Five ways success may be hurting your love life

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a hard worker and have accomplished a fair amount in your life. Maybe you have an advanced degree, made vice president at your firm, or started a great company. And maybe in spite of success in your career, success in your love life has still been elusive.

But what if it’s not despite your success but because of it that your love life is anemic? What if success is inadvertently driving love away from you? Over the years of writing books on love for smart, educated, successful folks like yourself and advising thousands of you, here’s what I’ve observed and some suggested remedies.

1. You think success is more important than love.

The biggest impediment to love that I’ve noticed is that people spend so much time on their careers that they don’t have time for people. Between conferences, meetings, all-night coding sessions, month-long trials, overnight hospital shift, and report deadlines, who’s got time for love? Isn’t that a luxury to be attended to once all the important stuff is done?

Wrong. In his magisterial book, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, Dr George Vaillant of Harvard Medical School summarized the findings of the 75-year long ongoing study of the correlates of happiness and success. He found that the most important correlate of your long-term health and happiness was the strength of your intimate relationships. Or, as he put it, “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

So if you’d like to have a better love life, consider making people a priority. This means making time to meet people and to build meaningful relationships with them through shared activities and quality time. Keep your weekends and evenings free. When people ask for your company, let the default setting be “yes.” Whenever possible, rearrange work obligations to accommodate friendships.

Yes, you do have to make a living. But power, money, status – these are all intermediaries and symbols for attracting people into your life. Loving relationships are the real thing, so make sure you’re not substituting symbols for the genuine article.

2. You may think you’re entitled to love because of your achievements

When I was a kid, I was pretty proud of my accomplishments and thought, “Girls should like me because I’ve done interesting things!” By my early twenties, still enjoying minimal success with women, I realized perhaps that wasn’t enough. People may respect and admire you for your accomplishments. But that is not the same as liking you or loving you.

So if achievements don’t work to attract people, what does? Turns out that people tend to like you based on how you make them feel. So make them feel great! You always have it in your power to make people feel like a million euros — with a smile, a well-placed compliment, genuine praise and appreciation. It costs nothing, and it makes you feel great, too. And when you feel great, you’re lit up. And people like to be around lit up people. Problem solved.

3. Too much success can turn you into a jerk.

Here is one of the most interesting results to come out of neuroscience in the past decade: the brains of really successful, powerful people are different from that of ordinary folks. With enough power, their frontal lobe – the seat of empathy, altruism, prosocial behavior and general human niceness – shuts down.

So the old cliché of “success has gone to her head” is scientifically true: can make you a jerk. And jerks are easy to fear or loathe, but kind of hard to love.

As you’re reading this, you can probably think of at least one person who fits this description. And if that person happens to be you – well, there may still be hope. I would suggest first giving a call to your mom so she can cut you down to size. Then apologise in person to everyone you have mistreated in the past year and ask for their forgiveness. You can start with a blank slate from there.

4. You may be devaluing your feminine energy.

Whether man or a woman, we possess both feminine and masculine energy (the same way we’re made of both electrons and protons, say). You can think of masculine energy as strength – action, getting things done, directing people. Feminine energy is warmth – connection, receptivity, cooperation.

As John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut discuss in their excellent new book Compelling People, you need both strength and warmth for people to perceive you as likable. Without strength, you can come off as weak, which is unattractive, especially in men. However, too much strength without warmth can be a turn-off as well, especially when attempting to forge bonds of affection. Research shows that women tend to pay an even higher penalty than men when their strength is not counterbalanced by warmth.

In my observation, in the context of dating and relationships, femininity is a big turn-on for men, since guys are generally not looking to date a facsimile of themselves. Men like women because they are women. So if you’re a woman, even if you head a billion-dollar corporation, you would do well to turn up the feminine energy and warmth in your intimate relationships.

5. Stress is making you less attractive.

In my last two years of medical school, I was one stressed-out puppy: eating irregularly, sleeping minimally, and perpetually harried for time. On top of that, I was trying to prove myself worthy to my superiors, all while taking care of sick people who needed my attention around the clock. All this did not make me more fun to be around, contributing to a lackluster love life.

If you’re working hard every day trying to climb the ladder of success in any field, my story may sound familiar to you. There are real physiological consequences to stressing yourself out, most of which make you less attractive. For example:

  • Studies show that when you are sleep-deprived or otherwise tired, parts of your brain related to willpower and executive control can shut down. So you become snippy and irritable.
  • When you’re stressed, you produce the hormone cortisol. This is the hormone of the underling, versus testosterone, the hormone of dominance. So the more stressed you are, the less powerful you will feel, giving you even more stress. This makes you feel and look weak, which is the opposite of attractive.
  • When you eat irregularly, grabbing a pizza here and a doughnut there and skipping fresh fruit and vegetables, it shows up on your skin. You will look sick and tired, which is the opposite of the attractiveness of health and vigor.

What are some remedies, you ask?

  • If you’re in a line of work where you regularly brag about or fret over how much sleep you’ve gotten, you’re in the wrong line of work. Either get out, or arrange your life so you’re sleeping right. It’s the cornerstone of your mental and physical health.
  • Make a point of bringing fresh fruit and vegetables to work every day.
  • If you can’t get rid of the hard-ass boss who’s stressing you out, counteract the effects of cortisol through regular exercise or taking “power poses” throughout the day. Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School showed that holding a power pose for just two minutes – e.g. standing with your arms and feet wide, or with your hands on your waist – can reliably boost testosterone and reduce cortisol levels.

In the end, remember that real success is about meaningful human connections. That’s the real reward of life, while power, money and status are merely means for attaining it. So give yourself gentle reminders to make people a priority. True success may be as close at hand as sharing a leisurely stroll, meeting over a savored cup of coffee or doing a favor for someone you love.

1 Comment on “Five ways success may be hurting your love life”

  1. Elizabeth

    Excellent article. I’ve noticed for myself that the more I work, the more other things fall by the wayside. It’s a real challenge to balance love with success in my personal life. It helps to commit to quality time with my relationship ahead of time– even if it requires scheduling.