Want a happy relationship? Put ‘we’ before ‘me’

Empathy and kindness are key to feeling connected for couples, says expert.


Adam Galovan led a study suggesting that people who focus on what’s good for their romantic relationship rather than what’s in it for themselves tend to feel happier and more connected with their partners. (Photo: Supplied)

Want a romantic relationship that makes you happy? It helps to think about the “we” rather than the “me,” according to new University of Alberta research.

Instead of focusing only on what’s in it for you, it’s wiser to think about what’s good for the relationship, said study lead Adam Galovan, a family scientist in the U of A’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences.

The study, published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, uses a new lens for exploring relationship quality, based on a research model Galovan co-developed in 2018 that goes beyond relying on measures of personal satisfaction.

The research approach challenges a slow shift to individualism in western society that has often led to a “me-first” attitude toward relationships, he suggested.

“It’s not the pursuit of happiness itself that is the problem; rather, it’s about how happiness is pursued,” he said.

“Instead of being all about me, if we’re thinking more about what’s good for the relationship, it might not bring immediate happiness but over time it creates more meaning. We can pursue happiness not primarily for ourselves, but for us together, rather than focusing on making sure I get my happiness out of it. That doesn’t seem to work as well.”

Drawing on information from 615 couples in North America, the study reported that people felt more connected — and therefore satisfied — in their relationship when they concentrated less on what they wanted out of it and more on being empathetic and kind toward their partners.

The study took into account various relationship factors including personal well-being, relationship feelings and habits, virtues such as compassion and positivity, and responsible actions, such as expressing gratitude and appreciation in a relationship.

Based on these measurements, 55.4 per cent of the couples were classified as flourishing, with high connection and satisfaction levels.

“They said they were very connected to their partner, they could share their thoughts, would go to that person if they needed help and also felt highly satisfied.”

And though a smaller group, 7.8 per cent, reported a fairly high degree of connection in their relationships but lower satisfaction, they otherwise looked more like flourishing couples, Galovan noted.

“They were kinder, had less conflict and more commitment, and reported having more meaning in their lives than those with less couple connection.”

Another 31.8 per cent who reported they were dissatisfied with their relationship and had little connection were categorized as languishing. “They didn’t feel they could rely on or talk to their partner, had more conflict and weren’t as appreciative in their interactions.”

Five per cent also reported they felt satisfied in their relationships but didn’t feel as connected to their partner. They also reported more conflict, and their partners reported that they were less kind.

“They looked a lot more like languishing couples — those low in both satisfaction and connection. This suggests there may be things that bring them satisfaction in the relationship, but by being less partner-focused, their relationship may be more fragile and less meaningful overall.”

The overall findings support the value of going beyond a self-centred approach to finding satisfaction and meaning in an intimate relationship, Galovan suggested.

“Relationships are two-sided, so it should also be about what I’m giving and not just what I’m getting.

“Couples may focus more on the other person as an object that brings them satisfaction, rather than as someone they can connect with. When this happens, instead of enriching a relationship, it can turn it into a scoresheet: ‘I did this for you, I want something in turn for my effort and I’m only satisfied if the score is on my side.’”

It may not be easy to offer understanding to a partner at times, but viewing them through a lens of empathy and consideration helps, he noted.

“It’s simple in theory but sometimes hard in practice to do that if your partner is being grumpy. We all have those days, and it’s really easy to get upset and think you’re not getting what you want out of the relationship. But it helps to focus on what’s at the root of making someone upset. Is there something going on in their life that you can help with so they can feel better? That's what’s going to lead to better interactions.”

The research can help raise awareness for therapists and couples alike, he said.

“It’s a more holistic way of looking at relationships, and it sends a basic message to find a way to be kind to your partner, be humble and be willing to see your partner’s perspective. With this in mind, together couples can interpret what's going to work best for their relationship.”

The study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.