Michelle Kaufman is a researcher who focuses on sexual behavior in the developing world. She globe trots regularly, engaging in ethnographic work all along the way in order to inform both the quantitative and qualitative research she conducts. Recently, Michelle visited Ethiopia and attempted to find out the secrets to a good relationship.
On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I asked the same question of many men, some single and dating, some young and newly married, and some older men in committed relationships for many years: What makes a relationship successful?
These men were all fairly modern, urban, and well-educated, which biased their responses in a direction of more non-traditional forms of (heterosexual) relationships where men and women are equal partners. But here are the words of wisdom on Ethiopian love that they passed on to me:
1. Look for your counterpart. The most common response from these men was that you should try to look for someone who is similar to you—someone that is of the same religion, education level, financial status, and also has similar values and lifestyle. These men may not be relationship experts, but what they recommend is backed by research—couples that are similar on many of those key aspects tend to stay married.1 In Ethiopia, one’s family strongly influences one’s married life from the time a partner is chosen to celebrating holidays and raising children. If you marry someone from a similar background and someone your family approves of, this makes family gatherings much smoother. Because of Ethiopian culture’s often conservative leanings, marrying someone too different from oneself could lead to family conflicts.
2. Spend time. “A married man should not be living like a bachelor,” one married man told me. That is, a man who becomes a husband must make his wife and family his first priority rather than his work or buddies, and that means spending time with his wife and family. One man said, “Being in a relationship is a full time job. So don’t apply if you are not ready.” He is still single, so apparently not ready for all of the work that a relationship entails.
A couple of men I spent an afternoon discussing relationships with told me that a husband also has to spend time fulfilling domestic roles. For those in rural areas, the man should not only be involved in farming, but also carry his weight with household chores and raising children. Urban men should be involved in childcare, household chores, and cooking, especially when both members of the couple are educated and have careers. In other words, these men seem to be promoting egalitarian relationships, which have been shown to lead to better intimacy, companionship, and mutual respect within a couple.2 The men who told me such things were very modern and ahead of their time for Ethiopian society, but this was a promising glimpse of where the society is heading.
3. Have trust. Trust came up in many of my conversations, perhaps because Ethiopian men often complain about women only looking for money and security. But in a society where women are rarely financially independent, they must seek partners who have the ability to support offspring, a basic principle of the evolutionary perspective on relationships.3 Women are often accused of either holding onto a man too tightly or being with more than one man in order to create security for herself. “If a couple loves each other and has trust, the rest is easy,” one young man told me. Trusting one’s partner to be faithful and to fulfill her/his role as a significant other was a common theme. In fact, one rather emotionally complex man who spent several days thinking about how to properly respond to my question later sent me a quote from Kaleel Jamison to illustrate his point:
“Relationships of all kinds are like sand held in your hand. Held loosely, with an open hand, the sand remains where it is. The minute you close your hand and squeeze tightly to hold on, the sand trickles through your fingers. You may hold onto some of it, but most will be spilled. A relationship is like that. Held loosely, with respect and freedom for the other person, it is likely to remain intact. But hold too tightly, too possessively, and the relationship slips away and is lost.”
4. Be the best man you can be. “To get a good wife, you do not need the best woman. You just need to be the best man.” One man who has been married for many years and prides himself on being part of an egalitarian relationship believes we seek too much from other people and then end up disappointed in our relationships. He believes the most important thing for a partnership is to be the best man one can be, which includes being supportive both emotionally and financially, carrying your weight in domestic and childcare responsibilities, and being a good companion. That will naturally lead to a happy wife and a happy relationship.
No one seems to have a perfect formula for a successful relationship, as it is highly dependent on cultural norms, expectations for what makes a relationship good, gender roles, and the expectations we hold for each other. But considering the advice of these Ethiopian men might be a good place to begin—they have carefully thought about the work it takes to be in a good relationship and the commitment that is required to stay happily together.
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1Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (1995). The longitudinal course of marital quality and stability: A review of theory, methods, and research. Psychological Bulletin, 118, 3-34.
2Risman, B. J., & Johnson-Sumerford, D. (1998). Doing it fairly: A study of postgender marriages. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 23-40.
3Buss, D. M. & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating.Psychological Review, 100(2), 204–232. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.100.2.204
Dr. Michelle Kaufman – Science of Relationships articles
Michelle conducts research on sexual health and how power in heterosexual relationships influences sexual risk and family planning. She has conducted research in South Africa, Nepal, Tanzania, and Indonesia, and teaches a course on Qualitative Research Methods at Jimma University in Ethiopia.