Update (July 13, 2020): This post has been refreshed to reflect current research and to include additional information.
So much of what I learned about love, marriage, and relationships came from television and movies. I imagined in previous relationships that my partner and I’s romantic lives were intertwined like a romantic comedy. I idealized relationships and partners. And the result: a bunch of failed relationships. I needed some self-reflection, and most importantly, I needed to learn how to be a better boyfriend.
After a particular relationship ended, I decided to get healthy. I started going to therapy and worked out five days a week. I learned to not idealize relationships, and how to communicate better. Healthy relationships are nothing like romantic comedies. And over time, I quickly recognized that relationships aren’t built on idealizations or grandiose gestures. Love and relationships take work.
Then I met Rachel. I quickly fell in love with the girl in the caramel-colored jacket. Her sharp wit, take-no-shit attitude, and genuine kindness helped me learn from my mistakes leading to my healthiest relationship ever.
And last Saturday, I married Rachel in the woods of Virginia in one of the happiest days of my entire life. Here are my four biggest takeaways how to be a better boyfriend, and now husband.
1. You need to celebrate differences.
Rachel loves the New England Patriots. I am a Buffalo Bills fan.
Rachel spends her free time reading about personal growth and flow; I read about Miley Cyrus and that one Hemsworth brother’s divorce.
Rachel is messy; I’m a neat freak.
The 78% compatibility that OK Cupid suggested was based upon a computer algorithm. According to Christian Rudder’s Ted Talk, “the algorithm calculates how much your possible match’s answers could satisfy you based on how you answered, how you wanted them to answer, and how important that specific question was to you. The next thing it calculates is how your answers satisfied your possible match based on their answers about someone they would be interested in. Both those calculations are turned into percentages, and the last thing OkCupid’s algorithm calculates is the average chance you could be happy together, based on your previous percentages.”
Complicated, I know.
If you were to look at our profiles, it’d be hard to find commonality. We didn’t like the same type of music, and I’m allergic to her favorite kind of food. Rachel hated The Great Gatsby and I thought Bloody Mary’s were overrated.
Yet, what OK Cupid’s algorithm failed to compute would be how Rachel and I’s differences complement each other. A study published by Social Cognition revealed that “joint goal-pursuit with someone who has complementary strategic preferences could prove advantageous.”
The research reveals that couples who have “complementary strategic preferences” are more likely to “divide and conquer” as long as the goals remain the same. “Having a partner with a complementary strategic preference allows both members of a dyad to delegate their non-preferred strategy to their partner, in turn allowing each individual to adopt his or her preferred regulatory strategy while still being prepared for a range of responses as a unit.”
The best example of Rachel and I’s complementary strategies are how we plan. Rachel is a long-term planner. She looks into the future, decides what she wants, and then plans accordingly. Rachel is phenomenal at planning vacations, activities, and long-term investments. Give Rachel a goal, and she can plan out months of action to execute it with ease.
I, on the other hand, struggle with long term planning. My lesson plan books went into one-week spurts. Planning a vacation, or a wedding seems impossible. But day to day, I excel. I remember appointments and when bills are due. I organize what we’re going to eat for the week, or when we have plans on the weekend. Rachel is so focused on the long term that she can sometimes forget about the immediate. She is far more likely to forget about an appointment or to pick up something from the grocery store.
But together, we can plan anything. For our wedding, Rachel did an incredible job of planning: developing Pinterest boards, creating a vision, and putting those plans into action. She selected the colors and had broad-stroke ideas of what she wanted for the flowers, did research on boutonnieres/corsages/and had though of details for the flower girl/cupcakes etc, and even selected the florist.
I took everything from there. My role was to organize the on the groundwork: reach out to caterers, flower folks, and communicate with the venue. I scheduled appointments and performed a lot of the set-up on the day of the wedding itself.
We had separate tasks to solve the same problem: have the most Garrett and Rachel wedding possible.
And I must say it was a success. If you want to learn how to be a better boyfriend, you need to learn how to capitalize on your differences.
Not only that, our different personalities and quirks allow us to constantly learn from one another. Rachel is a content writer and in my former career, I was a teacher. During our relationship, I have learned how to become a better writer, editor, and content creator. I’ve learned how to develop content calendars, utilize keywords, and SEO. At the same time, I’ve helped Rachel with presentations, public speaking, and building relationships with her co-workers.
Learning from your partner not only builds stronger relationships but ensures happier, healthier lives. “I think most social scientists would put their money on education as the most important factor in ensuring longer lives,” says psychologist Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Our brains are wired to be constantly learning, and like any muscle, needs to be exercised to stay strong. Successful aging is tied to patterns of life-long learning.
A study of senior citizens revealed that those who continuously learn have stronger memories. “We found quite an improvement in memory, and we found that when we tested our participants a year later, that was maintained,” Dr. Denise Park, neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas says.
The phrase has always been “opposites attract.” And while we tend to affiliate with people who have similar value systems, we prefer complementary personality traits. Rachel and I’s 78% wasn’t a deterrent; instead, the algorithm was a guide on how to build a long-lasting healthy relationship.
How celebrating differences made me a better boyfriend:
Celebrating differences is the key to a successful relationship. Instead of pushing away a partner who might solve problems differently than you, embrace your differences. To be a better boyfriend, use those differences as a learning experience for yourself and grow. By working together through complementary personality traits, your relationship becomes stronger and problem-solving moves away from being a single-person issue, into something you and your partner can tackle together.
2. You need to trust your partner.
For a relationship to succeed long term, you need to be able to trust your partner and your partner needs to be able to trust you.
According to research written by Lindsey Rodriguez, Angelo DiBello, Camilla S. Øverup, and Clayton Neighbors, trusting your partner breaks down into three categories: reliability and predictability, dependability, and confidence in the strength of the relationship. Furthermore, the study states that “trust that one’s partner has their best interests at heart is one of the most important and highly valued qualities in romantic relationships.” A healthy relationship requires you to always want to do the right thing for your partner.
Reliability and predictability aren’t the sexiest qualities in a healthy relationship, but they’re the most important. In his book Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari describes how his feelings towards reliability and predictability changed over time: “At one point I was the hopeful romantic who would stay out till 4:00 A.M. every morning, worried that if I went home, I’d miss that magical, amazing woman who showed up at the bar at 3:35 A.M. After many late nights and brutal mornings, though, I realized that most amazing, magical women don’t walk into a bar at 3:35 A.M. They’re usually in bed by that hour. Usually the men and women who are going out this hard are less the ‘amazing/magical’ sort and more the ‘nightmare/train wreck’ variety.”
The unpredictability of your 20’s lends itself well to the first type of relationships: passionate love. Psychologist Elaine Hatfield describes passionate love as “a state of intense longing for union with another.”
Ansari describes passionate love as “This is where you and your partner are just going ape shit for each other…Every night is more magical than the last. During this phase, your brain gets especially active and starts releasing all kinds of pleasurable, stimulating neurotransmitters. Your brain floods your neural synapses with dopamine, the same neurotransmitter that gets released when you do cocaine.” But the amount of dopamine released fades away over time.
Passionate love revolves around sexual attraction and quick bursts of happiness. The unpredictability is intoxicating, yet fleeting. Author Michael Long describes why passionate love fades: “passionate love is driven by a single chemical, dopamine — and dopamine rewards us for pursuing things we don’t yet have but that might be useful.” Dopamine is the same neurotransmitter released when we exercise, or eat that delicious cookie-dough cupcake.
Long continues on, “dopamine gives us a buzz when the possibility appears. That buzz encourages pursuit – in this case, meeting new people, flirting, and dating. And the neurochemical buzz of pursuit is, as we all know, intense.”
It’s impossible to keep that dopamine flowing. “Dopamine gets us interested in each other, but it responds only to things that are new or that are possible rather than real,” Dr. Dan Lieberman, co-author of Long’s study, says. Eventually, the dopamine excitement fades until it stops. For a healthy relationship, there needs to be more than pursuit, lust, and attraction. That means appreciating your partner “in the here and now.”
The here and now defines the second type of love: companionate love. Companionate love “is about intimacy, trust, commitment, and affection. In a long-term relationship, passionate love typically simmers down to compassionate love within one to two years.”
For Ansari, companionate love is something more long-term. “And, whereas passionate love lights up the brain’s pleasure centers, companionate love is associated with the regions having to do with long-term bonding and relationships.”
Ansari discusses a study performed by Helen Fisher, a scholar in the study of sex and attraction, where she took brain scans of middle-aged people looking at a picture of their spouse and compared them to younger people looking at their new partners. Fisher discovered that “‘Among the older lovers, brain regions associated with anxiety were no longer active; instead, there was activity in the areas associated with calmness.’ It is love, just less intense and more stable. There is still passion, but it’s balanced with trust, stability, and an understanding of each other’s flaws. If passionate love is the coke of love, companionate love is like having a glass of wine or smoking a few hits of some mild weed.”
The unpredictability of passionate love fades away as companionate love grows slowly over time. Which comes back to trust. Trust is built over the course of a relationship and requires honesty, but also predictability. As our relationships grow stronger, our desire for constant dopamine kicks at bars and parties dissolves into relaxing evenings as home with our partners.
Before meeting Rachel, I admit I was addicted to the dopamine kicks of passionate love. That makes sense if you think about it. Romantic comedies always focus on passionate love: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy chases down girl on an airport runway. I loved The Great Gatsby, and I thought Daisy and Jay were the perfect couple (talk about idealization, let’s not forget Daisy Buchanon killed a person), but their entire relationship was built around passionate love.
But that’s part of the reason why my relationships failed. I could never get past the kick of dopamine to move my relationships into the next stage.
In the throes of passionate love, I began to feel companionate love with Rachel. We’d sit around drinking red wine and watching Miyazaki movies. Sometimes we’d stay up all night and just ask each other questions. The anxiety of going out was replaced by the calm and peace of Rachel’s company. I trusted her.
When you reach the stage of companionate love, patience is key. Patience allows you to invest more into your partner, and hopefully you’ll find a life companion.
And that’s what happened. Rachel and I both spent the time investing in one another, and our love grew stronger.
How trust made me a better boyfriend:
By trusting your partner, you open yourself up to a more long-lasting fruitful relationship. Once that trust is built, the short-term passionate love fades away leading to companionate love. Companionate love is essential to healthy, long-term relationships.
3. Never be afraid to communicate.
There is no such thing as a relationship without conflict. But one of the keys to a healthy relationship is communication and solving problems together as a team. As a partner, I was always conflict avoidant.
What happens in conflict avoidant people is that they avoid tension, disagreements, and hard discussions out of fear of changing the status quo. Because of their behavior, avoidant people tend to bubble emotions inside and are likely to become resentful over time.
In previous relationships, I loved telling people that everything was okay because my partners and I never fought. The truth was that I didn’t know how nor want to learn how to communicate, so we didn’t have tough discussions. Those relationships often ended with me losing my self-esteem and self-worth because I was concerned that my partner might leave me if I stood up for myself. I was scared to be alone.
Oftentimes my avoidant behavior would manifest itself in something that is probably familiar to most readers, the silent treatment. When I was unhappy, I’d brood in the corner or ignore my partner. I pouted and tantrumed. I let them know I was upset by saying nothing.
Little came from my avoidance other than resentment.
The first time I gave Rachel the silent treatment was one of the last. She told me straight out: “You are not going to pull this shit on me. It is not fair to either of us.” She knew that my silence was a trap and a trick. It was a lose-lose situation and Rachel understood that she would never be able to trust me if I didn’t learn how to communicate.
While wallowing in my own self-interest, the silent treatment also hurt Rachel. We weren’t going to grow or succeed as a couple if I didn’t learn how to communicate clearly.
So I took some time with my therapist and began to understand the nature of my avoidant behavior. The silent treatment is punishment. Tina Gilbertson writes “The silent treatment is an inherently optimistic tactic: If I stop talking to you because of something you did, I’m sending you a message that I hope for better behavior in the future.” The keyword in Gilbertson’s quote is “hope.” Without expressing clearly why I was upset, or feeling invalidated, I hoped that Rachel would figure it out on her own.
That was unfair and unreasonable. I quickly learned that I needed to be a real communicator to save our relationship.
Men communicate differently than women. Men struggle with expressing emotion based on decades of social pressures to remain strong, stoic, and silent. Plenty of websites offer commandments or tips on how to communicate, but the most effective method Rachel and I have learned as a couple comes from our marriage counselor.
Our marriage counselor’s big theme is “boundaries.” The way a boundary works in communication is that you set ground rules on communicating with others about how you would and would not like to be treated, and protecting the values that are important to you. You are not able to control what someone else does, but you are able to set your own boundary for what you are and aren’t willing to accept from a partner. Once you have set that boundary, your partner makes the choice of what they want to do with that information.
For communication, boundary-setting requires clear, honest discussion about wants, desires, and needs. And in order to be a good communicator, you must also be a good listener. Someone like me who struggles with communication needed some practice before where I am today, and I know I am still not perfect.
If there was one aspect of Rachel and I’s relationship that has become stronger over time, it would be our communication with each other. Because of this improvement, everything in our relationship has improved: from problem solving to our sex life, communication is at the core of our relationship.
How communicating made me a better boyfriend:
Communicate, communicate, and communicate. The silent treatment or other ways of avoiding communication aren’t only unhealthy, but they are relationship breakers.
If you’re someone like me who sometimes struggles in the immediacy of communication, let your partner know that you need an appropriate amount of time to digest the information before proceeding. Don’t say a week. 24-48 hours is enough time.
Healthy relationships grow when both partners are honest, and able to express themselves.
4. Take care of yourself
When in a relationship, especially a new relationship, it’s easy to overlook yourself and your needs. You want to be the best partner you can be, so you focus all of your energy on your partner rather than taking some time for yourself. As the National Alliance on Mental Health explains, “To be able to care for the people you love, you must first take care of yourself. It’s like the advice we’re given on airplanes: put on your own oxygen mask before trying to help someone else with theirs. Taking care of yourself is a valid goal on its own, and it helps you support the people you love.”
You aren’t selfish to want to take care of yourself because that’s how healthy relationships stay healthy. It might be hard to admit sometimes, but men’s self-care is just as important as women’s. One way to remain healthy is to make sure you carve out some time for yourself. Read a book. Take a walk. Learn a new hobby. Just something that is for you and you alone.
In earlier relationships, my life revolved around my partner. Their hobbies became my hobbies. I lost touch with who I was. Rachel was my first partner to ever push me towards finding my own hobbies and my own friends.
After some coaxing, I returned to playing slow-pitch softball with my friends and podcasting about professional wrestling. Just a couple hours a week of my own activities leave me feeling more refreshed. And what’s best is that by partaking in activities that are different than your partners, you also have the opportunity to teach and learn. As stated previously, learning is a key to a healthy relationship.
By taking time for yourself, you can focus on two important factors in self-care: physical wellbeing and mental health.
I’ll admit that I’ve struggled with self-esteem issues for most of my life.
Your eyebrows are too bushy. You don’t have abs. The pimple on your face is gross which makes you gross.
I internalized these feelings of self-doubt until they manifested themselves into omens. I thought I was gross which then made me believe everyone thought I was gross. But part of self-care means taking care of your physical body.
According to a study in The Lancet, people who exercise tend to feel happier than those who didn’t. Three to five training sessions, each lasting between 30 to 60 minutes, are ideal per week.
Author Tom Scheve writes, “In addition to increased energy, physically active people may feel a sense of accomplishment in meeting personal fitness goals. Also, they may feel proud of the improved physical appearance that those hours in the gym have produced. And getting outdoors on a nice day — or even working out indoors around a bevy of strangers — stimulates the mind and shakes up what may be for some people an otherwise monotonous and cubicle-centric daily existence…Studies on rats indicate that exercise mimics the effects of antidepressants on the brain.”
After a long bout of depression in my twenties, I started going to the gym. I met with a personal trainer and pushed myself to get out of the house three times a week. Within a couple of weeks, I realized how much happier I’d become. When each workout ended, I felt a sudden rush of dopamine kick in. I knew I accomplished something that afternoon, and each one after.
Those kicks of dopamine were enough to get me to the point of seeing physical changes. My arms grew stronger, my abs grew tighter, and hey, I even had pecs. In those 40-50 minutes at the gym, I was working out for just one person: me.
At the same time, I worked hard on taking care of my mental health. Step one was recognizing that I needed help reframing my thought processes — I needed to learn that life wasn’t a romantic comedy and destined love isn’t real. I noticed that there was a correlation between eating well, exercising, and my mental health.
An article titled Exercise for Mental Health states that “Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression.” During exercise, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis communicates with the regions of the brain that controls motivation and mood, stress, and memory formation. Simply put, exercise improves the way your brain works from responding to stress to initiate positive memory formations. And it’s a great way to relieve male millennial burnout at the same time.
I also cannot understate the importance of close male friendships and even opposite sex friendships when in a relationship. Too often men rely on their partners for their mental well-being and end up sabotaging their relationships because the men become emotional gold diggers. So instead of putting yourself into that situation, seek out those deeper male friendships, or even join a men’s support group.
And by taking care of yourself physically and mentally, you are also telling your partner that you take the relationship seriously. You are more rested, patient, and understanding if you practice self-care and because of that, you become a stronger partner.
Once I realized that I needed to continue practicing self-care in my relationship with Rachel, our bond grew stronger. Because I took care of myself, I was able to help take care of Rachel when she needed me, and vice-versa. We aren’t reliant on each other, but we always enjoy each others company.
How self-care made me a better boyfriend:
You cannot love someone else if you don’t love yourself, and you sure as hell can’t take care of your partner if you aren’t taking care of yourself. Self-care is just as important to the health of a relationship as anything else. Remember to take time for yourself, because a healthier you makes for a healthier relationship.
Can you hear the wedding bells?
On Saturday, November 2, I married the greatest woman I’ve ever met. Before meeting Rachel, I was a passion-addicted romantic comedy enthusiast who only saw love through the lens of television or movies. After a series of failed relationships, I realized that to be a better boyfriend, I needed to work on myself.
That means self-care, and learning to trust. Communicating even when it’s hard. And learn that differences can bring people together rather than keep them apart.
Rachel and I’s 78% OKCupid compatibility rating attests to that.
But with the right partner, trust and communication come easy. The transition from passionate love to companionate love is smooth and effortless.
Relationships are hard work, there’s no doubt about that. But when both partners put in the effort to make a relationship succeed, you’ll realize that your partner makes you stronger, calmer, and happier.
Most importantly, a better person.