In Europe in the 1500s, a new paradigm was formed (Coontz, 2005). Marriage or couple relationships generally went from having significance primarily for society to being of great importance for the couple and the individual. Changes in the economic structure in the form of paid work, as well the influence of the Greeks and Romans and the spread of Christianity, enabled individuals to choose a partner based on their personal feelings (Ellingsæter, 2012; Trevas, Zucker, & Borchert, 1997). Alberoni (1983) argues that involvement in an intimate relationship is not voluntary and “just happens”. Alberoni (1983) calls this the relationship’s “big bang”. The unconscious “big bang” is closely connected to the self-expansion model proposed by Aron and Aron (1997), who argue that humans have an inherent motivation for self-expansion. This tendency manifests as a basic need to self-expand by seeking intimate relationships and including our partners’ characteristics and perspectives as our own. When an intimate partner makes his or her characteristics, world perspectives, network, support systems, information, and belongings available to the other, each individual appears stronger than when he or she is alone. Involvement in an intimate relationship is both an intelligent and logical means of survival (Johnson, 2013). Such survival “projects” can benefit the improvement of the couple’s quality of life, both emotionally and structurally (economically, etc.) (Johnson, 2013).
Coontz (2005) claims that there is strong agreement in the Western world today regarding the seven factors necessary for couples to live “happily ever after”: (1) they must love one another very deeply and choose one another freely, without pressure from others; (2) they must make one another a top priority in life above other rival relationships; (3) they must be extremely committed and feel a deep loyalty towards one another and the children they have; (4) they must be best friends and share their innermost feelings and secrets; (5) they must express their love freely but also be open about problems; (6) they must be sexually faithful; and (7) parents and in-laws must not interfere.
This view of couple relationships has much in common with what can be described as the romantic discourse (Øfsti, 2008, 2017). In a classic romantic discourse, a clear gender divide is described as being between the “homemaking woman” and the “employed, wage-earning man” (Giddens, 1994). However, when discourse no longer reflects the standard, an empty space exists after the “female homemaker” is removed (Aarseth 2011, p. 106). Aarseth (2011) argues that such empty spaces are filled with new life projects that couples share. Such shared life projects become a renewal of the modernist idea regarding the couple as a unit of production in which tasks have meaning in and of themselves. They transform that idea into a dyad based on romantic love. Romantic love is built upon reciprocal attraction and the understanding that the man and woman complete one another. Giddens (1994) describes this type of love as the pure relationship. This purity is apparent when a couple comes together and creates a fellowship for its own sake. It is the couple’s satisfaction with the relationship that maintains it rather than external factors such as economics, children, or the expectations of others (Giddens, 1994; Noack & Lyngstad, 2012). Thus, the pure relationship does not seek any justification other than erotic and emotional love.
Couple relationships are often considered among the key relationships for providing adult support, growth, and development. At the same time, the couple relationship often suffers under tight time constraints. Time is usually devoted to self-development, careers, hobbies, etc. (Ness, 2017). Conflicts in the couple relationship have many costs and have proven to be among the most stressful situations people can experience. Research shows that conflicts in the couple relationship are associated with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, high blood pressure, and relational conflicts outside the relationship (Gurman, Lebow, & Snyder, 2015; Snyder, Castellani, & Whisman, 2006). However, according to the Gottman Institute, certain principles can improve the likelihood of obtaining a satisfying couple relationship (Gottman, 2016). The institute studied 650 couples in its so-called “love labs” (Gottman, 1999). Based on this research, Gottman (1999) developed seven principles for a satisfying couple relationship in a pedagogical model he calls “The Sound Relationship House”. These seven principles are: (1) building friendship by becoming well acquainted; (2) expressing admiration and approval of one another; (3) responding to invitations for emotional contact; (4) allowing the partner to make his or her own decisions and learning from one another’s strengths; (5) resolving the conflicts that can be resolved; (6) supporting one another’s dreams in life; and (7) finding shared goals and meaning in the relationship. Later, Gottman (2012) added what he described as a fundamental principle for love, namely trust.
This research project is based on married couples. Even though cohabitating couples, who are not married, also experience good relationships, studies show that cohabitation in the form of living together can be experienced as less committed to the relationship than marriage (Wiik, Bernhardt, & Noack, 2009). Cohabitating couples have more breakups than married couples (Lyngstad & Jalovaara, 2010). Even though the number of cohabitating couples has strongly increased over the last several years, marriage is still considered the dominant form of living together as couples (Zahl Olsen, 2018).
There have been two dominant streams of thought in research on couple relationships. One focuses on personality, while the other is more relational (Gottman & Notarius, 2002). Both streams have historically focused on things that go wrong in the couple relationship and how to address them. The aim of this study is therefore to explore and develop knowledge about couples who describe their couple relationships as good. The research question was: “How do married couples who consider their relationship good describe it as such?”
A qualitative approach was chosen for this research project, wherein the goal was to identify the personal experiences of married couples. Qualitative methods are well suited for studying personal and sensitive topics and for answering research questions that demand a large degree of trust between the researcher and informant (Thagaard, 2013).
Recruitment and participant details
The selection of married couples as informants has been based on the principle of convenience sample. This means that the couples selected are people who have something to tell about the phenomenon to be illuminated (Thagaard, 2013). Criteria for inclusion were that the couples have been in a relationship for at least 15 years and described their relationship as good. We asked people we knew to contact couples they considered to be part of our target group. When they had gathered some potential candidates, they gave them our phone number, so they could contact us. All recruited couples contacted us of their own accord. The couples came from three different counties in the southern parts of Norway. Three couples were included in this research. By circumstance they were all married; thus, we focused the scope on married couples.
The first couple, Helene and Håkon1, is married and has been in a relationship for more than 25 years. Both of them are in the early 60s. They have two children and several grandchildren. They live in a mid-size city in the southern parts of Norway. The second couple, Tone and Trond, is married, has been in a relationship for approximately 18 years, and has two children. They live in a mid-size city in southwest Norway. Both of them are in their early 40s. The third couple, Else and Egil, is married and has been in a relationship for approximately 15 years. They have three children. Else also has a child from an earlier relationship. Else is in her mid 30s and Egil is in his early 50s.
Data collection: semi-structured interviews
Qualitative semi-structured interviews were used for data collection. The semi-structured interview examines themes that are largely decided beforehand but allows the process and dynamics of the interview to determine how strictly the interviewer follows the script (Burck, 2005). In this way, the structured interview resembles neither an “open conversation nor a closed questionnaire” (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2015). We chose to interview both members of the couple together instead of conducting individual interviews. This approach can be considered as both a weakness and a strength because interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) is also rooted in social constructionist theory (Dallos & Vetere, 2005). That means that with respect to relationships it is considered co-constructed. Thus, we see the findings in our study as the result of a co-constructed process between the couple and the researcher.
The interview script focused on two main topics: (1) how the couples defined good couple relationships and (2) what they believed others (for example, their friends) defined as “success factors” in their relationships. The three interviews were conducted by the corresponding author of this article over the course of a month. The interviews lasted between 80 and 110 minutes and were transcribed verbatim.
Interpretive phenomenological analysis
Interpretive phenomenological analysis was selected as the analysis method. IPA is described as both phenomenological and hermeneutic (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009). Phenomenology is described as experiential knowledge and is concerned with proximity to the personal lifeworld of the informant (Kvale & Brinkman, 2015). The analysis focused on the interview subjects’ experiences related to the study topic and the public spaces in which their experiences transpired (Langdridge, 2007). Access to the experiences of the interview subjects is always dependent on how much they want to tell. The IPA researcher acknowledges that interpretation of the empirical material will always be required to understand these experiences (Langdridge, 2007); therefore, IPA is described as hermeneutic. Hermeneutics means to express, interpret, and explain as well as to translate from one language to another (Lægreid & Skorgen, 2006). Hermeneutics promotes the importance of interpreting people’s actions through a focus on deeper content than what is immediately apparent (Thagaard, 2009).
The interviews were conducted over a period of six weeks. They were transcribed and analysed using the following six steps of IPA as described by Dallos and Vetere (2005) and Smith et al. (2009): (1) reading and re-reading; (2) initial coding; (3) connecting to theory; (4) chronological numbering of the most significant codes; (5) searching for connections across codes and identifying the main categories; and (6) naming the overarching categories. The following three themes were identified, the importance of: (1) talking together; (2) creating something together, and (3) having realistic expectations of each other.
Personal data retention was approved by the Norwegian Centre for Research Data (NSD; #43159). All the participants signed a consent form and received copies of the ethical approvals for the research project. The participants were also informed of the possibility of withdrawing from the research project at any stage without a need for explanation. All transcripts were anonymised, and the recordings were stored on a password-protected computer.
The importance of talking together
The couples described a good couple relationship as one in which the narratives that are used to define them as a couple change through talking to one another. One informant said: “One of our strengths is that we take the time to talk through it. We find shared values: This is how we do this in our family (…)”.
The idea that talking to one another is a source of strength for the couple relationship was emphasised several times. The couples explained that talking helped them find shared values and common ground, which served as a foundation for their relationship. The couples also described viewing the couple relationship as a “safe place”. They connected this security to the experience of being listened to and tolerated, and natural reciprocation of this listening and tolerance appeared to be expected. One informant spoke of the time when one of the couple’s children had become seriously ill and later died:
I remember that we had to talk about it. Be willing to understand you—it’s two-way. I had to try to take your perspective as well: Why do you react like that? Because the feelings ran away from us and of course we had no time to talk properly together and take care of one another.
Again, the significance of talking together was emphasised. In this case, the couple was in crisis. They dealt very differently with grief, but through dialogue, they managed to create an understanding of one another. Additionally, dialogue was used to meta-communicate the lack of understanding of one another. In this way, talking created emotional closeness in the midst of the couple’s difficulty in understanding each other. One of the informants made it clear that there was no use in leaving problems alone and hoping they would pass: “In a way, we had to talk about it before it would be all right again”.
The importance of creating something together
All three couples used words such as “creating” and/or “building” something together when they reflected upon why they had a good couple relationship. They described several such acts, including building a house, creating a home, and having children. These acts could be understood as family projects. Although the couples were in different phases of life, they all had completed different “family projects”. One of the couples was continuing their “family project” with grandchildren and nieces and nephews added to the focus. Perhaps the strongest praise for this project can be found in the following statement:
Oh, I think there is something beautiful in coming back to this primarily being a shared work project. I don’t see the unhappiness in it. I see only happiness. And that strikes quite deeply. It has quite a lot to do with my faith. I believe we are made to administer something together. It creates quite warm feelings in me. About authenticity. Authentic life. This is actually what it’s about. And this here is beautiful enough: that we are part of creating something together, that we have children, that we have created a home. That we are doing a job. We administer our resources in a good way. I think that’s beautiful. It is just as beautiful as sitting and looking one another deep in the eyes all the time and saying how much we love each other.
All three couples had a clear goal about what they were “building”. The informant above connected this construction to his faith and believed that family, work, and life itself are resources he should “administer”. However, this building was not merely limited to house, home, and children. As one of the informants put it:
I am quite ambitious. Economically, socially, in terms of family, aesthetically. I’m one of those dreamers, right. When I realise this, it gives real satisfaction. Not in terms of others, but towards myself. We set some goals for ourselves together and then we achieve them.
Two of the couples included more themes in their life projects than the third couple did; however, all the couples claimed that having a shared building project strengthens the relationship. By this they meant “building project” as a metaphor for their shared focus on building a family culture based on shared values that creates a sense of belonging to one another. The couples generally went out of their way to suggest that their “building project” was the glue of their couple relationship.
The importance of having realistic expectations of each other
In good couple relationships, expectations of one another seem to be high. These expectations are regulated, however, by a considerable degree of flexibility. The couples were happy that they did not always strive to be content together. They also described their reciprocal expectations or how they managed to create shared values about the larger issues of life, such as what they should devote the most time to and what their shared building project should be. They had no expectations of merely “settling down” but were prepared to work constantly for the relationship to be the way they both wanted it. Not least, they described the significance of having realistic expectations of couple relationships. Realistic expectations appeared to be a regulator that allowed expectations to remain wishes and goals rather than becoming demands that carried the risk of “paralysing” the relationship.
All three couples emphasised the importance of having a view that is flexible enough to accommodate both the positive and the negative. One couple expressed this sentiment in unison, where one partner began the sentence and the other finished it:
Him: But I think it’s about a sort of base tone of expectation of life that we both have, that I think we rest on securely in a way then…
Interviewer: …base expectation of life. And that is…?
Her: …it’s not just good, in a way. It’s both plusses and minuses in living. There are both sorrows and joys.
Having realistic expectations of life and the couple relationship was of great help in tackling difficult situations in the couple relationship. Although one of the informants made it clear that he did not think that couple relationships should “be rosy-red all the time”, this viewpoint did not mean that he and his partner had “low expectations, either”. Rather, it indicated that the informant did not expect or want the relationships to be a utopia in which everything was perfect all the time. He also tolerated the imperfect for long periods. To our understanding, he was saying that he and his wife did not enter the relationship thinking they should “be an advertisement image of the family”. His wife expressed this attitude as follows:
If you think that it should be something other than what it is all the time, then I think that you don’t ever achieve happiness. Thus, it is difficult to find happiness. Life is right in front of you all the time.
The couples indicated that a view of life that did not contain enough flexibility to accommodate the difficult and painful was destructive to happiness. Realistic expectations are crucial to good couple relationships, according to our couples. A good relationship is one in which high expectations do not “strangle” the relationship, because realistic expectations function as a regulator. In this way, partners are able to accommodate the fact that they do not always achieve their desires and dreams.
This study concerns what married couples describe as good couple relationships. Based on the purpose of this research, we will structure the discussion around the following three topics: (1) the importance of dialogue; (2) building a bridge between “picture perfect” and real-life challenges; and (3) romantic project under construction.
The importance of dialogue
Based in the findings of this research, dialogue appears to have a dominant place in the formation of good couple relationships. Bakhtin (1968) described dialogism as the acceptance and promotion of a plurality of voices, languages, and perspectives within discourse. Through dialogue, people negotiate shared values and safety. This phenomenon is consistent with several of Gottman’s (1999; 2012; 2015) ideas which propose that dialogue is an important factor in becoming well acquainted, expressing admiration and interest in one another, and resolving conflicts. Through dialogue, the couples turned their own feelings into an opportunity to make meaning of the couple relationship. For the couples in this study, a good couple relationship was viewed in terms of expressing feelings not as passive thoughts but as topics for active discussion. The couples expected that they would listen to one another, provide active responses, and at times engage in meta-discussions about their feelings. In this way, feelings, which can at times be experienced as problematic, can have meaning, be understood, and even be changed through dialogue. This understanding is closely connected to Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson’s (1967) ideas regarding all forms of communication having a double message. On one hand, the communication process is about sharing content, but on the other hand, it is an expression of the couple relationship.
The couples in our study described how good dialogical processes contributed to their identification of shared values. When one of the informants, for example, said that the couple’s shared values brought them together because they each recognised some of their own values in the other, it led in the direction of a more constructivist and modernist understanding. Constructivist implies that each member of the couple has created several values for him/herself based on his/her own constructions and thereafter the couple must try to negotiate towards a common denominator. Modernistic suggests that their shared values are a truth for them as a couple that will become quite fixed for the rest of their lives (Maturana & Varela, 1998).
The couples’ understanding of how they speak forth their own preferred narrative constructions is closely related to what Michael White (2009) calls “preferred stories”. As an example, preferred stories can be created when couples praise one another and their couple relationship. This admiration does not occur automatically but is a choice the couple makes based on how they want to behave as a couple. In this way, it is possible for partners to claim they are secure because they speak forth the many stories about times when they have been happy and successful with their building projects. White (2009) calls this intentional language; that is, the couples do not always define their relationship based on what they do. Rather, they define events according to their intentions to use language that builds one another up.
Building a bridge between “picture perfect” and real-life challenges
The road to happiness, according to the couples in this study, is about being realistic. Their views are in line with those of others who say that overly high expectations pose a great danger to modern couple relationships (Williksen, 2005). Against this background, it is interesting to note that realistic expectations can be understood as a regulator of the couple relationship. However, the couples in our study appear to have expectations of the couple relationship that so high they could leave anyone breathless. One must not forget that their high expectations primarily equated to a phenomenological description of what they themselves experienced as good couple relationships. There is a danger that this list of good experiences could be understood as norms that dictate how a good relationship “should” be. The realistic expectations of the couples in this study should instead be understood as regulators that prevent wishes and dreams from becoming suffocating demands that destroy good couple relationships. Realistic expectations therefore appear to build a bridge between the ideal picture of the couple and the many challenges life and relationships can present.
Romantic project under construction
All the couples emphasised the importance of co-constructing their romantic project. Their focus on the role of a joint project in good couple relationships is in accordance with the eudaimonic concept of happiness (Gottman, 1999) and positive psychology (Seligman, 2013). This is true on both the personal and the relational levels, where good couple relationships are strengthened when people find meaning and purpose beyond themselves or the relationship. Through a “shared building of their project”, the couples showed elements of both the romantic and pre-modern discourses. From a Gottman (2012) perspective, couples who express an abiding sense of “we-ness” are taking a fundamental stance. They see themselves as part of a lifelong adventure—a deeply intimate relationship. Couples with an elevated sense of “we-ness” do not have an existential anxiety about unfulfilled parts of themselves. They share an intimate private world with their partner, one consisting of a private language replete with symbols, rituals, and collaborative meaning-making (Gottman, 2012).
The life project of the couples appeared to contribute to intimacy in their relationship in a powerful way. According to Aarseth (2011), it is precisely these work-like investments that “anchor dreams in the requirements of everyday life and create belonging and commitment”. A potential drawback might be that the equally knowledgeable working couple brings the goal-achievement focus of the working day back home with them. In this way, he or she places “pressure” on the other instead of supporting each other. This “pressure” is such that the happy couple relationship no longer has much of the “peace and enjoyment” of romance about it but rather is focused more on tasks and projects. Consequently, the happiness of the egalitarian couple is not necessarily derived from the one-sided nurturing of individual self-realisation or from the intimacy of the couple. However, the key to happiness does not reside purely in the distribution of work tasks (Aarseth, 2011); rather, it is a blend of shared goals and projects. In egalitarian couples, the distribution of home-related work tasks is a classic challenge. It is interesting to note that none of the couples described this divvying up as a challenge despite both members of each couple being employed. However, this tendency may be because when a couple focuses jointly on all goals, the demand for equality and the focus on traditional gender divisions are reduced or hidden (Aarseth, 2011).
A couple’s connection to their “shared building project” challenges the theory that the couple relationship has been emptied of meaning and attractiveness (Aarseth, 2011). Instead, the couples are creating meaning that becomes part of their emotional investment and deep motivation. Thus, the process of having a “shared building project” is self-reinforcing. That is because “increased involvement seems to increase the sense the individuals have of their project and creates more desire and commitment” (Aarseth, 2011, p. 115). Such a commitment involves attachment to one another that doesn’t seem to be challenged by minor crises and differences.
This study did not take on the large structural questions about society, culture, economics, and class (Røthing, 2004). In further research, these factors would be exciting to include. Attachment theory and couple relationships appear to receive little attention in the education of Norwegian psychologists and family therapists in general (Henriksen & Thuen, 2012). In Norway, there is growing interest in emotion-focused therapy (EFT), for which Sue Johnson (2012) sets the tone. EFT emphasises attachment theory (Bowlby, 1997). This study has awakened our curiosity about the connection between attachment theory and couple relationships. This would be an exciting topic for further research.
Possible weaknesses and implications for practice
There are several possible weaknesses of the study. First, it is easy to see that language can have a dominant place when a phenomenon is examined through the medium of conversation. Couples who are willing to talk to strangers for one to two hours about largely personal topics most likely have a discursive understanding that it is important to talk. Another possible weakness of the study is that both of the investigators were family therapists. For some couples, this may have contributed to feelings of security; however, it may have encouraged others to provide the types of “correct” responses they thought we expected. Thus, following Finlay (2002, 2012) and Malterud (2011), we stressed a reflexive perspective. We explored through our conversations with each other how our intentions and preconceptions as researchers might have influenced the present study. To ensure a critical reflexive stance, we challenged each other’s theoretical ideas and prejudices. We also obtained useful critical questions from the anonymous reviewers of the article that helped us be reflexive to our research project and findings.
Interviews with three couples were conducted which could be considered a relatively small number. However, qualitative research is not dependent upon numbers. We also consider the idea of saturation in qualitative research functions more as a goal than a reality. Most research on couple relationships have focused on conflicts and negative aspects. This study explores how couples who describe their relationship as good make sense of it. Thus, this research contributes to an under-researched domain. Hopefully, this research might inspire other couples, therapists, and trainers to further explore what makes a good relationship “good” that might be helpful in their clinical practices.
The point of departure for the study was how married couples who describe their relationship as good make sense of why they think of it that way. With a systemic linguistic understanding as a point of departure, the ways in which couples talk together and how they construct their preferred stories appear crucial. The couples described having a focus on something outside of themselves and appeared to have a eudaimonic understanding of happiness; that is, they viewed meaning and couple relationships as crucial for a satisfying life.
Despite apparently high expectations, the couple relationship was not dependent on success in all arenas.
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- All names are pseudonyms.