Romantic relationships can be one of the most rewarding aspects of life. As psychologist Edith Packer put it, “An ideal romantic relationship is a thoroughly unique type of relationship. It is an emotional, intellectual, and sexual union, a total union of two souls who recognized each other as mates and who became committed to each other in order to share their innermost values, hopes, and desires.”1
But creating and maintaining such a bond requires significant effort on an ongoing basis. Even when we are well matched with our partners, life’s demands may overwhelm us, leaving us less patient and less thoughtful. We may fail at times to be fully clear about our intentions. We might disappoint our partners, or they us. If so, we may lack the energy, patience, and knowledge to respond calmly and constructively.
As the writer Don Miguel Ruiz observed, building and maintaining a relationship “is an art. The dream that two people create is more difficult to master than one.”2 And as journalist Sarah Treleaven writes, “When it comes to relationships, most of us are winging it.”3 Thankfully, however, we’re living in an age of relationship enlightenment. More and more, scientists are making discoveries and formulating principles that can help us master the art of repairing, maintaining, and even strengthening relationships. Emily Nagoski’s generally excellent Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life helps to dispel centuries worth of absurdities about sex while providing a rational framework for addressing many problems couples encounter in the bedroom. And John Gottman’s “The Art and Science of Love”—a veritable masterclass on relationships, offered both as an at-home course and as an in-person workshop—is an engaging presentation of clinical findings blended with eye-opening exercises that help partners to think more carefully about how best to communicate, verbally and nonverbally.
In fact, I’d credit one weekly exercise from Gottman’s course with having the single greatest positive impact on my own marriage. He calls this three-part exercise the “state of our union.” . . .
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1. Edith Packer, Lectures on Psychology: A Guide to Understanding Your Emotions, (Laguna Hills, CA: TJS Books, 2018), loc. 1882; Although not discussed here, Packer also offers useful ideas on strengthening relationships; I’d like to thank Timothy Sandefur for introducing me to the work of Edith Packer as well as Jacob Bronowski, mentioned later in this article.
2. Don Miguel Ruiz, “Quotations about Relationships,” Quote Garden, http://www.quotegarden.com/relationships.html (accessed June 3, 2019).
3. Sarah Treleaven, “The Science behind Happy Relationships,” Time, June 26, 2018, https://time.com/5321262/science-behind-happy-healthy-relationships/.
4. Edwin Locke and Ellen Kenner, The Selfish Path to Romance: How to Love with Passion and Reason (Doyleston, PA: Platform Press, 2011), loc. 383.