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The Role of Wisdom in Successful Intimate Relationships

In a relationship, partners constantly have to make decisions that affect both partners’ interests. In good relationships, however, partners act with wisdom and actively try to promote the other partner’s well-being and interests, sometimes at their own expense.

In this article, we'll

  • discuss why wisdom is relevant if you want to have a good relationship;
  • discover that wisdom in a relationship means that you look out for your partner’s interests and not just your own;
  • share a number of steps that can help you in difficult situations to make balanced decisions that take both your and your partner’s interests and needs into account.

Charles and Margaret are both engineers and have been married for 5 years. Three years ago, Charles was offered a job in Europe. Margaret agreed to quit her job in the U.S. and move to Europe with Charles.

The job was an excellent career move for Charles. Soon after the move, they had a baby boy.

After the birth, Margaret decided to start working again and, with effort, found a very exciting job that paid well and promised real security.

Meanwhile, Charles was offered a transfer back to the U.S.

Margaret feels she needs another year or two in her new job to meaningfully advance her career. She is also tired of moving. She has already given up a lot of time following Charles around.

Charles knows that his wife’s job is as important his own, but he thinks returning to the U.S. would help both their careers in the end.

What should Charles and Margaret do?


This is a problem that I have adapted for use in my research on wisdom.  Let me explain what it is doing here!

In the field of psychology, I am a bit of a jack of all trades.  Unlike most research psychologists, I do not identify strongly with just one field.

Rather, I study whatever interests me.  And what interests me is usually phenomena in which I have screwed up.

I started studying love when I was in a relationship that just wasn’t working. I needed to understand why it wasn’t working.

Why were my partner and I incompatible and becoming more so by the day?

Another phenomenon I study is wisdom, which is essentially doing right not only by yourself, but by all others for whom you have some degree of responsibility.

I started studying wisdom when I gave a student mentee really bad advice.  I advised her to take one job rather than another.

Oops! The job didn’t work out at all.  It didn’t last so long either. Why had I given such foolish advice when my own mentors had given me such good advice?


Why love and wisdom are related

Love and wisdom might seem to be about as different as two psychological phenomena could be.

Love is about how you feel and act in intimate relationships; wisdom is about the ways in which you perceive interests, the judgments you make, and the advice you give in your daily life.  And yet…..

I have come to see wisdom as one of the most important ingredients in a successful loving relationship.

Consider the problem of Charles and Margaret, posed at the beginning of this blogpost.

Margaret has made sacrifices in her life for Charles.  She is now asking Charles to make a sacrifice for her.

Is he going to do it?  Maybe.  But not without a struggle.  He has convinced himself, or so he says, that if Margaret sacrifices yet again, they both will be better off in the end.

But will they be?

In a way, the issue of whether they will be better off in terms of jobs is secondary.

What both Charles and Margaret know is that the sacrificing in the relationship has been one-way.   Charles moves; Margaret picks up the pieces.  How long can a relationship last if the sacrifices are all in one direction?

Wisdom is about seeking a common good—it is about doing what is good not just for you personally, but also what is good for others.

Using wisdom in your relationship

In the context of an intimate relationship, this means that one looks out not just for #1—oneself—but also for one’s partner.

One puts the partner’s interests at the same level as one’s own.  And when children are involved in the equation, their interests also need to be way up there.

If Margaret sacrifices yet again for Charles, how is that relationship going to go?  How long will it last, or at least, be a happy relationship?

Sometimes, “being wise” sounds like something for Biblical persons—King Solomon, for example—or for religious leaders or for the leaders of a country.

But being wise is something that is important at all levels, including, perhaps most of all, the level of our personal life.

There is nothing particularly complicated or unknowable or ethereal about it.  In intimate relationships, being wise is balancing your own interests with those of your partner (and of others who may be in your immediate or extended family).

Being wise goes beyond being unselfish.  It is not just about considering others.  It is about doing what is best for others, especially one’s partner.

What is best career move for Charles and Margaret?  We do not know, and probably Charles and Margaret don’t know either.

What we do know is that a relationship cannot thrive if the sacrifices all go one way—if it is always one person giving something up for the other.

If you want to succeed in love, there are few places that are better to start than by looking out after the interests of your partner as though they are your own!

Steps to help you act with wisdom

Here are some steps that will help you act in a way that takes both your partner’s and your own interests into account:

Explore your partner’s “musts” and “wants.”

What is important to them and what is not? What is negotiable and what is non-negotiable?

Explore why these things are so important to your partner.

This will help you feel more empathy for your partner and enable you to find alternative courses of action: When you think creatively, sometimes a deep need can be fulfilled in alternative ways, one of which actually works.

Do the same for yourself: Explore your “musts” and “wants.”

Which ones are truly important to you? What is negotiable and what is not?

Share your feelings, motivations, and concerns about the situation at hand.

You may be surprised that aspects of the situation that seemed totally unimportant to you are of importance, maybe great importance, to your partner. For example, in the case of Margaret and Charles, the issue at stake may be slightly different than what it appears to be. Charles may have older, sickly parents and he may feel that his new job offer will not only help his career but will also allow him to spend what might be limited time left with his parents. Margaret may feel that a relocation will have negative consequences for her career because she will have to spend months getting the children settled, work with which Charles will not help.

Keep in mind that no one can predict the future.

Thus, you can not really tell if any solution or action alternative will ultimately work out best for you.

Ask yourself

Can you step back or make some concessions for the sake of your partner? And because they are the right thing to do?

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