The Secret to Relationship Satisfaction (That has nothing to do with your partner).

The Secret to Relationship Satisfaction (That Only You Control)

Several studies have explored the trajectory of relationship satisfaction. Some have suggested that relationships follow a U-curve, with satisfaction decreasing in the earlier years and increasing later on. Others have been a bit more pessimistic, finding a continuous decrease over the years. According to others, satisfaction remains fairly stable.

Clearly, the results are mixed. Not a lot of help for those who adore the black and white for its classic, no-nonsense simplicity, but think the grey is a fence-sitting pony. The good news though, is that wherever your relationship satisfaction is at, there are always ways to make it better.

There is plenty of research that has tried to find the secret to a lasting relationship. Explanations are as varied as the research and include low relationship-related anxiety, fewer premarital doubts, lower psychological distress, less stressful events, better communication, less verbal and physical aggression and greater love, trust and cohesion. And then there’s self-esteem. 

The direction of the relationship between relationship satisfaction and self-esteem has been the subject of lively debate. First, there are those who suggest that relationship satisfaction enhances self-esteem. Intuitively this makes sense, as relationships are an important source of self-esteem.

On the other hand, evidence from long-term studies suggests that the reverse effect is true, namely that self-esteem increases relationship satisfaction, rather than the other way around. This also makes sense, given the effect of self-esteem on satisfaction and success in other areas.

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So how does self-esteem change throughout our lifetime? Longitudinal research suggests that self-esteem tends to increase throughout young and middle adulthood, peaking around age 60, and declining into old age.

In a recent study, researchers looked at the role of self-esteem in relationship satisfaction, tracking over 885 couples over 12 years in the first study and 6,116 couples over 15 years in the second study.

Initial relationship satisfaction was related to the initial levels of self-esteem of each individual partner. As the self-esteem of each partner changed, so too did the couple’s assessment of relationship satisfaction.

Interestingly, the effect of self-esteem on relationship satisfaction was the same for both men and women.

The exact mechanism underlying the effect of self-esteem on relationship satisfaction is unclear, though there are a few theories.

The first is that people with low self-esteem might tend to think their partners see them as negatively as they see themselves. In response to this, they may attempt to avoid disappointment by distancing themselves or by making a defensive attack upon their partner. Whether fight or flight, either response would diminish relationship satisfaction for both parties.

On the other hand, partners who feel secure in a relationship are more likely to experience lower levels of relationship-related anxiety and avoidance, something that would enhance relationship satisfaction.

Those who experience more relationship-related avoidance are more likely to pay less attention to emotional cues provided by the partner, thereby missing opportunities to connect and respond to emotional needs within the relationship.

Partners who experience more relationship-related anxiety are also more likely to seek excessive reassurance. This may be experienced as neediness from the sought after partner, which can be a killer for desire and intimacy.

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The take-away from this research is the importance of protecting your self-esteem as a protective measure for your relationship. It can be hard to steal time to put yourself at the top of the list, but it’s important for so many reasons.

Anything you can do to increase your self-esteem, whether that’s doing more of what you’re good at, looking after yourself by exercising, meditating and spending time with friends, or learning a new language, skill, sport or activity will be an investment in your relationship.

Relationships are an important buffer, offering protection and support when the outside world takes a swipe. It’s the people we love, and who love us back, who are critical in offering us a hand up when we’re ready to walk out the cramp. But they are not a remedy to a broken spirit, something that, as we know, can only be fixed with tenderness and grace from the inside.

6 Comments

Sarah

I loved reading this, well done. I’ve found that this principle applies to all the relationships of my life, not only my significant other. As I treat myself with more acceptance and am gentler with my own weakness I find it easier to accept others, not be intimidated by their accomplishments and give them the benefit of the doubt.

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you Sarah. This is such a wise comment that you have left. You’re so right – self esteem is important for all of our relationships!

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faby

Very interesting article. I totally agree on the idea of self-esteem being the very core and essence of relationship satisfaction. The satisfaction starts with oneself, as much if not more important is the issue of self-forgiveness. We can be our worst enemy and we should be taught ‘real’ self-indulgence and common sense from an early age. It would be an easy more enjoyable life Journey from then onwards….sure, there are big traumas that do need a bit more work.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes! Your point about self-forgiveness is such an important one. Mistakes are such an important part of growth and learning, and it’s self-forgiveness that makes that possible. Thank you for sharing your insight.

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Celine

Amen, sister! I learned this lesson the hard way over many years of clinging and patching. Now I find that self-care has increased my self-esteem and vice versa. Curating my “life worth living” means I’m ok with or without an SO, and (kind of ironically) confers greater love and respect within my new relationship

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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
‘Thriving in a Stressful World: Practical Ways to Help Ourselves and Our Children Feel Secure And Calm’

As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

In this webinar, hosted by @dalailamacenter you will have the opportunity to learn creative, evidence-informed takeaways to help you and the children in your care build resilience and foster a sense of security and calmness. Join us for this 1 ½ hour session, including a dynamic Q&A period.
 
Webinar Details:
Thursday, October 14, 2021
1:30 - 3:00 PM PST
 
Registrants will receive a Zoom link to attend the webinar live, as well as a private link to a recording of the webinar to watch if they cannot join in at the scheduled time.

Register here:
https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/thriving-in-a-stressful-world-a-heart-mind-live-webinar-tickets-170348045590

The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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