Nerdy Sunday Edition - Compassionate Love: Couples That Work

All the research so that you frame your mental models

Writer and Kennedy School Professor Arthur Brooks says that falling in love can be exhilarating, but it isn’t the secret to happiness per se. He suggests that falling in love is the start-up cost for happiness—an exhilarating but stressful stage we have to endure to get to the relationships that actually fulfill us.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development has assessed the connection between people’s habits and their subsequent well-being since the late 1930s. The most important predictors of late-life happiness are stable relationships—and, especially, a long romantic partnership. Contextualizing the study, Brooks suggests that the secret to happiness isn’t falling in love; it’s staying in love.

Brooks makes the case for “companionate love”—love based less on passionate highs and lows and more on stable affection, mutual understanding, and commitment.

Being rooted in friendship is the reason that companionate love creates true happiness. Passionate love, which relies on attraction, does not typically last beyond the novelty of the relationship. Companionate love relies on its very familiarity.

How can compassionate love help modern couples?

As you may remember INSEAD Professor Jennifer Petriglieri’s Network Capital podcast, key to relationship bliss for dual-career couples is a psychological contract of sorts.

Listen to the Podcast

The relationship or psychological contract is a description of the kind of life a couple wants to build together. It isn’t binding or prescriptive, but tends to give the relationship a solid foundation. Specifically, it helps couples understand if they are fulfilled in their current relationship, identify gaps that need to be bridged, and equitably divide partnership responsibilities. This psychological contract is an extension of compassionate love rooted in mutual respect, understanding and commitment to the partner’s career.

Work and life are not two disparate entities. Work is part of life, just the way love is. The happiest and most successful couples tend to pursue problems and projects together.

Problems and Projects

Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman wrote a love letter to his wife, sixteen months after her death. It is one of the most moving letters ever written. It is just brilliant so we are putting the unedited draft for your perusal.

“October 17, 1946


I adore you, sweetheart.

I know how much you like to hear that — but I don’t only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.

It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing.

But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector. Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures.

When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.

I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.

My darling wife, I do adore you.

I love my wife. My wife is dead.


PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.”

What Feynman wrote in a poetic manner was basically the intersection of work, love and play - problems and projects. To find the sweet spot, document and learn to be intentional about each other’s goals in all the three dimensions.

Do couples automatically figure things out?

The short answer is no.

The conventional wisdom regarding dating and marriage is that couples struggle to begin with and eventually figure things out. Dr. Jennifer’s research suggests that this approach no longer works. Relationship issues don’t figure themselves out unless there is a contract or an agreement of sorts. Couples not only need to have a shared understanding of who they are and what they want, they also need to recontract before every major transition.

Dr. Jennifer and Gianpiero (her husband who is also a professor at INSEAD) crafted such an agreement 15 year back on a warm summer evening in Sicily, and thus far, it has served them well. Leveraging their relationship contract, they dealt with several ups and downs as a team, including a time when Dr. Jennifer almost gave up her career.

Drafting a contract or having a shared understanding of the contours of relationship may not be enough to make things work but not making the effort can spell doom for dual-career couples.

What if you don’t have a significant other?

Compassionate love and relationship contract will still serve you well. It is impossible to have a meaningful relationship with anyone else if you are not compassionate towards your own self. Treat yourself the way you would want your future partner to treat you. Once you find the person, you will be on your way towards a healthy, fun and meaningful relationship.

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