“Sure, I can answer that question, easy.” Anne was in her early 40s, sitting next to her husband on a couch in my lab, cameras rolling. Beginning a few weeks after their wedding some 10 years earlier, Anne and Joe had been participating in my longitudinal study of marriage and family development. They had completed questionnaire assessments through the mail on more than 10 occasions, and this was their fourth and final scheduled lab visit. Next door their oldest child was working with a research assistant on tasks assessing emotion regulation. This gave me a few minutes of each couple’s time and so, clipboard in hand, I said, “You have been kind enough to devote many hours over the years filling out questionnaires, being interviewed, and being observed. With the studying ending now, I was hoping you could answer a different kind of question: What have we missed? Have there been any pivotal events in your marriage – events that are essential to know about in order to understand your marriage?” Anne responded first and as Joe smiled and slipped his arm over her shoulder, she continued,
Like most couples, I suppose, we had a great wedding with our families and friends and all, but we were more than ready for our honeymoon. We flew from LA to Miami early the next morning, and we had saved up for a hotel room overlooking the beach down below. The view and the weather were fantastic, exactly as we had hoped. Our first night there we had what seemed to be a great meal, until I got back to the room and started throwing up. We weren’t sure at the time, but it turns out I probably ate a bad shrimp or scallop or something, and I was really, really sick. I could not keep anything down, and I spent most of the time right next to the toilet. I know that Joe wanted to spend the whole week together, snuggling and having sex – and I did too! But here is what your study has missed: I learned the most important thing about Joe in those few days. He took care of me. He set aside what he needed and made me his priority. He called my doctor back home several times, went out to the pharmacy, doted on me, worried about me. I wasn’t much to look at, but Joe held my hand and stroked my hair, wiped my forehead with a cold washcloth, talked to me in a soothing voice. He turned on the TV exactly once, to check on the weather for our flight back home, because he did not want me traveling home through a storm. Now all this wasn’t a surprise – everyone told me I married a good guy – but after an experience like this, everything else is details. I knew I could trust Joe. I knew I could rely on him. I knew he would take care of me, and it made me want to do the same for him. It finally dawned on me what true love really was.
Relationship scientists want to unravel the mystery of how relationships work, and we want to find ways to help more people have better relationships. Countless studies support the agenda, showing as they do that relationships in general and healthy relationships in particular enhance physical health, mental health, and the well-being of children in all kinds of ways. But what is the experience that is at the core of human intimacy? He set aside what he needed and made me his priority. Sometimes it takes ordinary folks like Anne and Joe to point out the obvious to us – at least it did for me. A person enters a relationship with the hope and desire to connect with another person, and they want it to last forever. They want to know that their partner is looking out for them, and they want to take care of the partner in turn. Sometimes a person will discover this abruptly on their honeymoon, after eating a bad piece of seafood, and sometimes he or she will discover it gradually, after many small and selfless gestures by the partner. Either way, the partners want to create a place where they can be close to one another and sheltered from the world, and they want to be able to encourage one another to achieve great things, raise great kids, enjoy their time together, and live a good life.
All of this is by way of saying that, although it took relationship science a while to stumble upon it, there really is not all that much mystery to what makes a great relationship. A great relationship is one in which two people are deeply committed to one another and are deeply invested in promoting one another’s welfare at least as much as their own – and are reasonably successful in doing so. Anne and Joe discovered this for themselves early on, but the lessons are there for anyone to see, in movies, in books, and in the enviable relationships of our siblings and peers.
That all sounds straightforward enough, and one might reasonably ask: what’s the point of doing research on that? The point is that true intimacy is a rare commodity – a fact that is all the more surprising when we consider how simple it is to fix the concept in our minds. Joe figured it out easily enough, but why is intimacy so uncommon and so difficult? Why do roughly half of all first marriages end in permanent separation and divorce (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002), and why do some 31% of the rest of us report unhappiness with our marriages (Whisman, Beach, & Snyder, 2008)? We study the mystery of intimacy for the same reason we study dieting. We all know what it takes to be fit – eat less, move more – but knowing this simple but powerful fact is not enough to keep us fit. We need to know more about the forces that govern people’s capacities and inclinations to follow the simplest of prescriptions if they are going to achieve fitness or intimacy.
Some people know what intimacy entails, and they have the wherewithal and resources to put the plan into action quite often. Others do not know what it means to create and maintain a solid relationship, and do not know how to have the hard conversations that all couples must have in order to stay close. They struggle mightily to have the relationships that they once hoped for. They divide, and conquer only one another, they protect more than they connect, or they connect with someone or something besides each other. They close off, shut down, and turn away. But even among those who know in their heads what it takes to have a great relationship – the vast majority of people, I would guess — not everyone succeeds. For one reason or another – a chronic illness, a frustrating inability to have children, exhausting work schedules, an inability to really see the partner’s perspective, the realization they married the wrong person, racial prejudice that they simply cannot put into words – many people cannot quite connect with another person in the way they want or need.
The gap between knowing how to do something and then doing it is surprisingly wide. The reasons for this gap – the reasons why relationships are difficult — are probably not something that ordinary couples like Anne and Joe can articulate. This is the real mystery of human intimacy: if the path is so clear and so clearly beneficial, why aren’t more couples on it? Why is it so hard to connect and stay connected, despite our best intentions, our evolved need to form relationships, and the tremendous advantages that come from doing so? Only good science can answer this question, because we need to hear and analyze the voices of many couples. We need to study not only the flame but the quality of the fuel that the flame is burning, and the strength of the winds that threaten to extinguish it.
Bramlett, M.D., & Mosher, W.D. (2002). Cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the United States (Vital and Health Statistics, Series 23, Number 22). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.
Whisman, M.A., Beach, S.R.H., & Snyder, D.K. (2008). In marital discord taxonic and can taxonic status be assessed reliably? Results from a national, representative sample of married couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 745-755.
Thomas Bradbury, Ph.D. Bio
Dr. Bradbury studies how intimate relationships develop and change.Learn More