Researchers have been studying couples for decades now, and after collecting all the data and analyzing the results here’s the conclusion: we actually know exactly what works in relationships that last for the long-term. We understand the specific ingredients. So the question is, if we know this, then why do so many relationships still fail?
As I see it there are really three distinct reasons why relationships continue to fail despite all the information we now have about what works:
1. They Don’t Know the Ingredients
Even though all the research has been done and stacks of books have been written on the subject, many couples remain unaware of what the ingredients are. They go into a relationship assuming that it will just work if it’s supposed to.
2. They Don’t Care to Follow the Recipe
Sometimes one or both partners in a relationship simply don’t have the energy or the willingness to put in the hard work that comes with creating a successful long-term relationship. Even when they know all the ingredients and understand how to put them into practice, it just isn’t worth it to them to try.
3. They Can’t Follow the Recipe
There are some couples who know what the ingredients are. And they really and truly want to follow the recipe to make their relationship stronger and better, but they just can’t seem to do it. Why would that be?
Here’s the issue: the ingredients that we know work are all behavioral habits that, when implemented successfully, result in positive long-term outcomes for couples. But the couples that are most successful at this are the ones for whom this behavior comes naturally. It’s much harder for couples to learn these behaviors and implement them successfully.
Part of the reason it’s so hard to learn is that most non-neutral (positive or negative) behavior in a relationship originates in our emotions. Behavior tends to be an extension of our emotions, and unfortunately our emotions simply aren’t all that easy to re-train.
Behaviors that we hate and don’t want to see any more still show up unexpectedly in highly emotional situations because they are frozen into our physical makeup. Those behaviors grow naturally out of our emotional experience.
If we want to stop negative behaviors in a relationship, it takes more than just knowing about the good behaviors and putting energy toward learning those behaviors. It takes a real commitment to restructure the links between our emotional experiences and our automatic behavioral responses, so that we begin to do things differently – even when we don’t “feel” like it. Even when it isn’t our first impulse.
That’s why good couples therapy doesn’t stop with just educating couples about skills and behaviors. It also delves into the emotional climate of the relationship and helps both partners make sense of the emotion-behavior feedback mechanism that maintains the problems in the relationship.