Occasionally, I imagine what my life would be like if I didn’t have my partner. I’ll even imagine that he has died and wonder what I would do. Sounds dark, right? Perhaps even more morbid is that his imaginary death always makes me feel happier with my relationship.
Now, before you start thinking that I am some sort of psychopath, social psychological research supports my morbid relationship musings.1 In a study on mentally subtracting positive events (imagining that a positive aspect of your life never happened), people in exclusive romantic relationships of at least 5 years either wrote about (a) how they met their partner, started dating, and ended up together (the presence condition), or (b) how they might have never met their partner, started dating, or ended up together (the absence condition). Another group of participants completed a series of control exercises such as writing about their typical day to offer a comparison.
Although outside observers who read these descriptions predicted that the people in the absence condition would feel worse compared to people in the presence or control conditions, because they were presumably thinking about something negative (not having their partner), people who imagined never meeting their partners actually felt the most satisfied in their relationships. Imagining our lives without our partners, which seems like something that would make us feel bad, actually provides a boost in relationship happiness.1
One explanation for this finding is that thinking about what our life would be like without our partner makes us feel more grateful for our partners. We reflect on how much we appreciate all the ways he or she adds to our life; as a result, we feel more satisfied. Recent research on appreciation in relationships suggests that cultivating gratitude for our partners can contribute to happier, longer lasting intimate bonds.2 If you are in a relationship, as an exercise, imagine that you never met your partner (but there’s no need to mentally kill them off!) – it just make might you feel more grateful and happier in your relationship.
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1Koo, M., Algoe, S., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). It’s a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive event improve people’s affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1217-1224.
2Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 257-274. doi: 10.1037/a002872
Dr. Muise’s research focuses on sexuality, including the role of sexual motives in maintaining sexual desire in long-term relationships, and sexual well-being. She also studies the relational effects of new media, such as how technology influences dating scripts and the experience of jealousy.