The key distinction between relationships that perish and those that flourish.
In a famous scene from the Oscar-nominated film Jerry Maguire, dashing leading man Jerry — a successful and handsome sports agent played by Tom Cruise — suddenly returns to his estranged wife. He proclaims to Dorothy, portrayed by Renée Zellweger, “You complete me.” Touched and teary-eyed after his declaration, she is transfixed and tells him, “You had me at hello.”
Now contrast this famous scene with an equally popular one from another critically-acclaimed film, As Good as It Gets, in which Jack Nicholson plays Melvin, a curmudgeonly writer. He’s on a date with Carol, a warm-hearted and witty waitress portrayed by Helen Hunt. Carol remarks to Melvin that when she first met him, “I thought you were cute, but then you spoke.” Up to this point, their relationship has been struggling at best — certainly not what a storybook romance is said to be. Despite his best intentions, Melvin usually annoys Carol rather than uplifts her. In what seems like a final attempt to win her over, he tells her, “You make me want to be a better man.” She is rendered speechless.
These two famous move scenes, that we discuss in our upcoming book, Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts (TarcherPerigee, January 16, 2018), present two markedly different reasons for being in a relationship. Jerry feels that Dorothy is his other half, and he’s not complete without her, whereas Melvin wants to be with Carol because he sees her goodness, which motivates him to become better himself.
Take a moment to ponder your own romantic relationship — or the one you’d like to be in — and your reasons for being in it. Are those motivations more similar to Jerry’s or Melvin’s?
“You complete me.”
Jerry’s motivations seem to be synonymous with what we may think of as a storybook romance — the romantic notion that there is one ideal person somewhere out there who will “complete” us and lead us to happily ever after. This popular concept of a soul mate figures prominently in literature, poetry, religion, and philosophy. It is often referred to as that deep connection we have with someone whom we feel immediately “gets us” like no one ever did and like no one else ever could. Sometimes it’s love at first sight. We, of course, do experience and appreciate deep connections. And we understand that they may happen early in a relationship.
However, we also realize there may be dangers if we are searching for a soul mate whom we expect will forever complete us. One danger is that it may lead us to think that our perfect partner is somewhere out there, and that fate will bring us together. This view doesn’t involve any intentional action on our part, but instead leads to us wait around for romantic lightning to strike. We can see how this idea is unhealthy in that it doesn’t encourage us to work on our own self-development or practice the necessary interpersonal skills to prepare us for a relationship. (As we mentioned in our first post, happily ever after doesn’t just happen. It takes work.)
Another potential pitfall of the notion of someone “completing” us is that it may lead to codependency, in which we come to rely on that person for all of our needs. Instead of growing and learning, we lean on that person to make up for what we are lacking. We don’t mature, and our relationship stagnates. Healthy relationships, however, are characterized by a type of interdependence. Rather than “completing” us, our partners “complement” us. In this type of relationship, we stand tall together and are open to one another. We feel whole in ourselves, while appreciating the strengths of our partner, and we benefit from a mutual giving and receiving of support. We grow individually and as a couple.
Jerry Versus Melvin?
If you had to predict whose relationship would thrive, would it be Jerry’s or Melvin’s? While Jerry’s proclamation is passionate, his motivation is self-oriented. He values Dorothy instrumentally, because she completes him. We suspect that if she stops completing him, he will stop loving her.
Our bets are on Melvin and Carol, whose relationship is based on goodness. As Aristotle argued, this type of friendship is ideal, and so it’s what we have coined an “Aristotelian” relationship. Melvin sees the goodness in Carol, in the way she interacts with her customers at work and lovingly cares for her sick child, not to mention the tenderhearted way she treats him, rather than merely tolerating him. Melvin values this goodness, and it motivates him to become better himself.
As Aristotle explains, when we are in the company of people with good character, we tend to improve our character as well. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt refers to these experiences as being moved or “elevated” by seeing “acts of virtue or moral beauty.” Elevation, an “other-praising” emotion, brings about warm feelings in us, opens our hearts, and shifts our focus from ourselves to others.
This is what Melvin experienced. Carol’s goodness had a visceral and virtuous effect on him. By the end of the film, we see a stark difference in him. The once self-involved character with the hardened heart now shows compassion toward his neighbor and has indeed become a better man.
The science of strengths can help us focus on nurturing our own relationship.
In a recent interview with cultural icon Larry King and his vivacious wife Shawn about our upcoming book Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts (TarcherPerigee, January 16, 2018) we pondered the important question of “Why does it often seem that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence?”
In our discussion, the topic of monogamy and commitment came up as it frequently does when discussing the challenges of marriage or other long-term relationships. Like any new endeavor, be it the gym membership that we invested in to kick start our fitness routine for the New Year or perhaps a highly coveted job we finally landed, after time the excitement naturally wanes. And when it does, boredom may set in. We may tire of our workout and work routine and may seek some novelty to reignite our initial interest.
As we mentioned in our inaugural post, Why Happily Ever After Doesn’t Just Happen, when the going gets tough, we don’t simply throw in the towel or switch up gyms or jobs and expect to build robust health or a thriving work life. If indeed we do, we will likely fail at our achieved goal of vitality or a successful career. Sometimes, though, it seems we are looking for a cure-all. Perhaps one simple, sweat-free workout class will rid us of those stubborn last five pounds and help us slip into our skinny jeans. Or, a perfect job devoid of tedious paperwork and tiresome co-workers will come along and catapult us up the corporate ladder to the corner office.
However, we don’t often realize that what is holding us back is our own lack of effort or misdirected attention. We may overwhelmingly focus on what is wrong in our situation and forget about what is going right. Despite plenty of positive things in our environment, our attention naturally fixates on problems.
So, too in our relationships. We tend to habituate to things, like the good we have in our relationship. And the good might have initially buffered against those pesky small things about our partner or relationship that always bothered us. So when we take the good for granted and stop noticing and nurturing it, those annoyances or flaws now take center stage.
Consider the famous figure-ground drawing by Dutch psychologist Edgar Rubin, what emerges is either a vase or two faces. It all depends on where we focus our attention. Similarly, in another popular perceptional illusion, our brain can interpret the reversible figure as either a beautiful young woman or a witch. Our brain can play similar tricks on us when looking at our loved ones! Many of us may focus on the flaws and no longer see the beauty, even though it’s still there.
As we discussed with Larry and Shawn and mentioned in a former post, it’s easy to mindlessly dwell on our partner’s shortcomings and what we find lacking in our lives together. This unhealthy habit can lead us to spiral downward into feeling hopeless and helpless in love.
Desperation may cause us to daydream about what it’s like elsewhere and we may start comparing our relationship and our partner with others.
Perhaps we are so consumed with peering at our neighbor’s lawn from a distance that we have neglected the beautiful one right in front of our eyes. And we may have even climbed the fence for a closer look and finally realize it’s not as green as we thought. In fact, there are weeds everywhere. We just never noticed them before. Just as we never noticed the lushness of our lawn. Not only is it important to prevent our own grass from withering, we must water it daily to keep it thriving.
One way to do that is to shift our perspective and attention to what is going right.
What are those initial qualities that attracted us to our partner? Did those traits suddenly disappear or are we so busy fixating on small annoyances that our perception is distorted and it’s all we notice?
Let’s heed some advice from the wise American philosopher and psychologist William James who emphasized the importance of voluntarily directing and focusing our attention in order to influence our perceptions. Rather than looking at what’s going wrong in our relationship or eyeing our neighbor’s grass comparing and contrasting it with our own, what if, instead, we focused on nurturing what we have?
Positive psychology can help us do that by focusing our attention on our strengths and those of our partner. Researchers have identified 24 character strengths that have existed across time and cultures. Are you creative? A natural born leader? Is social intelligence something you’re particularly good at? Or perhaps you’re especially kind? We all have a range of various strengths in a particular configuration. It’s what makes us unique.
Exercising your strengths and those of your partner’s
Once you’ve discovered your top five strengths, commonly referred to as “signature strengths,” you’re ready to put them to action in your daily life. One way to apply them in your romantic relationship is by going on regular “strengths dates.” A strengths date entails picking one of your top strengths (e.g., zest) and one of your partner’s (e.g., love of learning) and planning an outing where you both have an opportunity to exercise that strength.
For example, we planned an afternoon date where we rented Segways to tour the historical part of our city together. By the end of the date Suzie’s sense of adventure was fulfilled and James’s intellectual thirst was quenched!
Remember to take turns planning the dates—or plan them together. The main point of the activity is to have fun together, authentically connecting, not competing with one another.
We tasked Larry and Shawn King to go on a strengths date during their upcoming vacation. Stay tuned in an upcoming post for an update on how it went and what they learned about each other!
In the meantime, remember to shift your perspective to what is going right in your relationship. By finding and feeding the good in your partner and your relationship, the grass will be greener on your side of the fence.
There are a lot of things in life that are truly complicated and challenging to solve – a long-term solution for peace in the Middle East, calculus, mapping the human genome, or deciphering if my wife is really ‘fine’ or if I’m actually in trouble.
On the other hand, there are things that seem more difficult than they are – breaking bad habits, living healthier, being happy, the proper usage of “there” “their” and “they’re.”
I’m not going to attempt to unravel the mysteries of the former set of truly challenging things to solve – but, I will certainly address the latter set of things that seem difficult to get a grip on.
Want to break a bad habit? It’s simple – commit to it. Whether it’s to stop biting your nails or quit smoking, it can be done. Millions have accomplished it. And, there are many great support systems out there.
Want to live healthier? Start with your grocery list. If you don’t buy chips, you can’t eat chips. Can’t get to the gym? Do push-ups, crunches, dips, and lunges while watching TV. Just get active.
Want to be happy? Make the conscious decision to be happy. Do things that make you happy. How’s that for simplicity?
Listen, I know time and money are finite resources, but it should never stop you from filling up your life with valuable and worthwhile experiences. If traveling is your passion and the budget is tight, do day trips while you save up for your big excursion. If you enjoy painting or writing or dancing, go do them.
If something is important to you, you will make the time. If it’s not, you’ll likely find an excuse.
Unfortunately, some folks pontificate on the big problems in the world (which is noble), yet may tend to ignore what they can improve upon on a daily basis. It can be scary to confront ourselves. I implore you, don’t be that person. Learn to be vulnerable, to communicate, to be honest with yourself. In this approach to simplicity, you will grow, you will enhance your relationships, and you will champion a much more vibrant and successful life.
And, in case you were wondering, “There” is a location. “Their” is a possessive. “They’re” is a contraction of a noun and a verb. For example, “Their house is being remodeled so they’re staying over there until the work is done.”
Simple – no PhD required.
Live on Fire!
“Is it better to be liked or respected?”
It’s an age old question. In fact, it’s frequently asked in job interviews as aspiring managers are queried about what they think of the topic. Before you continue on and read my opinion, stop for a minute. Think about how you, as a leader, would answer this question. Take all the time you need and then keep reading onward when you’re ready.
Okay, glad to have you back! What did you pick? Being liked or respected? Why? Let me pose another question: is the answer that black and white? From personal experience, I can tell you, that I don’t ever recall liking someone I didn’t also respect.
However, if we’re always focused on being liked that won’t necessarily make us truly effective leaders. A good sense of humor, displaying empathy, working as part of a team, and being agreeable are all excellent qualities that draw people to like us.
Inevitably though, as leaders, we sometimes need to make decisions that aren’t “popular” to elevate performance. Issuing edicts, making threats, and instilling fear into others, may lead to bottom line results in the short term, but that certainly is not leadership and definitely won’t make us likeable. Fear, though often misconstrued, is not associated with respect either.
Instead, what if we communicate the reasons behind why these sometimes tough decisions are being made? Wouldn’t it go a long way in not only securing “buy-in” from the team, but also earn their respect? Dare I say, “they may even like us.”
So, if you were to ask me, “Would I rather be liked or respected?” My response is always, “Are those options mutually exclusive? No? Then, I choose to be both!”
Think about how others react and respond to you. How are you ‘showing up’ every day and leading with intention? When you do, “respect” and “like” are always sure to follow…
Live (and lead) on fire!
Having the vision of where you want to be is one thing. Having the confidence and commitment to reach your goals are often areas where we fall short.
Ask yourself these questions:
A) In terms of confidence, ten being supremely confident, on a scale of one to ten, where are you?
B) In terms of commitment, ten being absolutely committed, where are you?
Many times people will be committed, but they will not be confident. Other times they may be confident, but not fully committed. Why is that?
If your commitment isn’t at a ten, you need to look for what is holding you back. Being committed comes down to the old “buy-in” question. What’s in it for me? Sometimes people even create goals and visions for themselves, but they’re not fully committed to it because they’re not fully bought in. They don’t fully see themselves in it. That’s the importance of the envision process I’ve talked about previously.
Make sure your goals and vision are truly yours. Make sure you’re expressing them as part of your motivation, as part of your values, as part of your purpose, and as part of what you stand for. The more of these there are, the more the commitment will be there.
What are you afraid of?
Confidence can be equated with fear. What might be an internal block, in terms of how you see yourself? Where may that doubt come from? Who or what are those inner “naysayers?” Answering these questions will help us discover what may be contributing to this lack of confidence.
We need to transform the naysaying that diminishes confidence into what it is that creates confidence. Sometimes it’s not a disbelief in energy and ability to do something but a lack of clarity. We just tangibly, at this moment, can’t see exactly what it is that we need to do. By understanding and exploring these blocks to confidence, we begin to see the steps that lead us to our goal.
Once we remove the blocks of fear or lack of clarity and stare into the face of uncertainty, then we can see and understand what’s in it for ourselves. When we’re confident and committed, then we’re ready to go full out.
I find it interesting how frequently living creatures tolerate discomfort and pain. I include myself in this group. Many years ago, I suffered a fairly severe injury to my rotator cuff. It still bothers me to this day.
Some days I forget about it, some days it’s fairly painful, but the injury lingers. I’ve consulted doctors whose prognoses for surgical improvement span from mildly better range of movement and decrease of pain to good improvement in both areas.
I’ve decided to deal with the occasional discomfort of the injury rather than have surgery. Hey, my baseball days are long behind me anyway. I know I’m not alone in this decision. How many times have you had a toothache or tennis elbow and not gone to the doctor until it got to a point where you couldn’t tolerate it any longer? Right. We’ve all been there. Many of us have also been in that situation with our behaviors, too.
Perhaps you’ve had a job that was unfulfilling, or had a bad habit you wanted to ditch, or were in a relationship that wasn’t healthy. Often, we remain in these places way longer than we should. We tolerate the pain and trudge along miserably or wait until it becomes unbearable to finally make a change. It doesn’t need to be that way.
GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF THE SAND
One of the first steps to making a change is to stop ignoring the problem. Pretending things will just get better is a sure way to ensure that they won’t. In fact, not only is time being wasted in a painful place, things will probably get worse.
We need to stare our problems in the eye if we’re going to combat them. Major changes don’t occur in one monumental stroke. It takes time. You’re not going to go from a sedentary, out-of-shape routine to running a marathon just because you’ve finally decided to change. But maybe, instead of grabbing fast food for dinner, you make a healthy meal instead. That’s a small step down the path.
GET SOME HELP
I guarantee you others have been exactly where you are and made a change. Seek them out. If you’re looking to make a career change, seek out others who have done it. If they aren’t in your immediate social circle, then look for them online. There is a wealth of free resources available that are only a click away.
Some of the greatest life changes have been accomplished by average folks who simply committed to making a change and believed, in their core, that they would. You don’t realize how strong you are and how much you can achieve when you refuse to let doubt derail you. Get that negative self-talk out of your head and out of your life. All it does is hold you back.
You’re going to face some obstacles that may trip you up. That’s OK. Get up. Dust yourself off. And, get back on track. You can do this!