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Lenin and relationships

A friend asked me what lessons I learned from my most recent relationship, and the big one must be: don't measure the strength of your relationship in years, but by the number and magnitude of challenges you overcome.

You can spend months, even years, "with" someone, but if you don't face challenges or avoid the difficult conversations the relationship won't get opportunities to grow. These challenges can take many forms: arguments resolved gracefully, compromises over where to live, chemistry gone stale, money issues, tension with the in-laws.

Avoiding these hurdles is easier in long-distance relationships, of course, when you're not privy to many of the challenges of sharing lives with someone, but it can happen even when you live together if you put off difficult conversations. You can date someone for years without knowing who they really are; like Lenin said:

"There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen."

This is why I try not to pay attention to how long couples have been together, because I feel like knowing the years a couple has spent together can give everyone a false sense of confidence about the strength of their relationship. Instead you can learn a lot more from how affectionate they are together, how many of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse1 (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling) rear their ugly heads, and how many big life changes they've successfully dealt with as a couple (graduating school, being apart, moving in together, getting married, etc).

Does this mean I think that compatibility in relationships is irrelevant? No—compatibility definitely affects how many conflicts you get into (incompatible personalities will butt heads more). But I do believe that beyond a baseline level of compatibility, long-term relationship success is entirely dependent on how you and your partner respond to setbacks. And the good news is that it's entirely within your control.

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  1. John Gottman found four communication habits that reliably predicted divorce, which he dubbed the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse".

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