After studying thousands of couples, the psychologist Eli Finkel has an explanation for the decline in people’s satisfaction with their marriages over the past four decades: It’s a matter of emotional supply and demand.
Many people are looking to their partners to replace the companionship and emotional support once provided by extended families and local institutions like churches, bowling leagues, bridge groups, fraternal lodges and garden clubs. Meanwhile, though, many couples are so busy with their jobs and parenting that they’re actually spending less time together by themselves.
What to do? Unless you’re willing to reduce your demands, the only solution is to increase the supply. You can devote a lot more effort to satisfying your partner, and Dr. Finkel tells you how to do that in his new book, “The All-or-Nothing Marriage.”
But if that sounds like too much work, he also offers a few shortcuts that he calls “love hacks.” If your schedule doesn’t allow a weekly date night, if you don’t want to take long walks on the beach or go on joint self-actualization vacations, you can use some quick fixes that have been tested successfully in Dr. Finkel’s relationships laboratory at Northwestern and elsewhere.
A love hack, as Dr. Finkel defines it, is a proven technique that takes little time or effort and doesn’t even require cooperation from your partner. “It’s a quick-and-dirty option that can take just a few minutes a month,” he says. “It’s not going to give you a great marriage, but it can certainly improve things. After all, simply allowing the relationship to slip off the priority list will probably yield stagnation, or worse.”
He offers a variety of love hacks because he doesn’t believe in one-size-fits-all solutions for relationships. He suggests picking whichever hack appeals and starting right away.
Touch Your Partner
Holding hands can win you points even when you don’t mean it, as demonstrated in an experiment with couples who watched a video together. Some people were instructed not to touch their partners during the video, while others were told to touch in a “warm, comfortable and positive way.”
Afterward, the people who had been touched reported being more confident of being loved by their partner — and this effect occurred even when the people knew that their partners’ actions were being directed by the researchers. Their rational selves knew that the hand-holding wasn’t a spontaneous gesture of affection, but it made them feel better anyway.
Don’t Jump to Bad Conclusions
If your partner does something wrong, like not returning a phone call, don’t over-interpret it. Researchers have found that one of the biggest differences between happy and unhappy couples is their “attributional style” in explaining a partner’s offense.
The unhappy couples tend to automatically attribute something like an unreturned phone call to a permanent inner flaw in the partner (“He’s too selfish to care about me”) rather than a temporary external situation, like an unusually busy day at work. When something goes wrong, before drawing any conclusions about your partner, take a few seconds to consider an alternative explanation that puts the blame elsewhere.
Picture a Fight From the Outside
In an experiment with 120 married couples in Chicago, Dr. Finkel periodically asked questions about their marriages over the course of two years. During the first year, their satisfaction with their marriages declined, which unfortunately is typical.
At the start of the second year, some of the couples were instructed to try something new when they found themselves in an argument: “Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who see things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it?”
Again, that little exercise made a big difference. Over the next year, marital satisfaction remained stable in those couples, whereas it continued to decline in the control group that hadn’t been instructed to take the third-party perspective.
Make a Gratitude List
Once a week, write down a few things your partner has done to “invest in the relationship,” as the participants in one experiment were instructed to do. Other participants were instructed to list things they had done themselves to invest in the relationship. The ones who patted themselves on the back subsequently felt a little more committed to the relationship, but the ones who wrote about their partners’ contributions felt significantly more committed — and also, not surprisingly, a lot more grateful toward their partners.
Accept a Compliment
One of the most common factors in failed marriages is the “rejection sensitivity” of one partner. People with low self-esteem have a hard time believing their partner really loves them, so they often preemptively discount their partner’s affection in order to avoid being hurt by the expected rejection. Eventually, even when they start off with a loving partner, their worst fear comes true because their defensive behavior ends up driving the other person away.
In testing ways to counteract this anxiety, researchers asked insecure people to recall a specific compliment from their partner. Giving a detailed account of the situation and the compliment didn’t have any effect, apparently because these insecure people could dismiss it as a lucky aberration: “For once I did something right.”
But there was a notable effect when people were asked to think about the compliment abstractly: “Explain why your partner admired you. Describe what it meant to you and its significance for your relationship.” That quick exercise helped them see why their partner could really care for them.
Celebrate Small Victories
When your partner tells you about something that went right in his or her day, get excited about it. Ask questions so your partner can tell you more about the event and relive it. Put some enthusiasm into your voice and your reactions. Researchers call this a “capitalization attempt.”
When researchers studied couples who were trained to use these techniques in their evening discussions, it turned out that each partner took more pleasure from their own victories, and both partners ended up feeling closer to each other. By sharing the joy, everyone came out ahea
d — and in true love-hack fashion, it didn’t take much time at all.