6 Secrets of Happy Relationships
Before the battles begin, we start out believing that being with this person will make us happy. Ironically, that’s the critical mistake…
Artwork credit: Untitled by Cara Caramina
“This isn’t working. Let’s just get a divorce,” Caroline said, as she stormed out of their new house. Wally stopped in the midst of unpacking a box. What was the point? They’d just moved to Colorado the day before, but every week had brought a new argument. Now at least they could agree on something.
An hour later, Wally ventured outside to their motor home and found his wife crying. “I think what we had better do is resolve this permanently,” he said softly. Caroline agreed. But their solution didn’t involve lawyers or divorce—and the turning point of their relationship took all of an hour. During that time they each made a list of what they had learned in a happiness program created by spiritual teacher Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation (click here to read '7 Steps to Happiness').
Instead of looking at each other’s shortcomings, Wally and Caroline each wrote about their own attitudes and behaviors. “When I saw my list on paper, I realized I had flunked,” laughed Wally. “And I did, too,” said Caroline.
While they may still disagree, they haven’t had a blown-out argument since that night in 1995. “We’ve learned to catch ourselves,” said Caroline. “We now look at ourselves rather than point the finger at each other.” Caroline and Wally Zeman are now celebrating 40 years together.
Create More Laughter Than Tears
Studies show that married people tend to live longer, feel more secure, and enjoy better health, including decreased risk of cancer, dementia, heart attacks, and pneumonia. While reducing your risk of pneumonia is certainly a good reason to get hitched, you may have more romantic notions in mind.
But have you really thought about why you want to be with someone? Whatever our reasons may be, underlying these reasons is a feeling that being with this person will enhance our happiness. Yet, despite the best of hopes and intentions, about 40–50 percent of marriages don’t survive life’s challenges. As American humorist Sam Levenson noted, “Love at first sight is easy to understand; it’s when two people have been looking at each other for a lifetime that it becomes a miracle.”
So how can you create a happy, healthy, lasting relationship? As I have learned from both teaching the Happiness Program and working with couples, the greatest challenge to creating lasting happiness in a relationship is your own mind. When you can manage your own mind, your smile and your relationships can become unshakably strong. Bringing your smile back is the purpose of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Happiness Program.
I stumbled into my first Happiness Program as a university student. I knew then that I had found the keys to understanding my own mind. I’ve now been teaching the Happiness Program and various advanced-level programs across North America for 20 years. While I’ve been meditating for over two decades, each passing day unfolds a new dimension on my spiritual journey.
Sixteen years ago, I embarked on another journey of self-discovery. I got married. While I once thought marriage involved learning about my partner, I came to understand that it’s also—and perhaps ultimately—about discovering oneself.
Maybe relationships aren’t all bliss and chocolate kisses, but each one can still be filled with moments of unbridled laughter and deep contentment. When wisdom couples with love, these moments of pure joy multiply. Here are six “secrets” to making it happen.
1. Take Responsibility for Your Own Happiness.
Recent studies indicate that about 50 percent of your happiness is likely set by your genetics and environment; however, the other 50 percent is within your control. So how you see any situation determines whether your happiness level goes up or down. In other words, whether your glass is half full or half empty is up to you.
Do you see your disagreements as stepping stones for growth or steps toward the exit? Do you focus on your partner’s positive qualities, or on all the times you’ve tripped over your partner’s wet towel left dripping in the middle of the floor? Memories are neural networks that are stored and retrieved by association. Whatever you choose to focus on—positive or negative—is what shapes your present mind and your future perceptions.
Also keep in mind that when you make someone else responsible for your happiness, you also make them responsible for your disappointments. Who can live under that pressure? Inevitably, they’ll fail to meet your expectations because, gosh-darn-it, we’re human. You’ll start blaming them for their shortcomings and create distance. So take responsibility for the inner workings of your mind, rather than fault the people in your life.
But if you’ve found ways to make yourself happy despite your partner’s behavior, haven’t you just given them a free license to take advantage of your good nature? No, argues psychological researcher Raj Raghunanthan, author of If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? “You can simultaneously not blame others for how you feel and still hold them responsible for the consequences of their actions.”
When you introspect on the reason for your unhappiness rather than blame your partner, you’re able to be more honest and self-reflective about your own needs. It enables you to take a less emotionally charged approach to communication with your partner, which allows them to be more receptive and open.
2. Accept Your Partner.
When they first met, Marla Franks, a pathologist raised as a Southern Baptist, asked Susan Zoller what she did for a living. Susan replied, “I’m an independent metaphysical minister.” Marla thus discovered that Susan’s beliefs were both essentially different from hers and an essential aspect of who she was. That was 18 years ago and they are still happily together.
When love is so strong, acceptance is a given. “Marla once pointed out that I’m like the kite in the wind and she holds the string,” Susan recalls with a grin. “She keeps me grounded and I keep her looking up.” When Marla points out potential problems and pitfalls in a situation, Susan counters each argument with examples of what can go right.
Acceptance is a powerful antidote to anger and is the key to creating peace in a relationship. Let’s face it: no one has ever changed by your not accepting them (nor probably would you). They just dig in their heels and become more stubborn. Shifting your perspective to understand your partner’s viewpoint enables you to have acceptance. Even if you don’t agree with your partner, you can still love and accept them.
After completing a 75-year longitudinal psychiatric study on Harvard students, George Vaillant is convinced that “warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’”
Vaillant said, “the secret of good relationships is an empathetic connection and positive emotions: faith, home, joy, love, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, and awe.” Acceptance is the key to peace of mind. When you’re in nonacceptance of your partner, you’re emotionally disturbed. But when you’re not fixed on reshaping your partner, you can appreciate and celebrate the differences that make yours a unique partnership.
3. Accept Their Love.
They were married for three years and dating for nearly seven, but Cynthia Gomez-Silva and Mauricio Castro’s relationship almost never happened. After meeting at a party, Mauricio called Cynthia three times trying to set up a date and had decided to give up when Cynthia called to inquire why he stopped asking her out. After rescheduling multiple times, their first date was at Taco Bell over breakfast burritos.
Then came the romantic dinners, walks along the beach, and talking for hours. But despite their “magic moments,” Mauricio still found himself spending the first 30 minutes of each date breaking through Cynthia’s emotional reserve. “I was afraid of getting hurt,” Cynthia confessed. “Mauricio was kind, social, and friendly to everyone. I was afraid he was a player, whereas I really wanted a long-term relationship.” Cynthia’s reticence did not deter Mauricio; he knew this was a relationship worth pursuing.
Fast-forward two years: Cynthia was offered a position in South Carolina. Meanwhile Mauricio was setting up his own accounting firm in Puerto Rico. He couldn’t move with her, but he didn’t want her to miss this opportunity. She asked him to meet every two weeks either in Puerto Rico or in South Carolina. This would be a measure of the success of our relationship, Cynthia thought. She asked Mauricio, “Are we willing to make the sacrifices to make this work?”
“I believe in you and what we have,” he assured her. “Most of all I believe in what we can become.”
Their time apart required a “lot of demonstration of my love, so she would believe in it,” Mauricio revealed. He realized her insecurities stemmed from being alone in a new environment without a support structure. After they were married and living together, his work still required Mauricio to be in Puerto Rico during tax season. So during those four months, they continued to meet every two or three weeks.
Meanwhile Cynthia also learned to relax and have faith in their love. “I trust Mauricio unconditionally,” she said with a smile. “I’ve changed a lot in the last several years. Our relationship has made me a much more balanced and patient person. I know that he loves me. I treasure our time together, knowing that quality matters more than quantity.” Their time together is no longer a demonstration of commitment, but a celebration of their love.
Can you imagine how nerve-wracking it would be to constantly prove your love to someone? All your energy would be spent in cajoling and reassuring them. Instead, do your partner a favor and take it for granted that they love you. Sure, we all screw up sometimes. But when you see negative intent behind your partner’s mistake, you muddle your own mind and distance them from your heart. Once you stop doubting their love, the love between you deepens.
4. Show Your Kindness and Generosity.
Studies show what women have known all along: Women find men who vacuum more sexually desirable. Flower petals in the boudoir are great, but it’s the kindness in daily interactions that makes your partner feel valued and loved.
“In the past 30 years, Brenda and I have had different relationships with each other; we’ve had ups and downs and difficult phases,” observes John Strickland, senior minister at Atlanta Unity Church. Soon after they were married, his wife, Brenda, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which put an unexpected twist on their budding relationship. They suddenly became aware of the significance of living in the present moment. This often-stated advice became a vivid reality as they realized the importance of fulfilling their dreams.
Recently, Brenda decided to leave teaching after 35 years, write a book, and go on the speaking circuit. The established routine of their lives was upturned as Brenda would stay up late writing and then travel out of town for speaking engagements. Meanwhile, John missed not only his wife, but also the things she used to do for him. So what do you do?
“I encourage her and let her know how proud I am of her,” John affirmed. “I don’t drag her down by saying I miss you fixing meals and doing the laundry. I can see she’s so much happier now.” John and Brenda’s thoughtfulness toward each other underscores the importance of being considerate of your partner.
Married psychologists John and Julie Gottman cite kindness and generosity as the traits most critical to a successful relationship. Do you respond and acknowledge your partner when they make an observation or share something about their day? Or do you mumble an incoherent response and continue staring at the television? Deliberately ignoring your partner or minimally responding makes them feel insignificant and invisible. Not surprisingly, people who are focused on criticizing their partners miss 50 percent of the positive things their partners are doing.
While it’s great to receive a car with a big, red bow on it, the next day the courting begins afresh. “The wooing doesn’t end,” notes John. “However hard you work to get something, you have to work to keep it.”
5. Relieve Your Own Stress.
Most of us lead intense, hectic lives. Yet when we don’t have ways to handle our stress, we end up taking our anger and frustration out on those closest to us.
Johann Berlin and Uma Viswanathan recently relocated to Michigan after Uma embarked on a promising new career. Navigating a new role, managing demanding responsibilities, and moving to a new place without an existing social network would be enough to stress out anyone. Add to this Johann’s nonstop travel as a CEO and their combined hours volunteering for an international service organization, and you’ve got a recipe for simmering marital discord.
“We’ve only been married four years,” says Uma, “but sometimes Johann and I don’t see each other for a month.”
“When you spend so much time apart, one of the hardest things is having intentional time together,” agrees Johann.
So on a daily basis, Uma and Johann practice Sudarshan Kriya, a breathing meditation that enables them to release their stress and bring their minds to the present moment. Uma likens her daily meditation to a Reset button: “All these experiences and stresses pile up and make me less nimble, less responsible, and less able to listen to my partner. My practice is like clearing my cache on the computer. It creates more fluidity in my mind.”
“You can’t offer anything to your partner if your mind is distracted and your energy is depleted,” notes Johann. “Because we have these practices, whether we’re going for a walk in nature or just having tea and talking, we’re fully present with each other. We’re creating real, intentional space.”
Meditate, dance, paint, skydive out of airplanes. Make time to get rid of your stress on a daily or weekly basis so it doesn’t end up spilling over on the people you love. By restoring and replenishing yourself, you can offer more depth of connection in the moments you spend with your partner.
6. Explore Your Spiritual Dimension.
The common factor in each relationship you have is…you. When you look at yourself you start becoming aware of the patterns and issues you carry into different situations and all the different roles you play: lover, partner, parent, child, employee, and so on. When you look within—and you start asking yourself Who am I? or What is my purpose?—you become aware that you have a deep source of love. Then you can start relating to people from a space of fullness rather than lack or need. As this happens, you also develop the skills to handle yourself in any relationship.
As Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said, “Know that the highest flowering in life is being in love. Love is not an emotion, it’s your very existence.”
So while you search for your soul mate, don’t forget to discover your own soul. So often we forget the spirit and focus only on the material body; it’s like playing with the wrapping paper and throwing away the gift. Recognizing the spirit within yourself and others is what love is ultimately about.
Mona Shah Joshi is Director of the Art of Living in Georgia and has facilitated more than 50,000 hours of programs in mind–body wellness on four continents as a personal development expert and meditation instructor for the Art of Living Foundation and the International Association for Human Values (IAHV). Artofliving.org