Gretchen Rubin

“We Don’t Find Soulmates, Like Some Shell on the Beach. We Become Them.”

“We Don’t Find Soulmates, Like Some Shell on the Beach. We Become Them.”

Interview: Belinda Luscombe

Belinda Luscombe is an award-winning Time magazine journalist and essayist. She often writes about relationships—in romance, at home, at work, and online.

She has a new book: Marriageology: The Art and Science of Staying Together. She describes her book as "a smart and concise guide to staying together that draws on scientific findings, expert advice, and years in the marital trenches to explain why marriage is better for your health, your finances, your kids, and your happiness."

I couldn't wait to hear what Belinda Luscombe had to say on the linked subjects of happiness, habits, and relationships.

What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative? 

My husband got me a bike and I was shocked by how much cycling along the Hudson River to work in lower Manhattan improved my whole day. Partly it’s the economy of it—exercise + commute + climate change activism—all in one hyper-efficient 25 minute stretch. And partly it’s that you get to really live the seasons in a way you don’t normally in New York City. You see the first daffodils against the grey of the hibernating trees. You see the geese arrive and leave. You see ice on the river. Even New Jersey looks good in the sunset. After a while I persuaded my husband, who's more of a the-more-pain-the-better road-riding enthusiast, to commute with me. Yeah, we’re that couple. I find that the days I don’t ride are consistently less satisfying than the days I do.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old? 

That happiness multiplies when it’s shared.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers most? 

Two interrelated papers:

There’s a longitudinal Harvard study that has tracked men for 80 years so far. They found that the single most important correlation with a man’s health at 80 was his happiness with his marriage at 50.

Another longitudinal study tracked 645 couples who were thinking about divorce five year later, and found that those who stayed together were glad they did, even though their problems weren’t resolved. These seem to suggest that having a satisfying marriage is good for us AND we have the capacity to improve our marriages.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

One of the fun things about researching a book on marriage is that you get to test-drive a lot of techniques and tips. Two that really stunned me with their annoying simplicity were

  1. learning to stop saying “You always …[do/say something]” when fighting with my spouse. Just swapping that to “I find it difficult when [something happens/you do something]…” or “I’m having a problem with…” makes communication over difficult topics much less choppy.
  2. saying thank you to my spouse. Really. Don’t roll your eyes. There’s actual research. Black belts in this practice look for things for which to say thank you. If you get it right, your spouse feels appreciated and bit by bit you begin to shift perspective.

 They seem so easy, but in the heat of an argument, I still hear myself saying “You always…”

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?  

I feel like an Obliger, but the quiz pegged me as a Questioner. Might be an occupational hazard.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

I like pressure, but cannot multitask when stressed. I’m unhappy with the way I treat the ones I love when I’m stressed by something that has nothing to do with them. I wish I could keep my stress in its appropriate silo.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

When I was about forty years old and the Arts editor at Time magazine, I discovered a lump in my back.  I immediately assumed it was cancer and that death was imminent. One of my most piercing fears at that moment was that I had squandered my life in the service of movie studios’ publicity machines, so I resolved to get out of entertainment journalism into something more important. As a result, I began to write about family and human relations. Turns out, it was a lipoma, which is gross, rather than life-threatening. And as I moved away from writing about movies, I realized that they are a vital source of society’s shared stories, and a window into how a culture sees itself, so I still write about them, but mostly about what they tell us about human relations.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? 

"Worse things happen at sea." I find it restores perspective.  Also it reminds me that at least I'm not seasick.

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why? 

I have two hopelessly old-fashioned answers: the Bible and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I’ve been wrestling with what the Bible really means for thirty years or so. Middlemarch was easier and, along with a smattering of Henry James, rescued me from marrying the all-wrong guy I was dating in college.

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

Can we please call off the search for the soulmate? A soulmate is not a thing. At least, it’s not a thing you can find. The chances that you have somehow located, attracted, bonded with, and contractually bound yourself to the only person who is the one perfect match for you are vanishingly small.

We don’t find soulmates, like some fantastic shell on the beach. We become them. And as we do, the other person becomes ours. One of us is the waves and the other is the sand, and together we make the beach, changing the shape and passage of the other and maybe even bringing some amazing conches to the surface alongside the seaweed and knotted fishing wire.

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