I once had a boyfriend who was a real downer. He was permanently pessimistic. Whatever new things I suggested we try, he would have a million reasons why it wouldn’t work. Go camping? We’d spend a fortune on equipment and then never use it again. Play guitar together? He was terrible, and he was too old to ever get any better (we were 25). Go out dancing? He used to dance professionally, and it wasn’t really fun for him to dance with beginners. Literally everything I suggested that we try together, he had some reason why it wouldn’t “work.” And if I tried on my own, he wasn’t interested in hearing about it or somehow managed to insinuate that it was ultimately a fruitless enterprise. His main message to me seemed to be, “I don’t give a hoot what you’re doing.” (You may ask, why did I stay with him? And all I can say is, he was very attractive.) I didn’t really notice what a downer he was until we parted and I met men who were more adventurous and enthusiastic about spending time with me.
So, everyone knows that couples need to do stuff together to keep their relationship strong. At a minimum, it’s a date night once in a while. For the more adventurous, maybe they sign up for a new, challenging hobby, like camping or rock climbing.
But new research shows that what each partner in a relationship does to stretch themselves, and more important, how the other partner reacts to that, is critical for a healthy relationship, reports Dr. Benjamin Le at the Science of Relationships. According to a paper recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers separated couples and asked one half of each couple to do a task–either something framed as challenging and fun, like taking a photography lesson, or framed as difficult and not fun, like making an instructional video demonstrating to others how to use a digital camera.
As soon as the participants were assigned to their tasks, the researchers conveyed “messages” from their partners, who were in another area. But, the messages were not really from the partners—the researchers wrote them. The messages were either positive and supportive, like “Have fun! I bet you’ll be very good at that,” or neutral to uninterested, like “Sounds all right. I’ll talk to you in a little while.” The participants then answered questions about their relationships.
It turns out that the individuals who were starting an engaging, mind-expanding task like the photography lesson and had received the supportive message and who had been in their relationships for some time (over a year) reported higher relationship satisfaction. Curiously, the results didn’t hold true for couples who had only been together for a short time. Dr. Le suggests that for new couples, there are plenty of new and mind-expanding experiences happening naturally as the relationship develops. And we all know that no study created in a research lab is going to be more exciting and fun than the phenomenon of a new romance.
I often wonder what would have happened if I’d married that Eeyore-ish boyfriend. His lack of interest in any sort of new activity (beyond going out for drinks; he was an enthusiastic drinker) and his lack of interest in anything I tried took its toll. I started to feel like there wasn’t anything really worth doing, either. When I met my husband, I was surprised and delighted to find out that he thought everything I tried was brilliant, even if it wasn’t. He encourages me in every new venture, no matter how harebrained or short-lived. Part of that is that he tries new things all the time too—he’s naturally curious and adventurous. So if there’s any takeaway from this study, it’s this: Do things together, and do things apart. But most important: Dump anyone who doesn’t give a hoot what you do.