Human beings weren’t meant to be monogamous. Or perhaps we are. Depending on your stance, you will find loads of research that gives compelling evidence for both arguments. We spoke to a relationship expert about the main obstacles to successful long-term relationships and how we can overcome them.
Neil Wright of Couples Help, a couples and relationship counselling service, makes the point that on the one hand, marriage and long-term relationships are common across cultures all over the world. But so is infidelity. If we accept that we are all programmed to be polygamous, that explains why so many relationships seem destined to falter, particularly when things start to grow ‘stale’ over time.
The argument for marriage or long-term relationships
A healthy relationship is not only a great “team-effort”, it also provides a great supporting framework throughout life. Even if you don’t like a person, knowing you can count on them in a time of need can do wonders for general health and longevity.
It also may be that humans are designed by default to be sexually promiscuous. After all, reproduction plays a hugely important role — perhaps the most important role of all — in all life on Earth.
“It may be that humans are designed by default to be sexually promiscuous.”
Fidelity under attack
The problem is that our sexual promiscuity does not go away after being in a relationship for a long time. We have even developed ways of deceiving our partners while seeking out others in the process, and in many instances, this can lead to affairs. Naturally, a partner in a failing relationship may ask: “Why is love so difficult? Why is this so tough? Why be in a relationship and then cheat?”
These are not unanswerable questions. They stem from who we are; our biology. By understanding and identifying what it is to be human, we can be prepared and take on each of these challenges as they come.
Life as a chessboard
Along with promiscuity, all human beings are born ‘wired’ to see and act in the world in ways that will increase our chances of survival. This can have both good and bad effects. ‘Good’ in that we often band together (marriage; family groups) to work together and help each other out. ‘Bad’ in ways that all it takes is for one selfish individual to act in a way to help his or herself more than others.
Fortunately, most of us live in an age where we are educated enough to understand our actions properly and how they might affect others. One prominent psychologist likened life to a game of chess: You cannot stop playing the game, but you can change how you play the game.
For example, we know that it is irresponsible to be selfish. So, we work to ensure we help those around us; especially those less fortunate. Even if this means losing some advantage of ourselves (such as paying more in taxes). Likewise, we have a strong desire to reproduce (have sex), but we use contraception so that this doesn’t always end in pregnancy. These are examples of how we can identify the ‘wiring’ we are born with, and how we can play the game different.
“The greatest obstacle to a successful long-term relationship or marriage — the one that seems to cause the most pain — is the “threat” from other potential reproductive partners.”
The biggest threat
The greatest obstacle to a successful long-term relationship or marriage — the one that seems to cause the most pain — is the “threat” from other potential reproductive partners. This is worsened by what is known as the Coolidge effect, which makes couples less sexually attracted to each other over time.
Again, this is our ‘wiring’ at play. The Coolidge effect “wants” us to cheat on our partners, and to attempt to spread our genes throughout the gene pool. It can also make sex less fun with our partners, and even a chore.
Fighting back — Overcoming our disruptive desires
Settling down long-term with a partner is pretty much what we all want, along with a long, healthy life. It is definitely worth holding on to, that’s for sure. But it can be difficult in the long run, and there will be temptations.
Bearing in mind what we have just covered, here is what you can do to build and sustain a long-term relationship or marriage that will last a lifetime:
Understand one another
Many people are reluctant to talk about their temptations and weaknesses with their partners, but it really is fundamental to any successful relationship. If you have a problem, raise it in a calm and open way. Perhaps there is one way you feel your partner is letting you down? If you don’t feel like you are listening to one another, try repeating back each other’s words before answering.
“Many people are reluctant to talk about their temptations and weaknesses with their partners, but it really is fundamental to any successful relationship.”
Be generous with one another
A big part of the allure of a successful relationship is the pooling of resources. This doesn’t mean you need to be extravagant, or have lots of money, it just means show value and worth in one another. Be generous with your time, help, and your support. At the end of it, that is what every partner wants.
Try new experiences
We have already talked about the Coolidge effect, which effectively renders sex stale after a long period of time. Well, the routine mundanity of life can also work to make a marriage seem stale, or uneventful after a long period of time.
To overcome this is easy and delightful. It just involves making minor changes. Try out new things with your partner. Maybe a dance class of an evening or cooking a different meal. Experiences switch things up and breathe new life into what might be too familiar.
In conclusion, if a relationship is worth fighting for, remember that “the freedom to do what you want” might not be for the greater good. Think long term. Think about the investments you have already made and how they will pay dividends in the future.