… oh, if it were only so simple, right? If only we could say “Being a happy couple forever more” boils down to: a) lots of intimacy. Or b) sharing the housework and childcare duties equally. Or c) maintaining loving little rituals. Or d) having shared-friendships. Or e) not taking yourself too seriously. Or f) having a joint sense of purpose. While research would support your choice of a-f above, there is really no one, single, it all “boils down to” point for all happy couples (darn it, I know. If only …). That said, I just had the really cool opportunity to host one of the best relationship researchers in the country at our university this past week. He studies relationships and intimacy over the lifespan, with a particular focus on older adulthood. Dr. Jon Nussbaum is his name, currently a Professor at Penn State, and author of 14 books, hundreds of studies on relationships and family dynamics, and keynote speaker this week at two events at which I had a front row seat (lucky me, I know, right?) And I learned this week that he’s a really cool, nice guy, too. Great to meet you, Jon! I feel like I just made a neat new friend. While I could fill the pages of this blog with tidbits about his fascinating findings on brain health and relationships, marriage in the later years (hint: it can and typically gets WAY better … when you look at it the right way), and how daughters and wives are really (with big emphasis on REALLY) good for men’s longterm health and happiness, I was most struck by his discussion of one simple (I should put that word “simple” in quotes) communication strategy that will serve us well in almost every relationship situation – friendship, marriage, parenting, in-law relationships, aging parents and grandparents, family conflict, you name it. And this advice is coming from a guy who has collected so much data and done so many studies his vitae (academic resume) is as thick as the spring issue of InStyle Magazine.
How might we up our chances of enjoying intimacy, wellness, happiness and long-term healthy relationships? Find patience. Ugh – Dr. Nussbaum – why couldn’t it be something easier? Like “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ more often” or “hugging” or “apologizing” or “laughing more.” Those I can do. Right now! And fast. While each of those behaviors we do know – based on great data and much research – are also important for sustaining positive relationships over time, the much-waning art (and I do think patience is a bit art plus a bit training and a lot a bit of intention, and is a behavior becoming less and less common in the digital age) is under-estimated and under-valued. It’s takes grace and practice to take a deep breath and not react, not attack, not tackle, not over-question, not over-think, not defend, and not respond too quickly nor assertively/aggressively (yes, those are two different things, but both should be held in check and applied carefully in relationships). Let me say all that more concisely: patience is king when navigating relationships, especially long-term relationships, the kind that take us through multiple stages of life. From a life-span perspective (Jon reminded me how key taking such a perspective is), we put front and center the reality that everything WILL change. And continues to change. And is forever changing. Sometimes we don’t want it to, but it will. The good will change (darn it). The bad will change (whew). The neutral will change (hmmm). As such, and especially in moments or years of being annoyed or irritated with the people in our family and relationships we are supposed to love the most, we must: step back, get perspective, re-evaluate, look at an interaction/event/conversation from multiple sides, re-evaluate again, imagine multiple strategies and outcomes of how you might first like to “tackle” the issues … and then maybe – just maybe, let a little time-passing be our friend. Nothing about healthy relationships can ever really be boiled-down, can it, to one simple truth or fact? That said, thanks Dr. Nussbaum for helping me think about yet another way to put all of our relationship research in perspective. With patience, almost anything is possible. Ommmm. Check out Jon’s research and writing, if you want some more of his smart insights, here are a few places to start: