Discovering Your Significant Self

Katie Young
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Wednesday - January 11, 2006

So you think you’re better off alone? Think again. A study done by Cornell University found that people in relationships are generally happier than other people.

The study measured well-being and happiness and found that spouses have the highest sense of well-being, whether they are happily married or not.

People who cohabit are next on the scale of happiness, followed by those in steady relationships and then those in casual relationships. Unpartnered people report the lowest levels of well-being.

This is a little unnerving, I’m sure, for the unpartnered people. And before I go any further, please don’t anyone go rushing out to find any partner just because you think it’ll instantly improve your “well-being.”

But the bottom line, say researchers, is that having a romantic relationship makes both men and women happier, and the stronger the relation-ship’s commitment, the greater the happiness and sense of well-being of the partners.

So why do we spend all this time trying to figure out how to be OK alone? Was I totally wrong last week when I spoke about figuring out who you are alone, first, and then figuring out who you want to be as a partner?

Maybe, according to Claire Kamp Dush, a postdoctoral fellow with the Evolving Family Theme Project of the Institute for the Social Sciences at Cornell and first author of one of the few studies to examine well-being across the relationship continuum.

“In general, people appear to feel better about themselves and their lives when they move into a more committed relationship,” she says.

In analyzing whether happier individuals are more likely to enter into committed relationships or if committed relationships actually improve well-being, the researchers found that moving into committed relationships makes people happier.

“Those most likely to move into more committed relationships were actually those who reported lower levels of well-being when first surveyed,” says Kamp Dush. “Therefore, if they were using committed relationships as a strategy to improve their well-being, it appeared to work.”

She adds that some commitment appears to be good, but more commitment appears to be even better. In addition, Kamp Dush says those in relatively unhappy marriages appear to benefit from being married, perhaps because of the marriage’s stability, commitment and social status.

“Even when controlling for relationship happiness, being married is associated with higher self-esteem, greater life satisfaction, greater happiness and less distress,” she says. “People who are not in stable romantic relationships tend to report lower self-esteem, less life satisfaction, less happiness and more distress.”

As for myself, however, I just can’t picture how being in an unhappy relationship could ever boost our life’s satisfaction. Is it just because you won’t be alone on a Saturday night? Just to have someone to take up space in the bed with you?

I could see, though, how a good relationship would boost our levels of happiness tenfold. Aren’t we all looking for that ultimate joy with someone we can laugh with, connect with, share with?

But I still maintain - even though I have done no formal research myself to support this claim- that for us to truly be happy in life, we have to learn to be OK alone before we can be good partners.

We have to be happy as individuals first because the bottom line of life is that people change, and you can be no more 100 percent certain that your partner or that your union will remain unchanged throughout time than you can about the weather from day to day. We know divorce happens, we know people fall in and out of love, and the only way to survive those times is to be happy and sure of yourself as an individual.

A friend told me once that, in love, it’s not about finding the missing piece to your puzzle - not about finding the other person who “completes you.” It’s about finding out how to be complete within yourself.

And then, as a whole and complete you, you look for another whole and complete individual with whom to share your happiness.

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