Put aside your great expectations; a self-help guru claims the success of a relationship lies in a shared tolerance for the mundane.
The narrative of love in Western culture is firmly entrenched in grand gestures and irrepressible chemistry. We have Richard Gere sweeping up fire escapes, roses clenched between his teeth. Colin Firth dashing over to Portugal in pursuit of a woman he’s only just met. Leo and Kate clinging to each other in the shadow of seafaring tragedy.
They’re all about falling in love – but they tell us little about staying there. We don’t see Richard getting frustrated with Pretty Woman for leaving her clothes all over the place. Colin and his Portuguese lover don’t go on to bicker over whose turn it is to put the bins out at night. Leo and Kate don’t have enough time to find out if the topic of money becomes a tense no-go area of conversation as the reality of their new set-up sinks in.
Making a long-term relationship last can be hard work, and yes, it can be boring. Passion is often supplanted by the bland inanity of who’s making dinner and when to de-flea the cat. It’s why many experts write articles about “getting your spark back” and “reigniting the love”.
One self-help guru, however, advises exactly the opposite strategy. Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, believes that a relationship should be as dull as possible in order to last the distance.
Here, we delve into the other expertise and research that suggests we should consider rejecting the idea of ‘perfect’ Hollywood love.
Bring on the boring
“I actually think relationships should be as boring as possible,” Manson tells Business Insider. “And that sounds really weird to people but if you think about it, a really happy 80-year-old couple that’s been together for 60 years, the reason that they’ve been together for 60 years, it isn’t because they took all these private jets and they had these crazy vacations and ‘Oh my God, look at their pictures.’
“It’s because that they were able to be boring together. They are able to spend year after year, sitting around the house, talking about the same boring stuff, watching TV, watching movies, cooking dinner, and it went fine. There was nothing exciting, there’s nothing blowing up, there’s no huge drama, and dishes flying.”
Little things count
Manson’s assertion chimes with a wealth of research that shows couples are happiest with small gestures and day-to-day shared experiences.
We know, for example, that lots of money and “things” don’t guarantee joy in long relationships; in fact, the opposite is often true.
A 2011 study from Brigham Young University in Utah identified a clear link between high levels of materialism and unhappiness among the 1,700 couples it questioned. It joins a 2006 study from Princeton University that concluded that spending money on possessions left couples feeling emotionally flat and isolated from one another.
Experience, then, is king. And it’s often the humble and incidental ones that have an impact. Researchers from the University of North Carolina studied how couples behave when responding to nice gestures. Their 2010 study found that simply responding to each other in a nice way, and displaying gratitude, was enough to create positive meaning and generate feelings of romance.
In other words, forget the grand gestures and instead remember to say thank you when your partner makes you a cup of tea. It’s when you stop doing this that your relationship is in danger of eroding.
The expectations dilemma
The problem with the boring philosophy is that it doesn’t sit well with our (culturally conditioned) understanding that romance needs to dazzle and delight us.
“I often see young, single women who really want to get married but feel that if their date doesn’t sweep them off their feet like the opening scene of a romantic comedy, that it is not worth a second date,” Alisa Ruby Bash, a California-based relationship expert, tells the Chicago Tribune.
Instead, we need to bring it back to reality, and recognise that it’s about living together; love alone won’t fix everything. “Financial infidelity or irresponsibility can be more devastating to discover than sexual infidelity for some couples,” Bash says. “A couple has to decide what kind of life they want and work together to achieve their goals.”
If this all sounds a bit, well, boring, consider that debunking the myth of Hollywood love also gives you more agency in deciding what a long-term relationship really looks like.
“Most stories really narrow the way we think about love,” says Mandy Len Catron, whose New York Times article To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This went viral. “They suggest there’s one right way to love that will make you happy. And in reality, there’s lots of way love can be part of our lives.”
Instead of accepting that love is something that passively happens to us, “we still have a lot of choice about how we want to practise love and what it might look like”, she says.
So go forth and have your daily discussion on what to have for dinner – it’s as much a part of love as floating on a bit of wood in the Atlantic…
Images: Priscilla du Preez / Rex Features / iStock