4 minute read
Another Valentine’s Day and the restaurants are full of loving couples, each person likely hoping that the relationship will last, but secretly — perhaps unconsciously — fearing that it won’t. Everyone knows that flower shops do a roaring trade on Valentine’s Day, but the divorce courts are busy year round.
So what can each of us do to ensure that our own relationship succeeds? Here are four things to do that will go a long way toward reducing conflict and increasing intimacy:
Say How You Feel, Not What Your Partner Did Wrong
Our romantic partners disappoint, annoy, irritate and enrage us in small and big ways every day. (Our own transgressions, of course, are minor by comparison.) We mention their mistakes to them, and sometimes that’s enough — they change and the problem rarely if ever returns. But sometimes they don’t change, and then we have a choice as to what to do. We can, perhaps very justifiably, criticize them, upping the ante and the volume every time they fail to change. Or we can tell them how their behavior makes us feel.
If we criticize, we generate defensiveness and resentment in our partner. We may be able to bludgeon them into doing what we want, but the relationship will pay a price.
If, on the other hand, we tell them how their behavior makes us feel we invite them to help us look for a solution. We defuse the potential fight and help our partner to better understand us.
Most of us don’t step back from our relationship and analyze what’s going on. Sure, we’ll analyze our partner’s bad behavior endlessly, but that’s different from asking, with genuine curiosity, “What’s going on between us?” More often, we’re just reacting to what our partner has done or said, generally with our emotions in full flight. Looking at the relationship as if we were on the outside takes away the emotions and enables us to understand the feelings of our partner, and have them understand our feelings.
And if this all sounds too fairy-tale to be useful, read this for a step by step guide to putting it into practice.
Blame The Relationship, Not Each Other
It’s easy to decide that the man or woman we’re with is just an unpleasant person and there’s not much to be done other than fight or withdraw. But the chances are that when we got together with them in the first place, we thought they were delightful. Did we marry Dr. Jekyll and end up with Mr. Hyde? Perhaps. But far more likely there’s nothing wrong with them (and nothing wrong with us either). There is, however, something very wrong with the relationship. We don’t have to blame either partner, but we can blame the relationship.
We might overreact to something our partner does because of our own early years or previous relationships. And then our partner overreacts to our overreaction because of THEIR early years or previous relationships. And the cycle continues. That doesn’t make us wrong for ‘starting it’, or our partner wrong for escalating it. It just means we need to recognize, and be careful of our partner’s sensitivities.
Most of the time when our partner is upsetting us, they’re not doing so intentionally; rather, they’re responding to emotions going on inside them that have little to do with wanting to hurt us.
Beware The Over-Under Functioning Cycle
Relationship tasks tend to get divvied up according to who’s good at what and who likes doing what. That fine as long as there’s some balance between the partners. However, (and this tends to happen particularly when there are children), it’s rare that both sides feel they’re equal partners in the more difficult and unpleasant tasks of running a family. What makes things worse is the person who’s not good at a particular task tends to do less and less of it, and the person who is good at it tends to do more and more. Sooner or later, one side starts to feel they’re shouldering the lion’s share, and the other person is getting a free ride.
For example, when a couple have children, often the wife takes the lead in child care. The husband feels less competent, leaving things up to his wife. The wife feels more and more confident and is impatient with a husband who makes mistakes, which in turn makes him withdraw further, forcing her to take up even more responsibility.
When things become too unbalanced, there’s anger and resentment on both sides. One partner feels exploited and over-responsible, while the other feels belittled and marginalized. To ensure this doesn’t drive a wedge into YOUR relationship, read this.
Don’t Try To Change Your Partner: Focus On Your Own Behavior
Many of us invest heavily in convincing our partner to change. Whether it’s as simple as having him not leave the toilet seat up, or as dramatic as getting her to stop drinking, we are saying “I’m not satisfied with your behavior: please change.”
And sometimes our partners accommodate us. If what we’re asking for is unimportant to our partner, change is more than likely. But very often, what seems minor to us is a big thing to the other person. For example, an appeal to tidy up can feel like a criticism of his organization skills. A request to report when she’s coming back from the office can seem like an infringement on her freedom. A plea to save more money might be interpreted as an implication that he’s a spendthrift.
When we see our partner refusing to change these ‘little’ things, we often interpret that to mean we’re not truly cared for. “If she really loved me, she’d do this small thing I’m asking.” This kicks off a cycle of hurt, anger and revenge.
No matter how we beg, howl, rage or cry, we cannot change our partner. He or she gets to decide how to behave. Fortunately, we also have the same power — we get to decide how to behave too. If we focus on what we can do to make our life better in the face of our partner’s refusal to change, then we feel in control of our life once again.
Interestingly, once we accept our partner’s behavior and focus instead on our own, our parter will sometimes change. For it is the Paradox of Change that it is only when we feel truly accepted that we can truly change.