Research shows that after marriage and children, same-sex parents divide responsibilities more like heterosexual parents. But even when they do, they are more likely to say it feels equitable.
Laura Pedrick for The New York Times
Princetonians like to marry one another.
Although the university is coy about the exact number of Tiger-Tiger marriages, Princeton tour guides are often asked about matrimonial prospects, and sometimes include apocryphal statistics — 50 percent! Maybe 75! — in their patter. With an insular campus social scene, annual reunions and a network of alumni organizations in most major cities, opportunities to find a special someone wearing orange and black are many.
People care about matrimony for good reason. Society has been profoundly shaped by what academics call assortative mating: the tendency of people to marry others resembling themselves. Educationally assortative mating rose for decades after World War II, as more people went to college and more good jobs were reserved for college graduates. Income inequality is now significantly driven by well-paid college graduates marrying one another, and by poorly paid high school dropouts doing the same.
But a recent analysis of education and economic mobility complicates this story. At Princeton, and in the American higher education system as a whole, there remains a strong correlation between marriage and economic class. Even for college graduates, where you’re going depends a lot on where you came from.
Marriage rates at selected colleges for people born from 1980 to 1984
The data come from the Equality of Opportunity Project, which followed the economic and educational progress of Americans born between 1980 and 1991. For each year, researchers tracked who went to which college, how much money their parents made, and whether they were married in 2014.
Marriage rates for young adults just out of college are low across the board. But as people get into their 30s, trends diverge. For example, more than half of Princeton students born into upper-income households in the early 1980s — roughly, the classes of 2002 through 2006 — were married by 2014. They didn’t all marry other Princetonians, of course, but it’s common.
But for Princeton alumni from the lowest-income households — the bottom one-fifth compared with the top one-fifth — the trends are different. Only a third were married by 2014. This pattern holds for other elite colleges and universities. For people born over the five years from 1980 to 1984, the marriage rate for upper-income students who attended Ivy League institutions was 14 percentage points higher than the rate for lower-income students.
Alana Tornello, Princeton class of 2012, grew up in a working-class community on Staten Island. Her mother ran a small hair salon where Ms. Tornello spent her afternoons after school. Her father was a social worker. She tested into a specialized high school and applied to Princeton on a whim. When the acceptance letter arrived on April 1, she thought someone was pulling her leg.
Those doubts followed her onto campus, where she struggled academically her freshman year. The Princeton social scene revolves around “eating clubs,” to which people apply for membership, much like rushing a fraternity or sorority. The clubs, mostly housed in a row of imposing old mansions next to campus, are implicitly part of extensive social networks connected to exclusive private boarding schools and families with multiple generations of Princeton alumni. Eating clubs are where many upper-income marriages begin.
Ms. Tornello didn’t feel at home there. And while Princeton gave her a generous scholarship, the eating clubs were still expensive. She decided to be an “independent” — the telling label for students who didn’t eat at a club. “If you were independent,” she said, “you were kind of seen as a lone dog.”
The Ivies aren’t the only universities where students from different economic classes have very different experiences. In their 2013 book “Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality,” the sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton studied a group of women who started college in the same dormitory at Indiana University in 2004.
Five years later, none of the working-class students had graduated. By contrast, all of the affluent ones — even those who mostly neglected studying in favor of partying — graduated and found jobs. Armstrong noted, “Since none of them had loans, they could afford to live on their own, and were positioned to meet and interact with men who were marriageable.” The Indiana University system has a double-digit gap in the marriage rate between low-income and high-income students.
Class does not explain everything. As Robert Kelchen of Seton Hall University has found, geography, student demographics and other factors also influence marriage rates. Brigham Young University has one of the highest marriage rates in the nation, presumably because nearly all undergraduates are Mormons, who are encouraged to marry early.
There are also big differences even among colleges in similar strata of wealth and prestige. Princeton’s marriage gap for the classes of 2002 to 2006 was 22 percentage points. At the University of Chicago, it was only two percentage points.
Mark Makela for The New York Times
Ms. Tornello thought she’d study something “practical” at Princeton, like engineering or pre-med. Instead, she fell in love with her humanities courses and majored in comparative literature. In her spare time, she became interested in faith-based organizing. After graduation and a short stint in Washington, D.C., she moved back to Staten Island to help with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. Today, she lives with six housemates in Brooklyn and recently started work in emergency planning and operations for a city agency. There are a lot of other Princeton graduates nearby, many commuting to Wall Street. She leads a different kind of life.
Ms. Tornello has mixed feelings about the path she chose. “You don’t quite belong anymore to where you’re from,” she said. “But I also didn’t belong at Princeton. There’s a meaning in my life that I can’t deny was created by my time there. I traveled the world from Princeton. I’m not in a better place than my family financially, but I have something I wish they had, too.”
There’s more to life than marrying and making money, as her example makes clear. But from a broad social and financial perspective, marriage matters: Growing income inequality is a central fault line in American society. Assortative mating might seem like a strange thing to blame, though. After all, in theory, everyone has a chance to go to college. By those lights, if people who work hard and become educated want to marry each other, that’s just how things are.
In reality, access to higher education remains highly unequal. Elite colleges that recruit students with large amounts of social and financial capital get much more public funding than open-access schools that enroll a greater number of academically and economically diverse students. Rising tuition prices make it difficult for low-income students to enroll and graduate, and leave many with large debts. Inequality then becomes intergenerational.
Princeton has improved its economic inclusiveness in recent years. But historically, for every student enrolled at Princeton from households in the bottom 20 percent of income, the university has enrolled seven from the top 1 percent.
As the sociological research and new data show, even within individual universities, social experiences and long-term outcomes are widely unequal. Instead of being places that provide equal opportunity to everyone based on merit, colleges are often complicit in the forces that push us apart.
“We were kids when we met,” said Mrs. Knoebel, who is from Utica. “We were friendly and we became lovers, and it grew into something more. Five months after living together we were a couple. A year into the relationship he asked about marriage. I wasn’t ready. We were countercultural. Then I got pregnant and I lost the baby. I realized I didn’t want to live this way, I wanted to get married.”
What I’ve Learned
Mrs. Knoebel: I wasn’t ready to get married, but things happened, and life had other plans. I proposed, and David said yes. Many times I thought this isn’t working. But I was blessed with two beautiful girls. They kept me together.
Marriage is hard. I’m the difficult one in the relationship. I was always running to get to some other place. I thought I’d never measure up to my own expectations. I set the bar too high, but David loved me. He had faith in me. That was very liberating and I felt stronger.
I learned you can be still. That it’s O.K. to depend on someone. That when David praised me I should realize it’s not to flatter me, he really means it. I learned to see what David saw in me, and that helped a lot. He’s very generous and devoted and selfless. He’s a wonderful father. His love and security keep me here. I’d be lost without him.
My life began with David. It took a long time to realize that. I’ve learned a lot about myself by being with him. When I come home and he’s not there, I have an empty feeling. I’m attached. I realized I needed the structure of the marriage, and to be recognized as part of a couple. We complement each other and have achieved a balance because we are so different. I’ve learned you can’t run away from things. I didn’t want to be conventional, but it helped me in the outside world to say I have a husband and a family. Our love is really deep. It’s carried over into our children and their spouses and their kids.
Mr. Knoebel: I was 26 when we got married. She was 22. These were the Joni Mitchell years. We don’t need a piece of paper. Marriage was not the goal. We were going to live together and prosper. Then the parents got involved and both gave the same advice: Get married.
We didn’t exchange rings at the ceremony, or for the first 15 years. Our daughters bought us them. It’s the only piece of jewelry I can bring myself to wear. It’s a symbol of commitment and I’m shy of symbols that reflect society at large. Laurie is the same. That I can wear this ring and feel that way about it, makes it all that more significant. We both wear them. It’s a connection to each other.
We were two hardheaded people learning to cooperate, and that was a learning process. Stepping back was hard to learn, but I did. She challenged me. I learned I wasn’t the one to make all the decisions. Even now I have to stop and remind myself I’m not the only one here. I also had to let her be her. She thrives on big projects; I don’t. I’m a solo worker so I learned to lend a hand and get involved. I don’t want to be left behind. I learned I want to share what she’s doing. I learned that it’s fun to work with a partner I love. I found I could do both.
She’s a fascinating woman. Her kindness, her willingness to go the extra mile, with me and with others, are things I love. I’m never sure what’s going to come out of her mouth, but it’s usually something I’m glad to hear. I was not lonely before I met her, but I discovered how great a partnership could be. I didn’t feel incomplete before I met her, but I did feel more complete, and that feeling has continued through the years.
An earlier version of this article misstated the ages of the couple in two instances. Laurie Goldbas was 20, not 21, when she met David Knoebel, who was 24, not 27. When they married, she was 22 and he was 26.
“When I was shipped off to my father, I felt abandoned by mother,” he said. “It never felt like my parents really had my back.”
How did they meet?
In 1996 both worked as bakers in Minneapolis. After 10-hour shifts together they spent nights talking on the phone. She had married and was in middle of a friendly divorce because her first husband didn’t want to have children.
“Steve seemed relationship oriented, and I wanted a serious boyfriend who had his career figured out,” she said.
A year later they decided to buy a house together, and within two months she was pregnant. She was thrilled. “I wasn’t quite ready,” he said. “I was a very distant father until my second child was born.”
What did they like about each other?
“Barbara is one of the kindest people you could know,” he said. “She is open and friendly in a way that I am not, and I was drawn to that.”
“Steve is goofy and funny,” she said. “We had an instant rapport, we worked well together.”
Why did they marry?
In 1999, when their daughter was 7 months old, they had a small ceremony. “We were making permanent what was already there,” she said. “It didn’t feel like a lot of change.”
Steven was committed to the family but hesitant about marriage. “My whole life had been witnessing failed marriages, but I saw how important it was to Barbara and that it would be easier for the family if we were legally wed,” he said.
Where did they live after marrying?
They had bought a small house in Minneapolis before they had children. In September 2001, they put that house up for sale, hoping to buy a larger one for their growing family and use some proceeds to start their own bakery. But they lost money on the sale and instead moved into a duplex owned by her mother, who also lived there.
They stayed in the home for 10 years. “We had little privacy and in retrospect, that was hard on the marriage,” Barbara said. “At the time that wasn’t clear.”
How were the early years?
In 2004 they started their bakery. Her mother helped with the children, which enabled both to work long hours. Steven started work at 1 a.m. and worked 12- to 14-hour days.
“Barbara liked my ambition, but it didn’t look like what she imagined,” he said. “The demands of running a bakery are extreme. If we had opened a children’s shoe store — another idea we had — there’s a chance we might be married today.”
Were they happy?
There were happy times, but for him, being away from the children made it difficult. He took only a few days off in 11 years and left town only once during that time. “The bakery was like the third child,” she said noting that his grandfather, a farmer, was also a hard worker who “didn’t know when to stop.”
“It was literally like one day off a year,” Barbara said.
“We hadn’t stockpiled happy memories to fall back on when times were tough,” she added.
“Success was great, but inside I still never felt I was good enough,” Steven said. “Living with my unhappiness, I’m surprised Barbara didn’t divorce me earlier.”
First signs of trouble?
In late 2011, they bought a house. Away from her mother’s home, life was easier, but in 2012 he read her journal and discovered she wanted to split up. It was a violation of her privacy, he knew, but it was jarring. He didn’t talk about it for months, instead retreating into silence and anger. She noticed the change and the silence, as did their employees.
“It hadn’t occurred to me that our marriage was in peril,” he said. “I should have used that moment as a wake up call. Instead we grew apart.”
When they finally talked in 2012, he suggested divorce. She said no. Both had come from broken homes, and neither, deep down, wanted to divorce.
Did they try to work on things? Try therapy?
They tried twice, though neither thought it was helpful. At that time, Steven thought therapy meant something was wrong with him.
What then pushed them apart?
For a year they hardly talked. He moved into the basement and they explained to their girls, who were 14 and 12, that their father needed more sleep. A few months later, they admitted to a separation.
Barbara began seeing a therapist. “With time, I was able to shed the notion of staying together for the sake of the children or the bakery,” she said.
The final break?
For several years, they functioned as a family, with him living in the basement.
At the end of 2013, what she called “the quiet year,” he drove her to the vet and comforted her when her beloved cat died. “That day was a turning point,” she said. “We started climbing back towards a friendship.”
“I was being a good friend,” he said. “It felt important to solidify our friendship, and always in my mind were the girls.”
How did they move on?
The divorce came through in 2014. In 2015, he moved into an apartment and by then was dating one of their employees at the bakery. Some employees took “sides” in their breakup, though neither of them wanted that.
“I think they felt we were mom and dad,” she said.
Did they feel stigmatized?
She did not. He did.
“Even though my family is littered with divorce, I learned early about not giving up on a relationship,” Steven said. “But in my family nothing is talked about, you don’t talk anything except the weather, sports and crops.”
How did they fare financially?
They are still tied financially. They used a mediator to make their financial agreements, which were amicable. When they went to court for the final divorce, they drove together.
In 2015 they decided to sell the bakery, though Barbara continued working with the new owners. He took a year off and then started a venture in wholesale baking and milling flour.
Now living in her own condominium, she receives child support until their younger daughter graduates from high school this year. Both say she is not good with money. “I never worried about what is mine and what was hers, it was always about the girls,” he said.
How did their children react?
They were upset at first, but both came around, Barbara said, when they saw their parents happier apart. “But I think if they had their way, we’d still be married,” she said.
Should they have divorced sooner?
“In hindsight we were both unhappy and were not addressing it,” Steven said.
“No,” she said. “It was complicated, we couldn’t take it apart earlier. The bakery, the family, everything was tied together.”
What did they do to start over?
She continued therapy and started taking art classes. “I reclaimed a bit of who I was before I was baker,” she said.
He, too, started therapy to address feelings of isolation and lack of self-worth. “I’d been checked out for most of my life, and pushed people away,” he said. “I can outwork and outperform people, but that ultimately didn’t make me happy.”
Are their new lives better?
Both say yes. “I lost myself in motherhood, marriage and the business,” Barbara said. “I’m happy with having done all of that, but I am back to being me.”
She started dating but found the same issues in a new relationship as in her marriage. Steven was supportive of that relationship and during that breakup.
He is working on work-life balance and regrets how the marriage affected their children. “I need to forgive myself and be there for them now,” he said. “If I had known my own issues during the marriage, I would have been happier and the marriage, healthier.”
Would they have done anything differently in the split?
Living together after they split gave them financial stability and showed their children how dedicated they were as parents, they said.
“I had self-confidence but not a lot of self-esteem,” he said. “I needed to admit that I had problems and deal with them.”
Looking back, what advice would they offer?
Both say they should have made time for each other. “If you want a family, you have to spend time with the family,” he said.
“Propping up a failing marriage is draining,” she said. “After the split I remember other people remarking on how happy I seemed, almost as if I were in love. But I wasn’t seeing anyone then, I was just so relieved.”
What is life like now?
They see each other once a month but text and talk often. “Steve is almost like a brother, he is family,” she said.
“She’s the mother of the two most important people in my life,” he said. “I’m so glad we are friends now.”
Advice for others divorcing?
“Divorce doesn’t have to be the end of the world even though it feels like it is,” he said. “Use it as a way to make changes in yourself. If you’re not happy with yourself, no relationship is going to work.”
For her, she now sees that there are ways around feeling trapped. “It took years to get untangled, but now we have our freedom,” she said. “Taking it slowly was the right way to go.”
“My unstable childhood had such a negative impact on me,” he said. “In the divorce, do whatever is necessary to put the kids first.”
That night, I mentioned to my husband that we needed to pay the bill.
“It’s done,” he said. “And I sent record of payment to the teachers.”
So efficient! And not even unusual, as my husband makes at least half of the school arrangements now. He’s generally the one who communicates with the French-speaking secrétariat pédagogique.
The “invisible” labor around medical concerns has also been redistributed between us. When my daughter broke her arm a few months after we arrived, he found out where we should take her and then monitored the treatment. While finding doctors in a new country can be daunting and stressful, I had a partner who did as much as I did, if not more. He’s just as likely to go to the pharmacy as I am, and he’s often the one to get information about opening hours and appointment scheduling.
I can’t pretend I’m not doing almost all of the cooking and the laundry, which makes sense as he’s now in an office every day, whereas we used to both work from home. Nor can I delude myself about the nature of our redistribution. Much of the labor he’s taken over — money, medical, communication with the outside world — traditionally fell to men as part of a sexist construct that women have been working very hard to dismantle. But once the construct started to crumble, women tended to take over everything rather than “smash” the system of inequality at its roots. And here we are.
I can only evaluate the state of my own marriage, however. Since I was the one who had managed all those “male” tasks for years, I have no insecurity about surrendering them now. I love the new balance in our lives, and it’s not just a matter of the actual time commitment each of us makes to the home and kids. Our equilibrium was reached because of the psychological relief that I experienced after we moved. No longer was I in charge of everything. In a country where I communicated like a 5-year-old, I could hardly be the one to supervise.
It was a relief. I wish this deliverance from the wife trap rabbit hole on all women. The emotional burden of carrying the mental load is a practical one — because women expend their time and energies on unpaid labor — but as the term implies, within a marriage it’s an emotional one as well. In the end, what really changed for me was the feeling that I could depend on my partner, just as he has depended on me all these years.
Of course, the agent for change was my own lack of language skills. That’s hardly a goal for any woman. It can’t be that the decision before married women is to be either super-managers or clueless dingbats.
But if I can extract what actually changed between us, it was two things together: My husband stepped up his game because he had no choice, and I had no choice but to let go.
I presume that most people with this domestic labor imbalance reside in countries where both partners are fluent and can’t pretend they have no choice. Perhaps they can choose a realignment nevertheless, for the same reason we make any positive change to our relationships.
The patterns we fell into after our baby was born didn’t serve either of us. Our move shifted the paradigm.
We haven’t resolved everything; we’re married, after all!
But we have a marriage that more closely resembles the one I imagined, decades ago, when I saw my mother carrying so much of the load.
I’ll start a French language course soon. I can’t pretend I’m very motivated.
I was convinced that in my marriage I wouldn’t make the same mistakes as this wife, or as my father, who had been unfaithful more than once and was now contemplating marriage No. 4. I told myself that, despite my own past struggles with fidelity, I would do it better this time.
I would get married and stay married, and when we had relationship issues we would talk about them, not stray. And I promised to take lessons from couples I interviewed, who seemed not to expect too much of their spouses or wonder if there may be someone better.
For three years, I thought I had it figured out. We lived together in a red-doored rowhouse he had built and designed himself and that I filled with my presence and my things. Though he was an architect, the house remained mostly unfinished, with no interior doors or railings. But if I ever complained about this to my mother, she would say, “You know, the cobbler’s wife never has any shoes.”
On the walls were maps with pins marking all the places we hoped to visit. In the mornings, our dog nudged our faces to wake us up. In the afternoons, she snored at our feet. When we lay down in our too-high bed, it seemed that nothing could touch us.
The next year, a few things changed. I got a new job and became a creature of the day. He now worked at night. He also learned that his job would prevent him from moving for several years, which meant our plans for travel and a cabin would have to wait. There was also an election, and the future suddenly seemed shaky.
I wanted to discuss it with him, but he was often tired. He had always worked too hard. At night, I fell asleep alone.
Soon I began to talk about the news and bigger worries, and dreams of other cities, with other people, which only reminded me of what he and I were not able to talk about. Early in our relationship he had forwarded me the results of a personality test he had taken as a child that warned of a lack of interest in“more searching answers” to life’s bigger questions, and that “‘once over lightly’ seems to be the rule.”
We had joked about these results, but I also told him I thought this was how he stayed so buoyant.
Now I realized it meant there had always been a set of closed doors between us, doors I may never walk through. One night we watched a TV show about a troubled marriage. When I tried to talk about it afterward, he told me there was nothing to say. At that moment, he felt very far away.
Around this time, a man I had worked with began sending me links to music, the kind of folk-blues songs that got inside you and unsettled parts better left untouched. He and I were both anxious people, and we began having long conversations about things that worried us and places we would rather be. At night, I listened to the songs he sent me, or the music of old punk bands I used to love, with lyrics that asked me questions about freedom whose answers I didn’t like.
One night, after one of these songs ended, I found myself writing a story about our story’s end. I wrote it on an empty envelope that had been addressed to us as I sat by our records and the map on the wall. As I was cutting a pizza, I wondered idly who would get the pizza slicer. I thought about how I would make eggs only for one. As I wrote, I felt as if I were on the outside looking in, making a decision without being a part of it. Being on the inside would have hurt too much.
On a Friday night soon after, I kissed the man who sent me the folk-blues songs. When I came home and got in bed, my whole body itched. I thought of the unfaithful wife I had interviewed who had believed it was wrong to let the other man kiss her, but she also knew she would go wild with loneliness if she didn’t.
Something came apart in me after that. In life, there are certain truths you hold on to: “I am good.” “We are good.” When a truth you believe in falls away, a friend told me, everything seems uncertain. I stopped eating, sleeping and caring what I wrote or what I did.
There was no outrunning pasts — that was what I saw now. There was no papering over flaws with research and interviews. When I had interviewed the wife about her infidelity, I had inwardly judged her for what she had done. Or maybe I had been judging myself, predicting all along that this would happen.
In the days that followed, I packed my books and clothing in a suitcase and then took them out again. I told myself the right thing to do was to let him go so he could build a cabin near Susquehannock State Park with a woman who kept her word, but I couldn’t convince myself to leave. I kept remembering how he brushed his hair back and blinked at the same time. For some reason, this tiny movement is what I loved about him most.
The day he said he wanted to marry me, there was sand in the sheets from our day at the beach, but then I remembered (though I wanted to forget it) how that night my body had said no.
Maybe it was true what people said, that the body tells you what your head doesn’t want to. Maybe, even if I hadn’t figured out marriage from interviewing those who had embarked upon it, I had learned that some people are right for you and some are not.
I repacked my things in the suitcase, took a few pins out of the map on the wall. I gazed at the holes where the pins had been. I couldn’t bear to remove the rest. I called a friend and made hard plans to leave, plans I couldn’t undo. And I thought about another truth I held on to, which is that people are not fixed — that we’re not doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes.
Months after he and I broke up, we met for a drink and joked again about the results of that personality test. We laughed about it, our incompatibility, but I also sensed how sad we thought it was.
Later, I went back to my marriage interviews, looking for an answer. I read and reread certain pages and lingered on the final ones. As I did, I saw that when I asked the unfaithful wife to describe herself in the years ahead, she described only a better version of herself and a more hopeful future, one where cheating did not play a role.
Unlikely as it may seem, I found myself believing her.
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 ahead — and in true love-hack fashion, it didn’t take much time at all.