The three words that could keep your relationship alive 26-08-18

September 3, 2018

Q: My partner and I have a great life, and a terrific family, but it feels like something’s missing. We both rush around with work, kids’ activities, and our own clubs and hobbies. We rarely fight, but we also rarely connect as a couple. Sometimes it seems like we live parallel lives, and I’m not sure what we would do if we were left alone for any length of time. How can we revive our relationship?

A: When a couple falls in love they are inseparable. They cannot keep their hands off each other, talk late into the night, pine when apart and often close out the wider world. This intense period of being in love is called “limerance”, and it is not sustainable. It is the buzz people chase when they indulge in serial monogamy, but familiarity and the practical realities of daily life inevitably burst the bubble.

This is exacerbated when children come along. The baby takes first priority, followed by the need to build material security for the family. Life is less glamorous, with candlelit dinners and walks on the beach being replaced by sleepless nights, dirty nappies, and money worries.

The danger is that the couple rapidly lose touch. Little resentments about things like the division of labour, or leaving the top off the toothpaste, can start to fester. One or both partners can lose their libido, loving touch becomes increasingly infrequent, and the couple cease to be lovers, and become colleagues, their relationship, an obligation. Left unaddressed, this can mark the death of any romantic connection, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness. Ultimately, they are left with nothing to look forward to once the children leave home.

Dr Mark Holder, of the University of British Columbia, is head of a research team studying happiness. He outlines some their findings in a TedTalk, “The Three Words That Can Change Your Life”. (

He is critical of what he sees as a negative bias in contemporary psychology practice, using a quote from the father of psychotherapy, Dr Sigmund Freud, to illustrate his criticism: “Much has been gained if we take your hysterical misery and turn it into common unhappiness.”

He says that modern psychology focuses on “deficit, disease, and dysfunction … on working out what is wrong with you, and how to fix it”. His dictionary of psychology has, he notes, 18 definitions of depression, but not one of happiness.

Holder advocates a new school of thought known as “Positive Psychology”, which aims to “work out what is right with you, and how to promote it”.

The truth is that, globally, happiness is common, not unhappiness. His research team has discovered a common denominator among people who are happy – they have strong, high-quality relationships. Children with friends are happier, even when those friends are imaginary. People struggling to cope with the effects of an acquired brain injury were happier if they had good relationships. On the other hand, psychopaths, who cannot relate to the feelings of others, are not happy.

Significantly, “when it comes to long-term, romantic relationships, it has been found that the best predictor of happiness is the happiness of one’s partner”.

There is only one way to find out how happy your partner is, and that is to ask them, and, more importantly, to listen to their answer. Holder explains that listening is not just about taking in information. Listening is an act of love that validates the speaker. Therefore, the three words that could change your life are: “Tell me more.”

This lets your partner know that their story matters to you. Reinforce this by following up with the words: “What happened next?”

It is powerfully therapeutic to feel truly heard, knowing that your partner is not itching to say their piece; will not interrupt, be dismissive, offer solutions, or be judgmental.

Begin by talking to your partner, and see if you can agree, as a matter of priority, to take some quality time for yourselves, no matter how busy you are. This is a great example to give to your children, reinforcing, as it does, that your relationship matters.


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