Not that long ago, my go-to wedding gift for newlyweds was a crisp, fresh copy of the book What Predicts Divorce. Oh, you know where this is going. (Spoiler alert: I was suddenly being invited to way fewer weddings.)
Obviously, my intent was to give couples way more than a book. I’d neatly tuck a $50 check between the chapters “Is Conflict Avoidance Dysfunctional?” and “Recommendations for a Stable Marriage,” and attach a thoughtfully written, mostly-not-trite card about how happy marriage will be a daily choice (it is, btw), how they will need to work tirelessly at sustaining something even remotely resembling their current level of happiness (also true, btw). I’d even encourage them to take the book on their honeymoon. For real.
In my rather fine handwriting (if I do say so myself, and I just did) I’d also pen a suggestion to the new couple, to begin a new couple ritual, perhaps on said honeymoon: using the enclosed $50 to secure a bottle of their favorite liquid, and then sipping said liquid over a discussion of the book.
Priding myself on being a seriously awesome gift giver (#HumbleBrag), I was confident I was giving couples the most awesome and fabulous jumpstart on a truth they’d soon experience for themselves: Marriage will get complicated. Really, really complicated.
And I’m not just speaking hypothetically about such complications. I’ve lived them—27.8 years, and still going strong (yay us!)—in my own marriage. I’ve also studied this stuff, and am now approximately 2.5+ decades into my career as a social scientist researching, teaching, and writing about the microdynamics of my own and others’ perfectly imperfect marriages. It also might be true that my husband’s captivating one-liner at pretty much every dinner party—typically landing after a very sweet spousal brag, revealing that one of my first published books was called What Happy Couples Do—is the fact that he is writing the sequel: What Happy Couples Do: The Sh#t My Wife Wouldn’t Publish.
Funny, I know.
And mostly funny because anyone who’s ever been married or in a relationship for more than a few years laughs in that deep knowing kind of way.
Ah, relationships: They sometimes feel more like relationSH#Ts.
Indeed, there’s been much stuff in the daily grind of making our own marriage of 27.8 years work, as there is in all relationships. Which is why I’m grateful each waking day to have found a career that puts me squarely and daily in touch with the latest and greatest marriage and relationship advice and research, from the smartest people studying the art and science of it all. I get so excited that I might get a bit (too) enthusiastic about sharing all the good (and not-so-good) news and tidbits with other couples (now your wedding gift). I mean, why would I not want to make sure you have what the best science says on the matter of your next ten, twenty, or fifty+ years as a pair?
Because the relationship science reveals a well-tested truth: If you want to have a long-lasting, happy marriage or partnership, you really ought to know what not to do. And, then try your very best—or at least the C+ version of your best self—not to do those things. At least not every day. Or, if you’re like me, not multiple times a day. And in some seasons of marriage, avoiding doing such even one hour of a particular month might be the best we can do, and that’s okay too.
Yes, sometimes just a little better is good enough—for today.
And, of course, there are all the things you also should and must and I urge you to be intentionally doing toward building your strong relationship and the mini-culture of your marriage.
Indeed, relationships are serious business requiring serious work. All the conflict, all the apologies, all the vulnerability, all the complex conversations—all the time and intention that goes into them: It’s all essential. Affirmation-rich texts filled with “you got this” with encouraging emoji, kissy faces, and high-fives to our partner on a big day: It’s all necessary. Recognizing your less-than-perfect moments and apologizing—in real and meaningful ways: It’s all key. Because all the sweat dedicated to co-creating quality relationships in your personal and social lives is, quite literally, the single best predictor of how long you’ll live. True. Story.
And, of course, who doesn’t want to live a long and happy life filled with rich, fulfilling relationships? The problem is, in our anxiety-ridden, highly uncertain world, so many of us feel a nearly constant pressure to do just that—one propelled by a daily, unrelenting refrain of “gotta be better,” “gotta do better,” “gotta love better!!”
Sound like a familiar voice in the head of anyone you know? Hmmmm.
Lately, I’ve been paying more attention to a new and delightful whisper: that of a calmer voice in my head, a too unfamiliar one whose frequency I had tuned out—hadn’t given space for—in too long a time. It’s a gentler voice, asking what I now hear as one of the profound questions of this era: Have we forgotten the important and essential ingredient of loosening? Of lightening our grip a bit?
Given all the over-striving in nearly every area of our lives, including our relationship lives, have we forgotten how to laugh, especially with and at ourselves? Hmmmm.
Why is it we don’t give ourselves more frequent permission to giggle at our over-reacting and our catastrophizing—loosening our grip, even just a tiny bit—on all the gotta-be-better-ing? What if we lightened up just a tad on the business of our marriages, and laughed into their messiness a bit more? What if we pulled back the veil on the myth of having a #RelationshipGoals kind of relationship? What if, along with the serious work of making marriage “perfect,” we focused on the equally essential practice of—the art of—a bit less seriousness? A little more laughter. A lot more lightness. And gentleness. And forgiveness (of self and of the other) as we move in and through the messes that are natural and frequent in our relationships?
What if we lightened up just a tad on the business of our marriages, and laughed into their messiness a bit more? What if we pulled back the veil on the myth of having a #RelationshipGoals kind of relationship?
Hmmmm. What if?
It’s not that we don’t have science and evidence about the essential role of silliness, joy, play, and laughter as pathways to thriving in our bodies and souls, as well as in our relationships. We do! And lots of it. In fact, the happiest couples in my own research have shared, time and again, ways they not only make spaces in their marriages for the serious business of resolving conflict, sharing the toilet scrubbing, and building a culture of kindness and friendship, but ways they also assign cute nicknames to each other’s private parts. Yep, actual and adorable (from their perspective, which is really the only perspective that matters on this matter) nicknames for all the parts—often paired with private words and phrases for what they like to “do” with their “big daddy rabbits,” “enchiladas,” and “honey pots.” (Yes, research can be fun!) I might have uttered out loud an entire shortlist of my favorites from the data in my recent TEDx Minneapolis talk. And, I hoped that the resulting audience laughter produced the very benefits that research suggests laughter can and will bring about: lowered stress and increased immune systems. True story. Did you know laughter literally activates your stress response? It stimulates circulation and relaxes your muscles. It releases endorphins and improves our abilities to fight disease—and so much more.
Now imagine what being a little less serious with yourself might do for your marriage.
Because while relationships are serious business, so is joy. And when we can laugh at our own failures and faults, it shows our partners that maybe we can give our collective-couple-selves a little break in those moments when we show up to each other as our worst selves (or even just our C+ selves). And that, my friends, is the gift that keeps on giving—no $50 check required.
Carol Bruess (last name rhymes with “peace”) is professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, studying and writing about relationships. She is highly fluent in emoji, loves parentheticals (I mean, it’s what all the cool kids are doing), and is happy-dancing her way through empty-nesting (although don’t tell her kids; they think she’s all weepy). Check out her books, TEDx talk “Are All Relationships Messy?” and her sewing/design shenanigans over at www.carolbruess.com.
BY Carol Bruess - August 15, 2019
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.