Friends, food, and flourishing

Intimate relationships

Cryptid Kitchen explains many aspects of flourishing. The content is grouped into topic areas. Knowledge nuggets about intimate relationships are in Tiny Cyber Town.


Like every area, it starts with a sign, introducing the topic. As you walk through the town, you find knowledge nuggets about how good relationships work. It ends with a concluder, summarizing the topic.

Here are the knowledge nuggets at the time of writing. They’ve probably changed, though. Look in the game for the latest stuff.

This tiny town is about intimate relationships between two people.

We’ll use the term “marriage,” though the people might not be married. In some countries, it’s fairly common for long-term partners not to be married. They’re committed to each other, they might have kids, but they’re not officially married. It doesn’t matter for our purposes.

Marriage has a strong effect on happiness. It’s in the data again and again. Gay, straight, doesn’t matter. Some people can be happy without a partner, but for most of us, it makes a Big Difference.

People bring themselves into their relationships. All aspects of themselves.

Some aspects are typical human things. Our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, for example. We all want those.

Other things are more individual. Not liking football. Liking first-person cozy games about flourishing.

Some individual attributes don’t usually cause problems, like the cozy game thing. Some are more challenging. Someone with depression and anxiety might interpret ordinary situations as threatening. Minor problems can seem overwhelming. Both people should know these things about each other.

What happens separately to each person affects the relationship. For example, one person has a Really Bad Day at work. They’ll bring their emotions home with them. That’s just how human brains work. It’s unreasonable to expect otherwise. Tiny Mining Town has info on brains and emotions.

None of these things are barriers to good relationships. As long as both people know about them, and allow for them, things can work out just fine. Each person should be aware of other, what inherent attributes they have (like depression), and what happens to them over time.

Remember, when your partner does something you don’t like, it might not be about you.

Still, Really Bad Things outside the home will affect the relationship. The more you can face these things together, the better off you’ll both be.

In general, the more similar a couple’s goals and values are, the better their marriage will be.

Makes sense. The more similar goals are, the better partners can help each other. Money spent will benefit both, not one or the other. Time spent on goals helps both. For instance, couples who diet and exercise together are more likely to reach their weight loss and fitness goals.

That doesn’t mean partners’ interests have to be identical. In fact, in another nugget, we’ll see it’s best if they have friends and interests outside the relationship. Still, when time and money is being spent, each person should make sure the other one is getting their share.

(It turns out, couples who solve their money problems, often solve their marital problems are well. Just saying. More on conflict soon.)

Of course, this only works if each partner knows what the other wants.

People bring expectations to their marriages. If their expectations are unrealistic, they’ll be disappointed, and might blame their partner.

Don’t expect your spouse to make you happy. They’ll contribute to your happiness, but in the end, it’s on you. And you should contribute to their happiness, just as they contribute to yours.

Keep your partner’s attributes in mind. Some people, especially some men, don’t have strong communication and relationship skills. Set your expectations accordingly.

Don’t assume you can improve your spouse, to meet your needs. That’s expecting a lot of both of you. Maybe you can help your spouse change themselves. If they want to. If it’s their choice.

Strong marriages are built from many small things. Hugs, kind words, how-was-your-days, listening to complaints about that jerk at the office. Spouses should watch and listen to each other. They should know what their partner wants. Some researchers think that happy marriages have at least five times as many positive as negative interactions. Five times! That’s a lot. (This also applies in other relationships, like in the workplace. The Losada ratio. More in another tiny town.)
MothmanHmm. Would you know what all the negative ones are?

In Tiny Mining Town, you learned how we make confident assumptions about other people, and about ourselves, that might not be true. Remember Sarah and Bill? Sarah asked Bill why he was depressed, and he said he didn’t know. Sarah said,

“Come on, you must know!”

Sarah’s wrong. He might not know, because of how brains work.

Sarah’s brain is wired to be confident, even in complex situations that are inherently uncertain. Like, thinking she knows what’s going on in someone’s head. If you haven’t yet, check out Tiny Mining Town. It shows how complex brains are, and how often they get things wrong.

So, when you’re responding to your partner, keep in mind you might not know what’s going on when they complain about something that seems trivial to you. If it’s important to your partner, it should be important to you as well.

When Bad Things happen, support your partner. That’s obvious enough. However, make sure you celebrate the Good Things as well. Good day at work? High five! Got a raise? A special night out. In good marriages, when your partner gets ahead, you get ahead, too.

Marriages are easier when the people share goals and values. Some differences are hard to overcome. A spendthrift and a tightwad might have a rough time. Other differences are easier. Sports vs. theater, cozy games vs. shooters, dogs vs. cats.

Each person needs things from the relationship. Both people need to be satisfied for a good relationship. In the strongest marriages, the couple understands their differences, and help each other regardless.

There’ll be arguments. The most common arguments are about money, sex, children, and housework. These are tough issues, and the more they get resolved, the better the marriage will be.

In research on divorce, it turns out that what couples argue about is less important than how they argue. Learning how to argue constructively, or at least not destructively, is one of the best things you can do for your marriage.

We’re not talking about how to “win” here. Or, to put it better, a win for the marriage is not the same as a win for each person. If you win every argument, and lose the marriage, did you really win?

Let’s talk about how to argue, so the marriage wins.

You’re going to argue with your spouse. Make it work for your marriage, by learning how to argue well.

The most important thing: don’t criticize your partner’s self. Don’t say, “You’re so thoughtless.” Focus on specific behaviors instead. “You didn’t take the bins out yesterday.”

“They’re thoughtless” is not a fact you can observe, like eye color. It’s an inference, based on your reasoning. As you learned in Tiny Mining Town, brains are good at jumping to conclusions, and being certain they’re right.

Don’t assume your brain is right. Question yourself. Maybe you don’t have all the facts.

Even better: “When you don’t take the bins out, it feels like I have to do all the housework.” That’s often the larger issue, how something makes you feel.

Even if you don’t mean to, you and your partner will accidentally insult each other. One of you will say something that pops into your head, that you don’t mean. It’s your feeler (automatic emotional self) reacting, before your thinker (the smart decision maker) has a chance to intercept. Brains do this sometimes. (See Tiny Mining Won for info on how brains work.)

Don’t take the occasional slip as a true measure of what your partner really thinks. If it keeps happening, that’s a different story, of course.

I just noticed something. We keep talking about “your brain,” like it was separate from you.
Good point! For me, it helps to see my brain as a meat machine. My thoughts and feelings come from the way the machine works. Like any machine, it’s imperfect. It guesses wrong now and then.

What applies to my brain, applies to my partner’s as well. In a marriage, two complicated, imperfect meat machines work together over time. It helps me be more forgiving of both of us, when I remember how complex our joint meat machine system is.

That’s the metaphor of the day. Marriage is a joint meat machine system.
Ha! Yeah, sounds weird when you put it what way, but that’s how I think of it.

My partner and I have a good marriage. We respect each other. We know the other person has our back. It’s a Good Thing.

Some other thoughts about arguing. (Most of them apply outside marriage, too.) This list is adapted from For Better, by Tara Parker-Pope. It has lots of research-based advice on marriage. Thanks for writing it, Tara!

Speak in a slow, calm voice.

Look your partner in the eyes.

Hold their hand. (OK, this one doesn’t apply at work.)

Check for understanding. Paraphrase, that is, say back to them what you think they meant. “So that I understand, it sounds like you’re saying…”

Use nonthreatening words. “What if…” “Perhaps…”

Sit at the same level as each other. Meat machines don’t always react well to people looming over them.

Empathy statements, like “This is hard to talk about.”

Open questions, like “What do you think?”

Pay attention to your argument. If it looks like it’s getting out of control, take a break. A half-hour to an hour. You might think you’re calm after five minutes, but it takes longer for your I’m-upset chemicals to filter out of your system.

After an argument, see if you can repair any damage with affection, and humor. Maybe some good sex, too. That’s up next.

Sex is a touchy topic (no pun intended), for a few reasons. First, it’s a primary biological drive. It’s hooked up to strong emotions, like love, hate, rage, contentment… it’s a bundle of Stuff. These links are innate in your body, because you’re human. You don’t have a choice about that. Neither does your partner.

Second, sex is tied up with power. Rape is more about power than sex. Children are sexual abuse targets, because they lack power. When someone wants sex, it might be for positive reasons, like contentment, but it might not.

Third, there are social taboos about sex. Social pressure is a Great Big Thing for humans. Sex and social norms are tied up in complex ways. For instance, it wasn’t until 2000 that Alabama repealed laws banning interracial marriage. Even then, two in five voters were against the repeal. I’m guessing that for many of them, the idea of a black man and a white woman having sex was enraging. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect so.

So, sex is a Great Big Thing. No way around that.

In general, the more sex a couple has, the happier their relationship. Does sex cause happiness, or the other way around? A bit of both. Our brains are happier after sex, and we have more affection for our partner. The more we love our partner, and the better they treat us, the more we’ll want to have sex with them.

There isn’t a best-for-everyone level of sexual activity. The best level is whatever makes both people happy.

Remember that each partner brings their past in the marriage. If your partner has had bad sexual experiences, like rape or other abuse, encourage them to talk to a therapist. Seriously. Sexual abuse can really mess people up.

Celebrate sex. It’s a nice benefit from being human.

There’s an old saying: Marry in haste, repent in leisure. There’s truth to that.

Passion interferes with rational thought. It tickles the same parts of the brain as addiction. True intimacy takes longer, as partners learn more about each other. Commitment takes even longer.

Another thing: human brains are still developing until age 25 or so. Maybe it’s not surprising that divorce rates are higher for people who marry young.

So, take your time. It’s best to know what you want. Have a partner who knows what they want. When the two match, that’s a Good Thing.

Kids are hard on marriages. The first baby’s arrival is a time of particular stress. There are new money demands. The baby takes up time, leaving less for the marriage. Everyone is tired, and cranky. Not just the kid.

Two-career couples have a particularly hard time. Suddenly, there are three full-time jobs, not two. What worked for the marriage before, suddenly doesn’t.

Traditional gender roles can get in the way. Maybe the new dad’s dad worked outside the home, and his housewife mom was the primary caregiver.

That was then. This is now.

When both parents have full-time jobs, what used to work might not anymore. It’s normal now for dads to change diapers, bathe kids, braid hair, and do other once-mom-only jobs.

Experience and social norms might make this feel wrong for dads. It isn’t. Whatever works for your family is the best thing. If the guys laugh at you for braiding your daughter’s hair, then they are the problem, not you, and not your daughter.

Maybe it’s time to let those guys go. Hang out with other dads, who are grown up enough to braid their daughter’s hair. Just saying.

Earlier, we talked about how marriage is easier when partners have the same goals and values. That applies to views about kids.

One useful metaphor for parenting is the carpenter vs. the gardener. Carpenters control their environments. They set up a workbench, choose tools, choose materials, and maybe even control the temperature and humidity in their workshops. Carpenter parents do the same for their kids. Choose their activities, their food, what they study at school, etc.

Gardeners know they can’t control everything that happens in their gardens. They plant, weed, and water, but the weather will do its thing. Gardener parents give kids what they need to grow, and try to guide them towards what they see as good choices. However, they accept kids have many other influences, and will go their own way.

You and your spouse need to talk this over. It could be hard on the family if one of you is a gardener, and the other a carpenter. Not impossible, but something you’ll have to negotiate.

One last thing you’ll hear people say: the best way to take care of your children is to take care of your marriage. There’s Much Truth there. Take time away from the kids. Have date nights. Go away for the weekend. Spend money on babysitters. You’re not neglecting your kids. You’re taking care of them.

Marriages are usually stronger when both partners have friends outside the relationship. This sounds odd, but it’s true.

Remember the nugget about expectations? Expecting your spouse alone to make you happy is a bad idea. Too much pressure, and if it doesn’t work, you might think the relationship is a failure.

Friendships outside the marriage take some of the pressure off. Hang out with friends, play pool, have a book club, whatever you like to do. If your friends are at the same life stage as you (new parents, empty nesters…), you’ll understand each other’s challenges. You can compare notes, get some advice, even just reassure each other you’re doing fine.

Marriage is a source of life’s greatest joys, and sorrows. Keep a good relationship with the right person… there’s nothing better.

The better you and your partner’s goals and values match, the stronger, and easier, your marriage will be. You can help each other achieve what you both want.

Don’t expect your partner to be your everything. That’s too much pressure. Have your own friends, and your own interests, separate from the relationship.

Pay attention to your partner. Celebrate their achievements. Listen to their sorrows. Marriage is coop, not death match.

Learn how to disagree. Arguments don’t have to damage your marriage, but they can if, for example, you criticize the person, rather than the behavior.

The best way to take care of your children is to take care of your marriage.

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