Can “single think” become “couple think”?

Old habits are hard to break. Especially when singles are looking to become couples.

I have a friend who has been single for years. She is attractive, popular and in her prime. In spite of her independence and the success she has achieved, she very much hopes to be in a comfortable relationship some day—maybe even get married and have kids. A worthy goal, indeed, but that’s where the problems begin. Her relationships always seem to be fraught with varying degrees of conflict and anxiety. So, my bright and pretty friend ends up leaving a trail of failed relationships, most of them ‘his fault.’ What is she doing wrong? Well, it’s not as much what she’s doing wrong as it is how she has to change her thinking. And this applies to her partners as well.

Regardless of the pleasures that marriage can bring, most people remember (often with nostalgia and a sly smile) the excitement and freedom of single life. You, and only you, chose when and what to eat, where to go, what to watch on TV. You came and went as you pleased—with no negotiation or concern for anyone’s schedule but your own. For a healthy, self-reliant adult, this can foster a strong sense of autonomy, not to mention the added exhilaration of meeting new people on a regular basis. In William Holtz’s book, ‘The Ghost in The Little House,’ Rose Wilder Lane describes it best in a letter she wrote to a lover in the 1920s: ”being constantly with another person, even you, is incompatible with other things I want’. I don’t want to be tied to anyone by the mass-pressure of everyone who knows us; I don’t want all my movements to be dependent upon the movements of someone else, as though we were handcuffed and leg-chained together’.’

This ‘single-think’ has to change, of course, when the search for a spouse begins in earnest. The compromises and concessions that come with partnered life can be unsettling. My friend’s conflicts with her various boyfriends always seem to center on his ‘imposition’ into her treasured routines. He’s ‘mean’ because he gets angry when she’s an hour late for dinner. Or she suffers through his choice of a movie, only to complain about it to her friends the next day. Or she wants to go out; he wants to stay in, and so on and so forth. Though she professes affection and even love for him, it’s as if his very presence in her life is an annoyance.

The tragedy here is that she views these differences as irresolvable conflicts. Instead of understanding that she (and he) must now ‘think for two,’ they characterize these perfectly normal mini-clashes as long-term incompatibilities. In most cases, it’s not their personalities that are incompatible; it’s their deep-rooted habits. Personalities can’t change, but habits surely can. If they’re ever going to settle into a coupled relationship, attitudes must be changed.

He has to be important enough to her that she WANTS to be on time for dinner so she can be with him and enjoy the evening. He has to crave her happiness enough to give-and-take on the movie choices. She has to see his request to stay at home as part of his love for her and desire to be alone with her. They both need to be patient as their knee-jerk ‘single-think’ reactions slowly give way to ‘couple-think’—a genuine spirit of loving compromise. If they are truly compatible, and they both want to be together more than anything else, then all it needs is a chance to become a habit.

An old friend of mine enjoys a wonderful relationship with his wife. I’ll never forget when he said to me, ‘I love her so much, and I know she loves me. When we’re deciding what to do or where to go, it actually gives me more pleasure to let her choose, because seeing her happy makes me happy.’ Is he ‘giving in’ to her, or ‘sacrificing’ for her? Absolutely not! In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Her pleasure makes him feel so good that it’s clearly in his ‘rational self-interest’ to ensure her happiness every chance he gets. And the beauty of it? She does the same thing in return. This ‘good’ selfishness that they both apply to one another has made for a satisfying and conflict-free relationship.

Is this some sort of lofty ideal or unreachable goal? Not if you truly love your partner. To love somebody is to wish the very best for them. The only competition should be to see who can make the other the happiest. I find it sad when somebody tells me, ‘Well, we have to work hard and sacrifice, and it’s give and take, but at least we’re together.’ For what? Sacrifice and misery are NOT the ideal. When I dig a little deeper, I invariably find unresolved ‘single-think’ lurking below the surface, nourishing their conflict and resentment.

‘Couple-think’ should flow naturally from the desire to be together. It should please him to include her in his decisions. It should make her happy to do the special things that delight him. In fact, it’s not all that different from ‘single-think,’ where your interests always came first—but now BOTH partners can keep their own self-interest (meaning: their own happiness) in mind. Coupled with love and affection, this genuine give and take can sustain a devoted and sharing relationship for a long, long time.