After trial and error, you have finally found the one . . . the person you want to spend the rest of your life with. You are blissfully in love and enjoying every second of your courtship. You begin to plan every aspect of your lives together and possibly even a wedding. What else should you be doing at this time to give your relationship the best possible chances for a long life of successful companionship?
The Gottman Institute has presented us with some excellent suggestions for creating habits that will serve any long-term relationship well. Wise couples will be purposeful and thoughtful as they craft these habits and they will pay off big dividends.
- Communicate often. Check in with your SO daily. Life will get busy and often you may only have 10 minutes to sit down and talk, but do not skip this vital habit. In order to get the most out of this habit, you should be sitting down with your SO in a quiet place so they have your complete attention. Do not have your phone or other device in your hand. Look each other in the eye and check in with each other. Share parts of your day. Confide in each other.
- Listen to your partner. Often when we are talking with our SO, we are listening to respond. Instead, we should listen to understand. What is it that they are trying to share? How are they feeling? If your partner is telling you that they had a bad or upsetting day, offer to help them in a way that would lighten their load. Perhaps offer to cook dinner or usher them into the bathroom for a hot bubble bath while you do the dishes. These tender acts of kindness will be cherished and help to build intimacy.
- Practice proper hygiene and cleanliness. When you decide to share your life with someone that also means sharing your space with them. If you tend to be on the messy side, you need to make the conscious decision to improve. Practice putting your dirty clothes into a laundry basket. Rinse out the sink after you brush your teeth. Put your dishes into the dishwasher instead of placing them in the sink after you eat. Your SO will appreciate your thoughtfulness as you begin to share space together. These may seem like little things, but over time these can become real aggravations and cause tension.
- Laugh a lot. Find ways to cheer each other up by having a good laugh together. If your SO is having a rough day, make a joke or start a pillow fight. Find a fun comedy to watch or go out for some fun that will bring smiles to your faces. Laughter increases intimacy which will strengthen your relationship.
- Kiss and hug EVERY time you say hello and goodbye. Physical touch builds emotional connections. Do not fall into the destructive pattern of coming and going without spending a few moments with your SO expressing your affection through touch. Investing these minutes into your SO will help them feel connected to you in a significant way during the day.
- Know who you are. Do not stop improving yourself. Continue to grow and learn and set goals. Make sure you have clearly defined beliefs and values and that you have communicated these with your SO. You can do this by reading books, signing up for classes, learning a new hobby, or joining a community group. Don’t allow yourself to become stagnant or this will negatively affect your relationship with your SO.
- Have a life outside your relationship. While your SO should be your whole world, the world does exist outside of them as well. Take time for yourself. Go out with your friends. Stay committed to your work schedule. If you find yourself frequently calling in sick to work, even when you’re not, just to hang out with your SO this is a red flag—you may be developing a codependent relationship. Maintain your identity that is separate from your SO and your relationship will be healthier and happier.
- Have fun! Fun comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s important to take those vacations and weekend trips. However, it’s just as important to turn work into fun. When it’s time to do chores, find fun ways to do them. Create a playlist with your SO for cleaning the house. Host a monthly game night at your home and invite your friends. Don’t ever forget date night! These should happen on a weekly basis.
Relationships take work. If you proactively begin to cultivate these healthy habits at the beginning of your relationship, then you will be on the right track to get the most happiness and satisfaction out of your relationship. You will also weather the inevitable storms that come more effectively because you will have maintained the intimacy and trust necessary to navigate the trials that you will face.
Crash! My head jerked around at the sound of breaking glass. In horror, I saw my son pull the table cloth off the table, and with it my cherished heirloom candy dish from my great-grandmother. A gasp escaped my lips and my son looked, wide-eyed into my face. A look of terror twisted his beautiful features and tears sprang to his eyes. “Mommy, oh no! Mommy! I’m so sorry. You can fix it, right?” he stammered as I knelt beside him, gently picking the broken fragments off the floor and piling them into the garbage can. I did my best to keep my anger at bay as he climbed into my lap and smothered my face with kisses. He knew what he had just done was wrong, but there was no way his four-year-old brain could possibly fathom the depth of sadness and loss I felt at that moment as I scooped the pieces of this treasure off the floor. After I was done, I held him in my arms as he continued to frantically apologize. I must admit, it was hard for me to forgive my son for what he had done. What he did was something that could not be fixed or replaced. But, he was quick to identify that he had done something wrong and offer a heart-felt apology. For the sake of our relationship, I knew I needed to work through my feelings of loss and learn to forgive him.
Whether it is a child, a best friend, or your sweetheart, there will come a time when you will do something that will hurt them. It might be something small like eating the last piece of chocolate cake that they had been eyeing all day in the fridge or something really big that cut them to their core. We will all have cause to apologize. However, not all apologies are the same. The only thing worse than no apology at all is an apology that is a non-apology; one that places the blame for the action back on the person who was hurt. Have you ever found yourself saying, “I’m sorry that I yelled, but you make me so crazy!” That is a non-apology. It excuses your poor behavior and puts the blame on the person you hurt. It takes courage to admit you were wrong and that you hurt someone you care about. It takes even more courage to stand in front of them and express your apology to their face and wait patiently for their reaction. If you find yourself expressing too many non-apologies, trying using the Why-Because formula. Explain what went wrong and then acknowledge your fault. Then follow it up with AND . . . This is the part where you propose a solution. That is the real sweet spot of an apology. This is where you show the other person you how you plan to stop that same mistake from ever happening again.
This is what it looks like. Jessica got so busy talking with her best friend Mary at lunch that she missed her boyfriend’s backyard party he threw for his new boss. Jessica knew this hurt him deeply. Instead of excusing her poor choice, she owned it outright. After the party, she sat next to Mark and said, “Mark, I am so very sorry that I missed your party. I know that you were very anxious about putting on a fun get together for your boss and coworkers and you needed me here to help you. It was selfish of me not to pay closer attention to the time. In the future, I will set alarms on my phone to make sure I’m home one time. In fact, I will make sure to schedule my lunches with Mary at a different time so there is no conflict with your important plans.” After Jessica apologizes, she needs to give Mark time to process the apology. She cannot expect him to forgive her immediately. He may need some time to let the sting of disappointment and hurt die down. What matters most is that Jessica takes full responsibility for her mistake and that she pays close attention to her words and tone while she expresses that to Mark. If she had said, “Mark, I’m sorry I missed your party, but you know how I am around Mary. Besides, I really wasn’t that interested in meeting your boss anyway. Just get over it.” That would hurt the relationship more than if she hadn’t apologized at all.
The last rule of an effective apology is to stop repeating the behavior. If you apologize to someone and then continue the behavior that hurt them, you cannot expect them to keep forgiving you. One of the best apologies is changed behavior.
Apologizing will never be easy. It requires humility, vulnerability, integrity. But it is absolutely vital for the health of all relationships. If you find that you are not apologizing on a somewhat routine basis, you may want to check and see how in-tune you are with your relationships. We are all human and as such we will be routinely stepping on someone’s toes. Apologizing isn’t something you do only when you feel you did something wrong. It is also something you do when someone feels wounded by your words or actions. Apologies are excellent tools for showing someone that you value them and the relationship more than you value your ego or being right.
The Power of Paradigm Shifts
Jaunice spent all of her 20s and most of her 30s dating the wrong men, trying fad diets, spending hundreds of dollars on therapy, and failing to keep her New Year’s Resolutions. One Friday evening, alone again, she wept bitter tears as she snuggled in her bed and finished off a pint of chocolate ice cream. She knew the secret to success was out there, but why couldn’t she find it? Then one day, she found it in the least likely place—a sticky note on her coworker’s cubicle.
“Hey, Jared, what is this sticky note all about?” Jaunice queried. “Oh, that’s just to remind me not to get stuck in a toxic loop when I get frustrated with myself,” Jared responded. “I know it seems stupid, but it really works. Everyone tends to get down on themselves when they feel like they fail over and over again. They say mean things to themselves in their head. That creates toxicity and literally stops you from improving. Having alternative phrases to say can help break that toxic loop and open the door for success and happiness. I used to have to look at this sticky note 50 times a day, but now a glance once or twice will help me throughout the day. I’m reprogramming my brain!” he said with a big grin.
Jaunice couldn’t help but smile back at Jared’s enthusiasm. He was right, it did seem really dumb. However, she definitely could relate to having a toxic loop tape in her head. In fact, it was so toxic that it kept her from trying things because the fear of failure was too intense. After a few days of pondering the idea of changing her mindset, she asked Jared if she could copy his sticky note. She put hers up on her mirror so she could review the principles as she got ready. She also took a picture of it on her cell phone so she could review it throughout the day. When she caught herself playing the toxic loop tape in her head, she would pull out her cell phone and look at the picture. She would change the phrasing in her head to match the growth mindset.
Within just a few days, Jaunice noticed that she felt less hopeless. Her anxiety levels dropped and she began to sleep better at night. She was pleasantly surprised at how much happier she felt and this translated into all areas of her life. She couldn’t deny how powerful this simple concept was—understanding that growth takes time but that it was possible for EVERYONE!
When I first met John, I thought I had met my soul mate. He was handsome, intelligent, witty, and adventurous. The first few months of our relationship were bliss, but as time went on subtle changes began to take place within me. At first I didn’t notice them. My best friends did. When they would point something out, I would shrug it off. “All relationships have their ups and downs,” I would say. While that may be true, our bodies do send us physiological signals that something isn’t quite right. My body had been trying to tell me for months that I was not with the right guy, but I didn’t listen. John was not abusive. We had a good time together. Yet, the signals were clear. He was not the one.
What physiological signs does your body send you when you’re with the wrong person? There are several, and you should pay close attention when they start to pop up. Learn to trust your gut and it will never lead you astray.
- You lose your smile. My friends began to notice that when I talked about John, I smiled less often. They noticed how my lips would pull tight and my eyes would grow sad. They noticed this months before I began to realize that when I thought of John, my spontaneous smile that was omnipresent in the beginning was fading. If you find yourself smiling less, you are with the wrong person.
- Your self-esteem vanishes. If you start to notice your confidence wavering when it was previously thriving, this is a physiological sign that the person you are with is not helping feel loved and supported the way you should be. If you can’t feel comfortable in their presence when you’re at your worst, then they are not the right person for you. The right person will help your subconscious feel completely at ease, so you are free to be completely and unapologetically you.
- You are emotionally exhausted. While I was dating John, I was completely emotionally exhausted. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was spending a lot of emotional energy trying to be the perfect partner for John. I was trying to manage my moods and anxiety to avoid provoking negative reactions in him. While it is important to be aware of how you affect your SO in healthy relationships, if you find yourself micromanaging yourself in order to avoid conflict in you are in trouble. You are allowed to have emotions. You are allowed to express those emotions, and your partner should listen and be supportive. If they aren’t willing to be that shoulder to cry on, you are not with the right person.
- You are in denial. Do you spend a lot of time trying to convince yourself everything is fine in your relationship? I’ve got a little secret for you. FINE is the kiss of death. No one should settle for fine. While all relationships have their ups and downs, and there is definitely a happy medium to be found, if you are with the right person you do not have to convince yourself everything is fine. You will FEEL stable and confident and optimistic. You will FEEL a deeper connection and commitment. You will FEEL it. If you find that your inner dialogue dwells on the pros/cons of your relationship a lot, then your body is trying to tell you everything is not FINE.
- You neglect yourself. While you may want to spend every waking moment with your SO, you should never put yourself last. You should not feel guilty about needing me time, and your partner should not begrudge that time either. If you need a night out with your friends or a few hours to yourself, your SO shouldn’t demand that you check in frequently with them. If you do not have time or energy to meet your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs within your relationship, then you are with the wrong person.
All relationships take work. All relationships vacillate between times of pure bliss and rocky roads. The difference is that if you are with the right person, you will FEEL it in your bones. Your body will let you know that you can weather the storm because your SO is committed to you and your happiness, not just their own. With the right partner, every day is beautiful. The struggles become conquerable. The highs become even more brilliant. So, listen to your body—it will guide you to Mr. Right!
I have this coworker. He’s a decent guy. Hard worker. He often laments to me that even though he has a great job and is fairly attractive, he can’t seem to maintain a relationship for very long. He’s anxious to find someone he can spend his life with but usually after a few dates with a woman he’s interested in, she tells him she wants to date other people. He seems genuinely puzzled by this pattern. I know why women run screaming for the hills after a few dates. I just don’t know how to tell him. He has a personality quirk that is very off-putting, and he seems completely oblivious to it.
Somehow he never developed the ability to be introspective about himself. He never developed self-knowledge based on how people reacted to him. He missed the subtle social cues people give like changing the subject, breaking eye contact, turning their bodies away from him, that indicates they were uncomfortable with what he was saying or doing. He couldn’t recognize the negative effects his personality had on conversations he tried to have with other people. Because of this, he has developed a blind spot to self-knowledge. As a result, he has one failure after another as he tries to date and form relationships with women.
Self-knowledge refers to knowledge of your own tendencies of behavior or ways of being. It’s being aware of the parts of your personality that others may find annoying, bizarre, rude, embarrassing, etc. There is nothing wrong with embracing the parts of your personality that make you truly unique and special, but in the social dance we all participate in (especially when dating and forming relationships) some behaviors and quirks should be eliminated. Some people think their jokes are hilarious when they really aren’t. Some people monopolize a conversation. Some people think their distinctive style makes them unique when it doesn’t. Some people wear too much cologne. Some people wear too much makeup. Some people are arrogant. The list is endless.
Many of us develop self-knowledge as we wade through the tumultuous teenage years and into our twenties. We learn appropriate social interactions and how to present ourselves in a polished yet genuine way. However, we all suffer from blind spots to self-knowledge. This can be problematic when we are trying to find a companion and/or build a relationship with a SO.
If you have experienced a pattern of failed relationships or manage to get a couple dates out of a woman/man and then get politely brushed off, you may want to see if there are blind spots in your self-knowledge. If you are introspective and honest, you can do this on your own, but if you are truly clueless you may want to find some courage and solicit the help of coworkers or a past SO and ask for an “exit interview.” Be prepared to hear some things that might be painful. Truth can hurt, but it can also help you understand how you present yourself to others. If you solicit the help of an ex-, make sure they understand this conversation isn’t designed to get back together with them. Express to them your desire to understand how things went awry. After the conversation, spend some time journaling the information that was shared, how you feel about it, and what (if anything) you plan to do with that information.
During a similar conversation with my SO, I was given the feedback that I make people feel stupid when I talk. I never realized that that is how I came across. I was crushed and angry when I heard this feedback, but the more I pondered this information I realized that it was quite possibly true. I have been a teacher for over 20 years and part of that job requires me to be the authoritative voice in the room. That authoritative voice has become part of my personality, and slowly my classroom persona had crept into my social personality without me noticing it. I felt horrified that my interactions with others had become marred by this personality quirk I hadn’t been aware of until my SO brought it to my attention. Thankfully, I now have this self-knowledge and can be more sensitive to other’s feelings when I interact with them.
Research shows the average person tends to believe he or she is above average in many things. How can we all be above average? It’s statistically impossible! This just illustrates that many of us struggle to see ourselves accurately. Every day we base decisions on how we perceive ourselves. When we base those decisions on flawed self-assessments, we run the risk of causing harm to ourselves or others. And, when we are trying to find our soul mate or building a life-long relationship with someone, overlooking our personality’s flaws can be fatal.