The English comedian and actor Ricky Gervais has been in a longtime relationship — 40 years this year — with novelist and TV producer, Jane Fallon. A few years back, he was asked what he considered were the key ingredients to a successful relationship. He said three things came to mind: you had to have things in common, mutual respect and a sense of humour. They’ve stuck with me ever since. See what you think.
Things in common
It would seem obvious, but you have to be able to have a conversation. So, there have to be things you can talk about and want to talk about, ideally beyond gossip! Things you’re both genuinely interested in — and no faking it! At least be interested enough to want to chat with the other person about. You do have to like the other person’s mind, the fact that they can think and talk about things, including themselves. I’m reminded of an answer given by the American actress Joanne Woodward — who was married to the actor Paul Newman for fifty years until his death in 2008 — to a question about what was the secret to the longevity of her marriage. She replied with a slight chuckle, “It’s simple, really. We enjoy each other’s company.” Simple, indeed. It is all about the company you keep!
By extension, I would argue emotional intelligence matters, too. Not the standard definition of emotional intelligence, which sounds rather cold and detached to me. Emotional intelligence is more than “the ability to perceive, use, understand, manage and handle the emotions [of] your own and those of others, [and to] use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, and adjust emotions to adapt to environments.” Rather, the emotional intelligence I'm talking about is where you know your own feelings and you can talk about them. You have the words to express those feelings based on your capacity to self-reflect. In other words, you've thought about yourself, about what you experience, how you act and react, and have a story to tell. Over time, you've developed a narrative and set of tools to analyse or reflect on each new experience. And one more thing: you have the skill of active listening to hear others share their experiences.
You have to respect each other. Again, it would seem obvious. Not so fast, it is an ask. You have to be happy with what the other is doing or thinking, even when it’s different to what you’re doing or thinking. You have to be happy that the other person gets to shine and be all they can be in this world. There’s no room here for jealousy or for competition, or my world is more important than yours and so forth. You’re loving what you’re doing, they’re loving what they’re doing and you’re both happy that each other are doing just that. In fact, you’re pleased for each other; you’re both happy to see each other learn and grow. And you take real interest in the other person’s progress. And you show it and it's genuine. And you completely allow the other person to follow their path. You’re actually happy for them to go off and do something without you; and they for you. And as often as they want or need. You have no desire to stand in their way. Such is your sense of self-worth that you are not in the least bit diminished by their other interests or success.
A sense of humour
You have to be able to laugh at yourself and each other. Not take yourself too seriously. Not take the other person too seriously either. There has to be fun. This is not supposed to be a slog or a chore. After all, you’ve chosen who you hang out with it. (Perhaps with the exception of your biological family!) You are presumably exercising your own freewill. You’re in this relationship to grow and learn from each other. It’s a serious process, sure, but not solemn. If you’re not having a few laughs along the way, it’s not worth it. Don’t stay in it. The capacity to laugh, to see the funny side is also a circuit breaker, a mechanism for you both to reduce tension and provide some relief from our often intense, everyday busy lives. Make sure you watch some comedies!
I’ve thought about these three ingredients for a while and I think they hold up well, for me at least. I think about them in relation to my friendships and keep them in mind as I explore those friendships. Those three ingredients are not just for our one-to-one relationships, but could be applied universally, right up to country-to-country, which, of course, couldn’t be more timely than now.
Big scale or intimate, imagine if both sides in a disagreement or argument could find things they had in common. This means both sides would have to get to know each other. (Knowledge helps eliminate prejudice and ignorance.) Then it wouldn’t be too great a leap to imagine you could then have some mutual respect. You could then see the other having every right to not only be but to thrive. That’s enough to make anyone smile. It does mean letting go of control and the desire to control another. Both would have to feel good about themselves and not be needy. If not, either side will want to get what’s missing from someone else and that usually means one side wants to be in control. Remaining detached because both feel pretty good about themselves means having no interest in controlling the other.
So, thanks, Ricky Gervais, for distilling a healthy way to interact into just three ingedients.
TL,DR* Want to have a good relationship? Have things in common, respect each other and have a sense of humour.
* Too Long, Didn’t Read, aka the short version