Editor’s Note: In this article, originally published in July of 2020, relationship researcher Carol Bruess is sharing her expertise on how to cultivate a relationship that lasts. This advice can apply to relationships of all kinds—with a partner, a friend, a family member, a coworker, or a neighbor. We hope you find her insights helpful.
Ah, the act of cultivating. Of “promoting or improving the growth of (a plant, a crop) by labor and attention.”
Ah, how I loathe an article or speech that begins by citing a definition. And yet, I am. Because this verb, to cultivate, is quite the perfect, essential, core concept if we really want to talk honestly about the labor and reward of relationships.
Spoiler alert: Relationships really are labor.
This is a truth backed up by more than a half-century of great relationship science. If you want lasting friendship, lasting marriage, extended family peace, or even a lasting and healthy relationship with your neighbors, you’re going to have to do the work. And usually more than you’d prefer, in ways you’d not prefer, and at times that’ll occasionally be very inconvenient. But if you’re unwilling to labor and attend to a relationship, it will atrophy and move toward chaos.
Ah, chaos. Yes, it’s a euphemism for the range of relational pains such as lonely marriage, friendship breakups, divorce, neighbor disputes, parent-child stalemates, family dysfunction, the silent treatment, passive-aggressiveness… and/or all of the above.
When we embrace each day with the knowledge that our relationships require intentional and regular attending to, we move toward them and in them differently.
I know, I know (oh, how I know): Seeing relationships in “maintenance terms” isn’t glamorous nor sexy. But, when we embrace the regular-maintenance-required truth it can clarify our daily choices. When we embrace each day with the knowledge that our relationships require intentional and regular attending to, we move toward them and in them differently.
What does such attending to—the cultivating, maintaining—look like?
A little over a decade ago a wise-owl friend—a woman about twenty or so years my elder—shared her lived and observed truth (btw, she is a badass, highly-sought-after life coach): “At the root of every problem or pain or relational strain is the existence of too much of something or too little of something.”
As a social scientist, I was intrigued but not convinced it could be that simple. Yet I was intrigued enough to go about the last many years casually testing her theory—trying it on as a lens as I attempted to make sense of whatever pain was presenting itself in my life or others’ lives. And guess what? I think she’s right (mostly). It is both that simple and, as are relationships, maybe a tad more complicated. But mostly not (that complicated).
Maybe it’s because the too much/too little theory squares with the most well-tested, well-studied, long-embraced concepts of relationship science: that our relationships are systems. Everything is intertwined and interconnected; all parts and pieces—even our emotional pieces—are interdependent.
Maintaining and cultivating lasting relationships is very much like maintaining a healthy body—your most intimate, precious system.
You’re already a systems expert! You already know how and why day by day, hour by hour, our bodies demand maintenance. And, as you likely know all too well, our beautiful, complex bodies will give us plenty of signals when not getting enough of the things they need. We are designed to be fully interdependent and thus experience disease (dis-ease) with too much or too little of pretty much anything. Too little water, nourishment, movement, sleep? Too many substances, psychological stressors, blue light? Our wise bodies will yearn for recalibration and let us know as much via inflammation, headaches, irritable bowel, insomnia, irritability, depression, anxiety, etc., etc., etc.
Ironically (or is it?), the trickier system—that of maintaining healthy, lasting, life-giving relationships—is a little harder simply because we aren’t often and explicitly taught how to maintain them. What should we do more of, less of, and where should our sometimes-limited energies be focused and invested? How do we tune into the whispers of pain, of loneliness, of disconnection? Of conflict, apathy, anger, distance? When/if we do hear them, what exactly do we do? Can we do too much and overcorrect? Where might we need to do (or feel or reveal or give) less?
The good news: It’s never too late to commit to the labor of relationship cultivation, of relationship nurturing.
You’re not alone if you haven’t received the training, coaching, or education on essential human relationship skills—those that the science now confirms will increase our chances of creating successful, long-lasting relationships manyfold. Most of us are taught from an early age about the benefits of tending and caring for our own bodies, but we don’t often speak of cultivating our relational systems. We’ve not been necessarily taught why forgetting to take out the trash or unload the dishwasher or wipe down the counter after making toast or glancing at our phone might be felt and perceived by our partner or roommate as disrespect. I mean, “What the hell!? I was planning on emptying the dishwasher later!” #eyeroll. “They’re just crumbs! Why are you getting all bent out of shape?!” “I just had to see if an email had bounced back. Keep talking, I’m totally listening.”
The good news: It’s never too late to commit to the labor of relationship cultivation, of relationship nurturing. And the even better news—grown out of a science-supported truth—is that even tiny, positive efforts (a little more random affirmation) and a little less of the contagious negativity (apathy, criticizing, shutting down) can and will create significant shifts and positive outcomes (woot woot) in untold aspects of your relationships. Thank you, interdependence! Learning which small changes and small efforts to make—a little less of X, a little more of X—can and will have exponential effects in unexpected ways. Oh, and these are learnable, practicable skills!
But where to start? Start small. Start here.
Below are six places to focus your more of/less of labors. Six things—some big, some quick, some requiring investment of time and vulnerability, some micro and completely free—and each one is something I strongly recommend if you’re willing to and wanting to cultivate any of your relationships for the long haul. Some of this ½ dozen are thanks to great relationship science; some are thanks to my own practice raising a marriage of twenty-eight years, two (pretty fantastic, if I can say so myself) kids, now twenty and twenty-four years old, and the badass people I get to call my inner circle of wise women (and a few good men). Most are a combination of all of the above plus years of great therapy myself. Oh, second spoiler alert: Doing more therapy is on this list. Sorry/not sorry.
1. More right scanning.
Over time, in any relationship (work, marriage, roommates) it’s easy to be annoyed. To notice first (only) what’s wrong. To be frequently and mildly irritated. “Is it really that damn hard to shut the kitchen cupboard doors?!” “How many times do I need to ask you to not put jeans in the dryer?!” “I’ve asked you a thousand times to shut off the hallway light when you’re last to leave the office!” Yet it takes just as little time and effort to scan our environments and first choose to notice what’s going right. And then appreciate it—as in out loud. “Hey, thanks for cleaning up the kitchen last night. I was tired and your help was sweet.” “I really appreciate you picking up that sweet card for mom’s party.”
It takes just as little time and effort to scan our environments and first choose to notice what’s going right. And then appreciate it—as in out loud.
Feeling valued and appreciated is contagious. When others feel affirmed, they are more likely to look at others (you) with a similar lens; more likely to right scan more and scold scan less. And that complimenting and positivity begets more complimenting and positivity and spills positive vibes into other areas of your relationships (thank you, interdependence!).
2. Less putting “happiness” on a pedestal.
No, I’m not saying to settle for joyless relationships and be fine with long-term suffering. What I am saying is that many of us, especially when deciding on long-term partners or staying in a relationship or marriage, use “happiness” as our inflection point. Our “Well, I’m just not happy so this mustn’t be right. I’m out!” Relationship researcher Nate Bagley says it best:
“The point of marriage is not happiness. The point of marriage is growth.”
Let me be clear: Yes, you can create joy and happiness and find both in your relationships. But when it’s your singular goal, you’re more likely to think you’ve missed or failed (“I’m out!”) when natural disharmony arises. What to do instead? Adopt a growth mindset.
3. More growth mindset.
Adopting a “growth mindset” in and toward relationships is one of the most powerful shifts we can nurture, substantially changing the way we make both small and big choices in our relationships. Stanford researcher Carol Dweck, who coined and has studied the idea, explains it brilliantly:
“The growth mindset says all of these things can be developed. All—you, your partner, and the relationship—are capable of growth and change. In the fixed mindset, the ideal is instant, perfect, and perpetual compatibility. Like it was meant to be. Like riding off into the sunset. Like ‘they lived happily ever after.’ . . . One problem is that people with the fixed mindset expect everything good to happen automatically. It’s not that the partners will work to help each other solve their problems or gain skills. It’s that this will magically occur through their love, sort of the way it happened to Sleeping Beauty, whose coma was cured by her prince’s kiss, or to Cinderella, whose miserable life was suddenly transformed by her prince.”
This simple and daily shift—to see our relationships as constantly evolving, not some destination at which we arrive and then reap the fruits of nonstop giddiness and unwavering happiness—is one of the most powerful concepts I’ve adopted in my own relationships. Oh, and research provides much evidence that it works, and the mindset spills over/improves other areas of our lives too. (Interdependence strikes again!)
4. Less numbing.
If we’re really doing the labor required to cultivate and sustain life-giving, authentic relationships, there will be ups along with downs, sometimes simultaneously. It doesn’t feel great, especially when there is too much of one (pain, conflict, stonewalling) and too little of the other (joy, gentleness, openness). When in pain, it’s tempting to try to make it go away. To resist it. But what we must resist is the temptation to numb ourselves to the less pleasant emotional work of relationships.
What we must resist is the temptation to numb ourselves to the less pleasant emotional work of relationships.
Numbing is frequently accomplished via substances, of course: big doses of the feel-great-for-a-bit sugar, ice cream, chocolate with a side of an extra gin and tonic or three. Or a big old cheesecake and an ice cold beer (yum!). We also accomplish the art of numbing by turning toward other dopamine-boosters like binge-searching Pinterest or Insta; spending hours on Twitter; engaging with the fun and hilarious time suck that is TikTok; keeping up that Snap streak!
Yes, the brain chemical hits we get from our screens are releasing the same brain chemicals—the same feel-good hormones—we get from human touch, chocolate, exercise, and/or holding a warm, cuddly baby or puppy (each of which I strongly recommend, at the right time and not all at the same time). As guru Brené Brown explained in one of the most-watched TED Talks of all time:
“We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
Painful truth, right? And how do we name and get honest with our patterns of numbing while simultaneously, actively learning about our relationship systems? Do (more) therapy.
5. More therapy.
One of the reasons I urge everyone to enjoy some good therapy is because it’s one-on-one education about the most important topic in the world: YOU. You fix you. You don’t fix others. But when you come into a relationship with other/s as your most authentic, ever-evolving self—willing to keep doing the work of vulnerability, accepting responsibility, learning about how you show up/don’t show up in interactions—you are (thank you, interdependence) going to naturally see benefits in multiple areas of your life, your relationships, your health… all of it.
Do therapy on your own, with your partner, or with your family. Yes, it’s scary getting close to yourself. But too little self-knowledge and too much blaming create fertile ground for chaos.
Bonus: If you have a great therapist, they are likely to prescribe more relationship rituals. Which, of course, I do too.
6. More rituals.
Specifically, more rituals of connection. In friendship, family, marriage, and even in professional relationships, intentionally creating ways of regularly coming together—even virtually, if necessary—to share, laugh, talk, sip beverages, exercise, relax, play Animal Crossing, enjoy your shared obsession with Schitt’s Creek: These small rituals create opportunities to frequently turn toward your relationship and each other.
Rituals of connection needn’t be expensive, time-consuming, or massive . . . Size doesn’t matter when it comes to ritual; intention and meaning do.
Rituals of connection needn’t be expensive, time-consuming, or massive; in fact, often smaller is better because micro-rituals are more sustainable over time. Maybe you call your aging mother each morning for five minutes on your drive to work. Maybe you and your partner always hug for the count of twenty each day when you arrive home from work. Maybe every evening your entire family takes five minutes, all smartphones off and out of sight, to say out loud two things about the day that went well and one thing that didn’t (and, if with your spouse or partner, you punctuate these mini chats with a twenty-second kiss at the end!). Size doesn’t matter when it comes to ritual; intention and meaning do. Internationally known relationship therapist Esther Perel says it best:
“The ritual is what separates the ordinary and the mundane from something that becomes more elevated, more separated, more sacred.”
My own research has similarly revealed that rituals of connection serve countless functions in sustaining relationships, providing a hard-to-articulate sense of “We can do this!”
And that sense? It’s one you can rarely have too much of, especially when you create a sense of wefulness in a way that is mindful of the fact that it, too, will ebb and flow. (Thank you, yet again, interdependence.)
Ready to get to work? Three cheers (maybe more!) for cultivating your relationships.
Carol Bruess (last name rhymes with “peace”) is professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, studying and writing about relationships. She is highly fluent in emoji, loves parentheticals (I mean, it’s what all the cool kids are doing), and is happy-dancing her way through empty-nesting (although don’t tell her kids; they think she’s all weepy). Check out her books, TEDx talk “Are All Relationships Messy?” and her sewing/design shenanigans over at www.carolbruess.com.