Research tell us that a strong marriage hinges on the characteristics of the couple. Spouses who trust and respect each other, communicate well, and are sexually compatible have the best chances of success. If feelings and actions between two people in a partnership are good, then the relationship will also be good. Meanwhile, if something is wrong in a relationship, the solution lies in looking inward, at yourself and at your partner, examining every centimeter in the haystack of your marriage until you find that problematic needle.
It’s as easy as baking boxed cake, right?
The problem is that relationships don’t exist in a vacuum. Married couples are regularly affected to varying degrees by extended family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and so on. Some of these external forces create challenges for the marriage. The up side is that they might also offer some interesting solutions. Marriage is hard, sometimes so hard that you want to give up. And though divorce might seem appealing in the moment, it can come with many regrets. Couples need all the help they can get, so if something aside from gut-wrenching soul searching could work, why not try it?
To illustrate what I mean, let’s look at the study of social networks–not in the Facebook/Twitter sense, but rather as an area of specialization within the field of Sociology. For the sake of brevity, the gist of social network theory is to understand how individuals are influenced by those to whom they are connected (you may have read Malcolm Gladwell’s take on this in the New Yorker). Connections–or “ties”–can be characterized as weak or strong, symmetric or asymmetric. They can also be positive or negative. Change the ties a person has with others and you can change that person’s social experiences–and by extension, possibly change the actual person.
Two people in a happy romantic relationship are connected by a strong, symmetric, and positive tie. When a marriage gets bumpy–when spouses grow apart, spend less time together, or open up less to each another–the tie becomes weaker. The connection also might become lopsided: one person in the relationship may pull away while the other hangs on more tightly. And then there’s a negative tie, when two people in a committed relationship are suddenly, for whatever reason, unable to stand each other. (Note: For more information, reference this June 2004 academic study out of Harvard University)
When these things happen, the most commonly given advice is to share more time and activities together, or to talk about the source of the problem until you get to the bottom of it. But social network theory offers another possible tactic: according to a basic principle of the study of social networks, two people can forge a stronger, more positive tie if they independently develop a strong negative tie to a third party.
In other words, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Applied to marriages, a couple that hates together might have a better chance of staying together.
You may be asking yourself why anyone, in this divided, difficult world, would conspire to bring more hate into the mix. But the social science says what it says. If you and your spouse both have, say, a strong distaste for your child’s cranky preschool teacher, or a neighbor whose dog consistently leaves poop on your lawn, then share that feeling, together. If it’s not someone you personally know, pick on a politician, an actor, or a musician. You can hate together on just about anything: how sick you are of Kanye and Kim, how the traffic is so awful, or how the steak you both ordered looks and tastes like a hockey puck.
One caveat: make sure you laugh. Time Magazine recently reported on research saying that laughter stimulates intimacy and happiness in a relationship. So throw in some jokes. Hatred when directed outward can strengthen your bond, but if it doesn’t include some feel-goods between you, it could backfire.
If you’re struggling in your relationship, keep going to couples counseling. Read online articles about how to better communicate with your partner. Buy a book on rekindling your romance. But once in a while, throw some light-hearted and humorous mutual hatred into the mix and see if it doesn’t bring you closer. You might be surprised what a little loathing can do.
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