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A Canadian Dance Between Relations and Happiness

Dr. Sarah Maddocks, psychologist, June 16, 2012

As July first approaches I am reminded of the Dalai Lama's key point about relationships: that all of us want happiness and we do not want to suffer.

Finding satisfaction and having it endure in a committed partnership can feel like an elusive goal. None of us wants to consider pain when we start out in love. A growing science of love known as adult attachment theory has defined that we form a deep emotional attachment with a partner in very similar ways to how babies bond with their mothers and fathers. As humans we have a powerful drive for attachment that is biologically necessary for survival. From birth we engage in an intricate dance of giving and receiving attention with a primary attachment figure that is necessary for our brains to develop. In adult love relationships this interaction involves an acute transactional attention of each other's presence so that we can establish a secure foundation from which we continue build a meaningful connection.

Threats to secure attachment are inevitable and people come to me for help when their relationships are suffering. The expectations we have of our modern love relationships are in many ways unrealistic when you consider the challenges of maintaining closeness, trust, security and passion over the long term. We are now living longer than ever and marriages may have longevity of six or seven decades, a totally new situation for contemporary society. A sense of falling out of love, a loss of passion, breaches of trust such as infidelity, loss of financial security, changes in employment, shifts in life goals are all examples of what brings couples in to therapy.

Working with the emotional underpinnings of a couples' attachment dance usually provides the opportunity to find again or redefine the love connection. Canadian psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson has defined a therapy approach that involves unpacking painful patterns of relating in this emotionally focussed process. A couple can heal their attachment injuries or relationship impasses when they are able to recognize and acknowledge each other's emotional hurt in a guided step by step conversation.

Rediscovering the foundation of friendship is also important when replenishing your bond. Love relationships are based in the intimate knowledge of each other's likes and dislikes and aspirations in life. Dr. John Gottmann who has 40 years of data from his observational studies of couples calls this the Sound Relationship House, once the foundation is solid then the relationship builds to a metaphorical roof of shared values and meanings. The couples I consult with are often surprised when we go back to look at their basic love maps as Gottman calls them and find that they have become out of touch with their partner's hopes and fears. I encourage the couples to talk together and become current about the day to day preferences and longer term life goals of their partner. This can be a positive starting point for resolving unhappiness.

It's a myth that a successful marriage can be conflict free. Truth is, every relationship has a set of problems, some solvable and some that never will be. The important component of harmonious living is how we navigate the stormy waters. Humour and laughter can be a vital resource in times of conflict, a wonderful softener. I've watched arguments flare up and escalate to the point of acute distress and then when one partner offers up a smile or a shared joke or teases gently, the tension is immediately deflected and the tone is reset. Don't get me wrong, conflict does involve constructive sorting and hard work but a good dose of humour about what you can resolve and what you can't adds to the happiness quotient of a relationship.

Another essential ingredient is generosity. A recent study on marriage has linked generosity with the extent of happiness in a relationship. Researchers at the University of Virginia in the US found that small acts like making coffee for a partner, showing respect and a willingness to forgive each other for mistakes and failings can exert a positive cycle that results in an overall happier state of connection.

This research is consistent with what we know about happy people; they have frequent and continuous small experiences of pleasure. Ecstasy even for the happiest of individuals is a rare phenomenon and if we are constantly searching for those peak moments of pleasure we will be disappointed. However noticing the small demonstrations of generosity we give and receive from our partners can cue us in to a path that has the potential for a more enduring relational satisfaction.

As the Dalai Lama indicated there is a strong sense of universalism in our quest for relationship happiness. However gender and geography play an important role in differentiating the styles and boundaries of the experience happiness. Considering gender and the expression of empathy, a study of heterosexual couples by Dr. Shiri Cohen has found that women are happier when their partners engage and try and understand their negative feelings. What causes unhappiness for women is when their partners distance themselves and disengage. It seems that even if their men don't understand them, the perception that they are staying and trying to understand the distress is what matters. For men it appears to be a bit simpler, generally they are happy when their partner is happy.

When we consider geography, territorial boundaries are also a factor. Studies measuring happiness on a national basis have become a growth industry, with some countries deemed to be high on the charts and others low. In terms of the public or collective attachment to their nation many Canadians embrace robustly a set of global values, in particular for tolerance and human rights. They are deeply connected with and are curious about the world through communications and travel.

Yet even with all this hyper globalism, where it is the similarities not the differences with the world that stand out, territorial connects still have vital meaning. Like many Canadians I am deeply imbued with a curiosity about the world and whenever I return to Canada from elsewhere I feel reassured; I can relax from uncertainty and rest on the secure ground that is Canada.

These analogies should not be pushed too far. Few if any Canadians have the set of intense feelings about their country, or locality, that they do about their personal attachments. Still, the parallels merit some attention. Canada as a nation gets involved in internal arguments with its provinces for example and opportunity for frustrations abound just as occurs in our personal relationships. Humour and generosity stand out as the understated yet basic ingredients for happiness in our personal relationships and could be wonderful attributes for extending the level of happiness in the national arena. This is a thought for all of us to embrace on Canada Day.

Dr. Sarah Maddocks