Picture, for a moment, the perfect romance. If you’re like us, your mind just built a quick movie, complete with an awkward introduction, a passionate first kiss (probably taking place at the quirky cupcake shop you own, because hey, a fantasy’s a fantasy), and a tear-jerking proposal. “They lived happily ever after, baking cupcakes and making love.” Roll credits, right? In real life, things don’t always work out so cleanly. Your husband might have a few disgusting habits, he might be losing some hair, and he almost certainly won’t live up to the “man of your dreams” you’ve got in your head (after all, it’s pretty hard to live up to Idris Elba). You’ll likely end up settling for someone who doesn’t check all the boxes of a “perfect” partner—and, contrary to what Hollywood wants you to believe, that’s totally fine. For starters, you’re certainly not alone. According to one survey, about 73 percent of people say their “true love” got away. Those respondents said they settled for their current relationships. That means the vast majority of people are trying to make the best they can with who they’ve got. If that sounds like bad news, keep this in mind: By settling for Mr. Right Now, you’re probably setting yourself up for a happier life. “The media makes romance look easy,” Alisha Powell, PhD, a licensed clinical social worker, tells HealthyWay. “But honestly, it’s just two people who are willing to put in the work and create something where they both feel valued and understood. Fireworks don’t always happen, and friendships can last a lot longer than initial sparks, which go out quickly.” That’s not to say that “love at first sight” always fails, but it’s not a great basis for a healthy adult relationship.
By the way, that initial spark certainly doesn’t last.
Let’s tackle the first problem with waiting for Mr. Right: If you’re relying on your body to tell you when you’ve found the perfect person, you’re making a mistake. The feeling of love—those butterflies in your stomach, the sweaty palms, and the passion you feel when looking at your partner—lasts for about a year, according to research performed at the University of Pavia in Italy. A team led by clinical pathologist Enzo Emanuele found that romantic love was linked to levels of nerve growth factor (NGF), a chemical believed to be involved in the formation of new bonds. In new relationships, participants experienced a spike of NGF; after about a year, however, their NGF levels were comparable to those of single people. In other words, even in the best relationships, that first wave of passion starts to fade over time. If you never felt that spark with your partner, that’s good news, in a sense, since you’re not really missing out on anything after about a year or so.
After the “spark” fades away, that’s where the real work begins.
— Sarah 📿 (@justahuman2b) April 21, 2018
So to recap: Love (or the romantic feelings we associate with new love) is just a chemical, and the vast majority of people don’t marry their true love. Every Disney movie is a lie, and you’ll never marry into royalty. That’s the bad news, but stay with us on this. It gets less depressing from here.
We also know that the security of a marriage can make people happier.
The good news is that—at least in most Western societies—a strong marriage can be enormously beneficial for your overall happiness, and factors like communication and flexibility are far more important than a storybook romance. A 2017 paper found that married people reported higher life satisfaction than their single contemporaries, and a 2018 study found that couples became happier with their marriages over time, with happiness peaking around the 20-year mark. In other words, if you’re able to stay with the same person and put in the work, the relationship will likely improve over time. And we’ve got plenty of research to show that marriages and other close relationships have a positive influence on overall health. The moral: If you want to live a healthy, happy, goal-driven life, find a suitable partner and start building your relationship. “When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old—it was how satisfied they were in their relationships,” said psychiatrist Robert Waldinger in a popular TED Talk. Waldinger directed the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest studies of adult life ever performed. “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
So what really makes for a happy marriage?
Building a [linkbuilder id=”6740″ text=”happy marriage”] isn’t complicated, but it isn’t easy, either. You don’t need a perfect partner; you need a good friend with a decent work ethic and a sense of empathy.
“There’s a common misconception that relationships are always 50-50, and that’s not the case. Sometimes it’s 80-20 or 60-40. What matters at the end of the day is that trust and commitment are present.” —Alisha Powell, PhD, licensed clinical social worker
Relationships take work. That’s why “settling” isn’t always settling.
Sure, you could wait around for the perfect person to sweep you off of your feet, but you’re going to be waiting for quite a while—and even if you find someone who checks all of the boxes, you’re still going to have to put in the work. Sometimes, it’s (gasp) better to settle for someone who checks most of those boxes. They might have a few annoying habits, and they might not find themselves modeling underwear anytime soon, but that’s not what makes a relationship worthwhile anyway.
“It’s not outdated to expect to be attracted to your partner. It’s just possible that it may not be at first sight. We all might want those initial butterflies—but they may come over time.” —Alisha Powell, PhD, licensed clinical social worker