Relationships: Maximising Your Happiness

Relationships are a funny thing. While we all kind of "know" that they're as much about our partner as they are about us, some of us seem to forget that. From time to time, at least, it can seem as though we think we're entitled to demand that the relationship conforms to our rules. We might demand that our partner behaves in a certain way - including things such as insisting that the toilet paper hangs in a certain way (are you an over or an under person), that the milk be put in a certain place in the refrigerator (in the body or the door), or even that our partner conforms with our dress requirements.

Of course, if we continue to insist that our partner conform to our requirements for too long, they are likely to assert their independence and start wanting to enjoy a relationship that works for them as well. In other words, they start to consider leaving the relationship.

I think that most people would agree that relationships should be founded in mutual respect. However, it's also important that we respect ourselves and our desires. That is, we need to know what we want out of 'a' relationship so that we can discuss this with our partner. So, it's as much to do with respecting ourselves as it is to do with respecting each other.

If we want to respect ourselves in a relationship, we need to know what we want and need from a relationship. Unfortunately, very few people are able to do this in a meaningful way. We humans seem to be very good at identifying what we don't like, but we seem to have some major problems with being clear about what we do like. Unless we do this, we won't be able to take responsibility for our happiness in a relationship (because it's 'our' job, not our partner's job, to make us happy), and we won't have any benchmark against which we can truly assess whether the relationship is working.

Take a while to have a think about what might constitute your perfect relationship. Of course, that isn't possible in real life, but it gives a direction for your thoughts. Think of it as something to just generally aim for. Once you've done that (and it may take a little while), have a think about the nature of the various facets of your perfect relationship. While the details may not be achievable, an understanding of what we would like and why we would like it can help to inform and guide legitimate compromises we need to make when nurturing a relationship. When you do this, try to be as specific as possible, rather than falling into the trap of making “motherhood and apple pie” statements. For example, I think that most people would want a happy, respectful relationship, with good communication. However, while that statement may seem to be an obvious goal (and, in principal, it is), the specifics will be different from person to person. What ‘your’ happy and respectful relationship looks like may be quite different to what ‘mine’ would look like.

So, what do we do with this information? Let’s say, for example, that after giving this some thought you decide that spending time playing sport with your partner is the most important part of your perfect relationship, and that you’d like to do this twice a week. You would then need to discuss this with your partner, and ask whether the two of you could do that. If they agree completely, wonderful! You have a perfect match for that facet! However, if your partner is someone who hates sport, and just can’t agree to any level of participation, you have a challenge for the relationship.

Let’s say, for example, that relationship happiness ranges from 0% to 100%, where 0% represents not being in a relationship (completely neutral), and 100% represents your perfect relationship. As mentioned, that isn’t possible — so let’s say that the maximum possible realistic relationship would be around the 90% mark. If playing sport with our partner is the most important facet of a perfect relationship, it probably represents a significant percentage of our possible relationship happiness. For the sake of example, let’s put this at 30%. If you’re unable to include this facet in your current relationship, then your capacity to be happy in that relationship would be reduced to 60%. It wouldn’t take too many more failures to connect with your partner before your capacity to be happy is marginal.

So, how can this exercise help you? As mentioned, it’s important for you to know what you need from any given relationship, because your happiness is your job. If you don’t really know what you want, you can only react to negative events — and that probably isn’t going to be healthy. However, this exercise can also help you to determine what can be improved about your current relationship, and as the foundation for building a mutually beneficial relationship. Finally, it could also provide the perspective you need if you’re considering ending a relationship. If you know what you need, and there isn’t any way that your partner is either willing or able to meet those needs, then perhaps the best course of action for you both might be to call an end to it.