiness. “One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”
Vaillant states the study’s most important finding is the one thing that truly matters in life are your relationships. A man could have a successful career, money and good physical health, but without supportive, loving relationships, he wouldn’t be happy. It has been clearly established that this we-ness is crucial to our happiness. An investment of time and energy is worth it for the rewards you will reap while raising a family, after the kids are gone, and long into your golden years.
So how do you proactively work on this we-ness business?
Seed or Launch Phase – First steps first, I know it sounds a bit wild but I suggest co-creating a marriage business plan. Essentially this involves creating a shared vision and mission of what your marriage means to both of you and establish a few of the initial objectives. Going into any venture without a clear idea of why and how to proceed is simply not smart and will set you up for failure. It’s the same with marriage. Before you get married, you have your own preconceived ideas of what a marriage is and what roles each partner plays. These may or may not be in alignment with your partner’s ideas. Don’t leave the destiny of your marriage to happenstance. Ask each other good open-ended questions about what your marriage should look like, sound like and act like. Study other successful marriages. Review the results of your research and decide what you want incorporated within your vision. Write it down and dedicate yourselves to succeed in these goals and dreams. Revisit and update your plan from time to time as you grow and mature in both your relationship and as individuals.
Start-Up Phase – The “honeymoon phase” is filled with excitement and backed up with a mix of good body chemistry including dopamine, endorphins, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine. Use this time and chemical cocktail wisely. You’re poised to be able to remember memories more vividly and have more energy with these love molecules in your body. Be creative when designing your quality time together. Along the journey, it’s important to document the good times by taking photos, having others take photos of you, putting them in photo books and picture frames, and looking at them often. Write cards and letters to document these good times. This documentation will be crucial when it comes to overcoming the inevitable bumps in the road. And yes, they always do occur. In fact, if you aren’t having an occasional disagreement it’s a warning that you are a conflict-avoider which means you are at a higher risk of divorce. FYI: It doesn’t matter who you marry, studies show on average 69% of all marital issues stay with the couple through the lifetime of their relationship, according to the research of Dr. John Gottman, renowned researcher of marital stability and divorce prediction. So having visual references of just how great your relationship can be is part of creating a solid foundation.
Building Your Brand – When someone from the outside looks in at your we-ness what do you want them to see? In order to best navigate the road together, know your patterns and your partner’s patterns. Do you speak the same love languages? Do you prefer to think outside the box or do you feel most comfortable staying inside the box? How do you recharge your batteries? Is it by being in a quiet setting or with a group of people? What rituals do you as a couple have to keep connected and keep the romance alive? While studying your own patterns, check in to see if certain patterns work well in combination with your greater we-ness vision. When you see a misalignment, and if the certain trait or quality is changeable, then make the decision to work at shifting to a perspective that is more in tune with your mission. If it’s a pattern that is core to who you are and not one that can be shifted then discuss ways in which you and your partner can work with it. If it poses a consistent challenge it could be a part of the 69% of issues that will be a part of your relationship for its lifetime. If that is the case, see where you can inch a little closer to your partner’s perspective, utilize humor or agree to simply disagree each time it comes into play in your partnership.
Inflection Phase – Pause and look at what is working and what may need some tweaking. Studies by Richard E. Lucas at Michigan State University have shown that the happiness boost that occurs with marriage lasts only about two years and then individuals return to their happiness “set point.” It is also important to note within a marriage the partner with the lower level of happiness tends to set the relationship’s overall “set point.” As I see it, couples need to make a concerted effort to keep their individual happiness levels high. Taking care of yourself first is not selfish. It is necessary for the greater good of your relationship. If you are able to fill up your own “love cup” most of the way, to use Dr. Gary Chapman author of The Five Love Languages’ terminology, then the love your partner gives you will simply be the whipped cream topping off your love cup.
What can I do to ensure the continued success of our we-ness business?
Rapid Growth Expansion Phase – For a majority of couples this phase will include starting a family. Watch out because this is where you can slip into a routine, a comfort zone or simply a place of exhaustion. Thriving relationships do not run on auto-pilot. Also patterns you were conditioned with during your childhood, which may not be in alignment with the mission of your we-ness business, could now creep into play. Having a way of dealing with conflict before starting a family creates an extra layer of insurance against a decaying bottom line. I enjoy teaching couples something called The Rules of Engagement where they discover their own patterns, how those work in conjunction with their partner’s patterns and how to proactively discuss challenging subjects. Without these skills solidly in place, maneuvering with more elements and curve balls in the mix becomes a recipe for declining revenues.
Throughout all of your phases, but in particular during the growth phases, you will need to schedule several “business off-sites.” They are a way to recharge your batteries, check in with your partner, review your mission, make any needed adjustments in your approach and utilize the benefits of physical touch to reduce your levels of stress. In my coaching, I recommend the following recipe for your relationship’s success: five hours a week, one weekend a quarter and at least one week a year scheduled for just the two of you.
Steady Growth Phase – You should strive to be in a constant state of learning throughout your marriage. Learn new things together. Learn about yourself. Learn new ways to be your best in your we-ness position. Admit where your skills could be improved and strive to get the necessary coaching to improve. Study the competition, hire coaches or consultants. Implement what you learn. Course correct when necessary. Don’t rest on your laurels. It’s amazing how many people say the words “till death do us part” yet spend so little time becoming educated on how to be their best in relationship with their partner and how to co-create a thriving partnership.
During the steady growth phase, it’s pivotal that you mind the overall health of your we-ness. A study was done which involved 37 married couples. Each person was given a vacuum blister on their arms after which they were asked to engage in conversation for 30 minutes. The findings showed that the couples who healed faster had an increase in oxytocin. “Oxytocin is a protective hormone,” said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, the lead author of the study. The study concluded that better communicators had the highest levels of oxytocin in their blood samples.
Reinvestment in the Company – It’s worth it. Take care of yourself first, your relationship health second and then your family. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology and author of The How of Happiness suggests asking yourself each morning, “What can I do for five minutes today to make my partner’s life better?” I’d take that a step further and encourage couples to become familiar with their partner’s love language as detailed in Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. Our time is precious. We must be loving, effective and efficient with our time together.
Annual Report – In my book, only boring people use the word bored. Challenge yourself to ward off hedonic adaptation, the act of becoming “habituated” to positive circumstances so the “good” is no longer seen as “that great” over time. Adaptation tends to creep in after the first few years of marriage. Fight it by becoming a perpetual student of surprise, creativity and spontaneity. If you adopt that type of passionate drive plus add a healthy dose of appreciation for your partner, you are sure to keep your “we-ness business” thriving, meaningful and positive.
While some of these steps may seem obvious, many married couples forget to put them into practice. The rewards of building your we-ness are priceless. It’s worth the time, energy and commitment. Keep this strategy in mind for the long-haul:
Shared Vision + Shared Purpose + Passion to Be Your Best = A Successful We-ness
Now go celebrate your relationship’s success!