Is there a formula for creating the perfect relationship? Not until we've calculated our own needs first.
In a clinical setting, providers are taught to treat health conditions using evidence-based medicine. These are established guidelines based on a critical mass of well conducted studies which determine what treatments achieve the best health outcomes. The empirical world has agreed that treatment plans be derived from research. My teenager, who is already fact-driven, often refuses my opinions. So I text him reports on the effects of sugar and screen time on his brain in case he might take the scientific world’s word for it.
Over years of practicing medicine I began to recognize that each patient, even if they came with a common diagnosis of, say, hypertension or diabetes, also had their own unique set of values, abilities and economic factors that would affect the success or failure of an evidence based treatment plan. Do they have diabetes and their culture eats rice with every meal? I can’t tell them to stop eating rice. Rather, we need to come up with ways to mitigate rice’s effect on their blood sugar. Should I prescribe a cheaper drug because they can’t afford the best one? Then we need to discuss the more onerous aspects of taking the one they can afford. Sometimes evidence based isn’t situationally sensitive. And that’s why medicine is an art as much as a science.
The same can be said for love. There’s a fair amount of data driven research around how to have better sex and love relationships. Yet matters of the heart are more difficult to quantify. I like to believe that well meaning people trying to help us succeed in love can offer us something to work with based on research. However, two people presented me with their own theories on relationship success that aren’t evidence based or proven in a clinical setting. These conversations have made me reconsider what makes love work.
Relationship science began with the advent of psychology as a discipline. It took off in the early 20th century and continues to evolve in earnest as observers of the human condition work to keep up with our cultural challenges. The Social Exchange Theory distills a relationship into a mathematical equation: 1) Compare the overall positive to overall negative outcomes of the relationship ( OUTCOME = REWARDS – COSTS); or 2) Compare what we expect to get or think we should get out of a relationship (the comparison level or “CL,” thereby SATISFACTION = OUTCOME – CL).
Social Learning Theory emphasizes that behaviors (e.g., displays of empathy during a conversation) not only invoke an immediate response, but teach people what to believe and how to feel about their relationship (e.g., feeling secure and trusting), which affects how satisfied one is. Social learning gave rise to Coercion Theory, which explains why people choose and stay in unhealthy relationships and unintentionally reinforce each other’s bad behaviors.
Attachment Theory is based upon our earliest experiences with our caregivers. Our attachment style (i.e., secure, avoidant, anxious/ambivalent) is relatively stable from infancy into adulthood, and our major style often drives the ways we will experience and grapple with our partners.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman made quite an impact using a methodology of ranked observations and physiological data like heart rate, blood pressure and sweat secretions while monitoring couples discussing a contentious issue. The Gottmans predicted, with over 90% accuracy, which couples would still be together after five years based on a 5:1 ratio of good to bad interactions. They called this The Magic Ratio.
Most of us don’t dig into evidence based research to answer what we want our gut to tell us: this person just feels “right.” Still, we are a culture driven by data and look to quantify the aspects of our relationships that might suggest its chance of success. I have judged my own relationships using a rather simple cost/benefit ratio. Then I told a friend the man I was dating was about 80% wonderful and 20% problematic and I wasn’t sure it was going to work.
“That’s great!” she said. “I think you really only need 30% wonderful, though.”
I thought she was joking.
Then another friend rephrased it: A relationship is something like a solar system with a tiny powerful sun at the center. This blazing core illuminates and sustains all the other things that orbit around it. The core is composed of our deepest values around how we want to be loved and experience the world with a partner. If we don’t share those values, the whole system withers.
Orbiting this core are things you want rather than need from love, but are less important than our core values. These include attitudes toward money, work, family/friends, sex, food, leisure and all the myriad things that make love easier on a daily basis. Our compatibility factors are 70% of our solar system. But they mean nothing if we don’t share the core 30% of our love values.
It’s more difficult to identify the vitally important 30% than it is the less important 70% early in a relationship. My former husband and I shared most of our interests and goals but I failed to understand just how devastating it would be when I figured out my core relationship values were missing with him. I mistook our “compatibility” as all the things we enjoyed doing together and tried to ignore the nagging feeling that he was more my critic than my fan. We spent years attempting to employ evidence-based relationship techniques, but he simply didn’t share my core love values. As Alain de Botton tells us, “Compatibility is an achievement of love, it shouldn’t be its precondition.”
Granted, our relationship values will change over time. Twenty years ago sex was my Neptune, relegated to a cold orbit. At midlife, sex suddenly became one of my most important values. Not just because it feels good. Sex is a vulnerable way of communicating with another person. Good communication is one of my core values. If a man has trouble verbally connecting with me but has shown me how open and giving he’s willing to be in bed, I’m not going to abandon that relationship without a fair amount of effort.
Other things that comprise my sun are mutual affirmations, compassion for self and others, and a willingness to respectfully confront conflict rather than flee from it. Certainly a shared sense of humor, because laughter just makes so much shit disappear. And I need to be a little intoxicated by his smell. Chemistry is an immutable deal breaker if there ever was one. My next level Mercury orbit includes things like strong social connections, interest in personal and spiritual growth and involvement in community. My Earth orbit issues are things like political affiliation, consumer lifestyle habits, and a few shared passions like meaningful work, deep conversations and love of the outdoors.
You can plot your own solar system and decide within which orbit all your “must have’s” actually fall. As far as I’m concerned, far beyond the asteroid belt of my needs are things like love of travel, cooking, reading, design aesthetics, even looks (as long as the body is respected). Some of these are things I’d like to share with a partner, but I could do on my own or with friends, not care about, or do without entirely if we share our core values.
We should trust ourselves to identify what we value as the essence of a good relationship before venturing into romance. Although, I admit, I’ve learned a lot about what I value by trial and error. There’s something to be said for indiscriminate dating! I’ve had more men leave me than I’ve left, not because there’s anything terribly wrong with me. I simply think I have more patience with seeing how the dynamic unfolds between us, how we accommodate each other, how we get through stressful events, and how we discover where our values overlap. I’ve never left anyone during a low point in the relationship. I don’t think that’s fair. But quick exits do seem to be what we’re dealing with in today’s consumer dating culture, when we can easily go back to the store and start over with a new model.
We can pick up on what lies at the core of another person’s values by practicing close observation. A first date won’t necessarily reveal how a person will act during conflict. But there will be ways to assess whether we feel heard (did they listen well, ask questions?), seen (did they put their phone away during the date?) or desired (did we experience a bid for affection and feel tingly in their presence?). And how did they treat the service staff?
Evidence based techniques for making relationships succeed are worthless if we haven’t figured out our core values and capabilities. Love will work better if two people pinpoint and rank their unique set of desires of a relationship and determine if there’s enough alignment. We don’t need 90%, not even 50%, just that relatively small percentage of what’s 100% important to us. That’s an artful plan that respects the integrity of who we are as individuals and how likely it is we’ll grow healthy together over time.