Advice + Art

Deborah Cabaniss’88, professor of clinical psychiatry at P&S, wrote a blog entry about relationships for The Huffington Post, answering a question many couples in marriage counseling have asked: “Are we always going to have to work this hard?”

“People have this fantasy that it’s easy to have a good relationship,” Dr. Cabaniss says, explaining why she wrote the piece. Surprised by the lack of information available about how much effort it takes, she offers five tips for creating a satisfying, sustainable relationship.

Columbia Medicine asked Benjamin Schwartz’08, a P&S faculty member in medicine with whom Dr. Cabaniss works, to illustrate the blog entry for this magazine. Dr. Schwartz, who also contributes cartoons to the New Yorker, focused on the five pieces of advice.

Dr. Cabaniss and Dr. Schwartz previously joined forces to create three-minute videos of teaching tips for members of the Virginia Apgar Academy of Medical Educators, which Dr. Cabaniss directs, but this is the first time Dr. Schwartz has brought his New Yorker–style approach and aesthetic to the collaboration. “I wanted to make cartoons that were clearly tethered to Deborah’s relationship pointers but that could also stand on their own,” he says. Dr. Cabaniss says he hit the mark: “He captures everything. He’s brilliant.”

1. Think about the other person first. Had a bad day? Just got yelled at by your boss? Think you’re coming down with a cold? That’s too bad, but how was your partner’s day? What happened to him or her? It’s hard work to think about the other person first, but it pays off. It doesn’t mean that you can’t take care of each other, but even if you feel bad call up those reserves and try to think about the other person first.


2. Edit what you say. You and your partner are on an airplane. The flight attendant walks by. You think, “Wow! He/She is hot!” Do you say this to your partner? Of course not. So don’t say all of those other things that you shouldn’t say either. Bite your tongue rather than say, “You really need to lose 10 pounds,” or “Your friend Marsha is such a jerk.” It takes hard work to edit, and it feels counterintuitive to many people, but thinking about whether what we’re about to say might hurt our partner is a relationship saver.


3. Interpret up. Whenever someone says or does something, you can interpret down (meaning that you ascribe a more nefarious intent) or interpret up (meaning that you ascribe a more benign intent). For example, if your partner forgets to buy the milk you asked him/her to pick up on the way home from work, it could be that he/she is deliberately ignoring you (interpreting down) or that he/she had a long, distracting day at work (interpreting up). It takes work to always interpret up, particularly if you tend to be pessimistic or suspicious. It’s essentially giving someone the benefit of the doubt. It takes effort, but the good will it will engender makes it worth the elbow grease.


4. Swim upstream. We all think that we should be able to be ourselves in relationships. While we want to express ourselves, sometimes we have to behave in ways that are difficult for us in order to try to help our partner. That could mean being less irritable, giving more compliments, communicating less anxiety, or listening to something you find boring. This takes work—just ask a salmon.


5. Be nice. It’s easy to be grumpy, critical, demanding, and selfish. It’s being nice that takes work. That means on good days and on not-so-good days. It takes effort to be nice. No, this is not treacle; it’s the secret to getting along with another person day-in-day-out for life.