Healthy, vibrant, nurturing, intimate relationships are supported and sustained when each partner can say:
- I can be my honest authentic self with you.
- You listen to me.
- You understand me.
- You accept me for who I really am.
- I can think or feel or want, differently than you do, and you validate and accept my experience.
- It is safe to talk about absolutely anything and we do it respectfully.
- Talking about difficult subjects may not be easy or pleasant, but it brings us closer.
- I feel like you give me the time and space to articulate myself clearly and thoroughly.
- I trust you and respect you.
- It is safe to admit mistakes, to learn, to not know something.
- You give me time and space and permission to figure something out for myself or with you.
In the honeymoon phase of a relationship many people feel like they have it all. Like they got lucky and it’s all falling into place. If that sense of intense longing, satisfaction and infatuation were based on skills rather than hormones and emotions, the divorce rate would be a lot lower. We would witness many more couples not only staying together, but being truly happy and fulfilled together.
The truth of the matter is that the longer we are together, the closer we get, the more vulnerable and risky it becomes to be this intimate. Functioning as “one” feels good and works great until you want different things, feel differently about something, remember and interpret one another’s actions differently or question one another’s intentions. The longer we are together, the more likely we are to trigger one another’s unresolved fears of abandonment or domination. Sustainable intimacy requires two people becoming more clearly and confidently their unique individual selves. It also requires these strong individuals to form an “us” who can function as an effective and respectful team. Done right, the relationship supports two people becoming stronger and healthier individuals, and these growing, developing individuals in turn, contribute more deeply and passionately to the relationship.
Nobody comes into life knowing how to be great at relationships. It would be wonderful if we grew up surrounded by couples in healthy relationships, but sadly, the vast majority of us don’t. It would be so much simpler if being a healthy individual and couple came easy, but it doesn’t. Any couple who sustainably achieves this level of intimacy has to earn it through lots of hard work, clear intentions, and a willingness to own their mistakes and learn from them.
While there is more to a healthy relationship than simply a list of skills and habits, we have to begin there. Unfortunately, if bad habits are allowed to continue, if good habits aren’t developed, no matter how much a couple has in common, no matter how good the sexual chemistry is, no matter how many common goals and values they may share, a couple will stop sharing, stop growing together, they will feel unsupported, and misunderstood. If destructive habits go unacknowledged and unchecked, a couple can do more damage in just a few minutes than they can make up for in weeks of their best behavior. Soon fighting or avoidance become the norm. When it no longer feels safe to open up and share about some of life’s most important experiences, they will feel ever more alienated from one another and the relationship will become more avoidant or hostile.
In successful relationships, couples learn, over time, to associate having difficult conversations with feeling respected, and understood. Their fears and insecurities are acknowledged and their hopes and dreams supported, and the relationship grows ever closer.
In unsuccessful relationships, couples learn to associate difficult conversations with fear, disrespect, and a lack of emotional safety. They are unable to communicate honestly and authentically. Eventually both partners experience being misunderstood and unfairly judged, and the relationship withers and dies.
Below are general guidelines and specific agreements that make the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Regardless of where your relationship is right now, consciously practicing these principles will begin the process of healing. These things alone could save your relationship.
Recognize that conflicts, disagreements, and misunderstandings are all necessary and healthy – arguing and fighting are not. Learn to have difficult conversations in the format of “This is how it is for me, what’s it like for you” and “This is what I really want, what do you want?” Avoid, at all costs, formatting your conversations along the lines of who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s going to win and who’s going to lose, who is going to dominate and who is going to submit.
Work from positives. Catch your partner doing it right. Acknowledge one another abundantly. Healthy couples recognize and express gratitude for their partner’s hard work and contributions significantly more often than they talk about what is missing or deficient.
Use what John and Julie Gottman call the Soft Start. When bringing up a difficult subject, pad it with acknowledgement and appreciation for your partner. For example, if you’re upset because your partner didn’t do something that they said they would, a soft start might sound like: “Hey sweetheart, I see how hard you’ve been working lately (or how stressed, involved with…, not feeling well, etc.). I so appreciate what you’ve been doing with…, It would sure mean a lot to me if you would finish (what they said they would do). You’re the best!”
Keep it simple – From your partner’s perspective, just seeing that you are upset is stressful. Knowing that you are upset with them is ten times worse. Stress and being a good listener don’t go well together. If you want your partner to listen with compassion, one thing you can do is learn to be concise. Keep your statement of what is upsetting you to under five minutes. When you get good at this you can probably express your hurts in under two minutes. If you haven’t organized your thoughts and feelings well enough to articulate what you saw and heard, how it directly affected you, and what you would like instead, please don’t subject your partner to your unprocessed emotional baggage – especially if it has anything to do with them. You’ll be looking for support and understanding, but what you will get is defensiveness, arguing, or tuning you out. You will be teaching them to associate difficult conversations with overwhelming stress and hurt feelings. Instead, I’m suggesting that you teach your partner to associate difficult conversations with proud feelings of being a good partner: a good listener, an emotionally supportive spouse, a friend who wants to take care of you. Learn to talk specifically about what you saw and heard, why it made you hurt, sad or scared, and…
Always end with a positive loving request. It rarely if ever works to tell your partner what not to do. It leads to arguments, defensiveness, or at the very least, it leaves them associating difficult conversations with you with feeling bad about themselves. Alternatively, your partner will learn to feel good about themselves (and you) when, in difficult conversations, they are set up to be your hero. Tell them how much you appreciate them being a good listener. Teach them to value themselves for being understanding and supportive. Finally, when you end with a positive loving request, you give your partner the opportunity to walk away from a difficult conversation focusing on something positive they can do to show you even more how much they love you and are committed to the relationship.
Learn to be patient and encourage one another. Recognize that real change takes lots of practice, room for mistakes, and opportunities to try again.
Invest in quality relationship time. In addition to creating time every week for dating and lovemaking, it is also helpful to map out time to talk about difficult subjects when they arise. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have a “problems” meeting every week (some couples find this helpful occasionally), but it is helpful to at least agree about what times are best if either of you have something difficult to talk about. I find it helpful to plan these meetings early in the day, to agree to never schedule anything else during that time, and also to agree to talk about anything your partner wants to talk about. Please don’t have these conversations in a moving vehicle, at night when you’re exhausted, in a place where you won’t have privacy, or when you won’t have time to do it justice (like if you have to be to work in 20 minutes).
Below are specific agreements designed to keep things safe, sane, positive and productive. This is the foundation for a healthy relationship. You need these agreements first. Once you’re making progress on this front, you can learn more specific communication skills and techniques that will streamline difficult conversations into intimate (not necessarily easy or entirely pleasant) experiences of learning and compassion.
The following agreements serve many functions and it is best that you know why they work as well as how to use them.
Let’s start with when to use them. Imagine that you and your partner are having a casual pleasant conversation over Sunday brunch at a favorite restaurant. Neither one of you is in the least bit upset. Under these circumstances, go and have your conversation the way you normally would. It is perfectly fine to laugh, play, joke, interrupt one another, finish one another’s sentences, change subjects at random, and even playfully tease one another. As long as both of you are enjoying yourselves, don’t sweat it, just do what comes naturally.
But, as soon as one of you begins to get upset… You both need to jump into the following agreements in order to keep things from escalating into a fight or an argument.
1) One person talks at a time. No interrupting, editing, inserting information, commenting.
2) One subject at a time.
3) Each person gets to be the expert on himself or herself but not about the other person. No analyzing, criticizing, evaluating, or judging the other person.
4) Talk to one another respectfully – even when hurt, scared, or angry.
Yelling, name calling, threatening, hitting, spitting, restraining, breaking things, and throwing things can never be allowed. This rule is so important it bears repeating:
Yelling, name-calling, threatening harm or divorce, hitting, spitting, restraining someone against their will, breaking things, and throwing things are massively destructive to a relationship. If you violate this rule you can do more damage to your relationship in 30 seconds than you can make up for in two weeks of being on your best behavior. Fortunately, we always have the effective option of being honest, assertive, and respectful.
5) We tell the truth at any cost. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The truth that hurts. The truth that sets you free. This is a fundamental facet of being psychologically healthy. It is essential if you are going to grow as an individual or as a couple. Telling the truth frequently means directly facing your worst fears or insecurities. Telling the truth can be upsetting and can lead to difficult conflicts. Sometimes telling the truth will make a conflict worse before it makes things better. Telling the truth could, in fact, end your relationship. The only reason I advocate so strongly for telling the truth at any cost is that the alternative – NOT TELLING THE TRUTH – consistently and predictably will stunt your personal growth and destroy your relationship. At least if you make the radical decision to tell the truth at any cost you will be making a commitment to your own health and growth. You will also be giving your relationship the best shot it has at developing deep love and intimacy.
6) Talk directly to one another and do not talk through another person. – Anything that can be construed as gossip, talking behind someone’s back, or complaining about someone else, is dirty pool. It hurts all three people, polarizes relationships, and creates unhealthy alliances. This is especially damaging when parents complain about each other to their children. Don’t do it.
7) Make loving requests, asking directly for what you want (WHINING, BLAMING, OR COMPLAINING don’t work)
8) Learn to be good listeners: When your partner is talking (and especially if he or she is even a little upset) actively listen for what they are telling you about his or her thoughts, feelings, perceptions, memories, worst fears, and what he or she wants the most. Make sure your partner leaves the conversation feeling completely understood and acknowledged. You know you are a good listener when you can consistently:
- Paraphrase what your partner has said without argument, judgment, inserting information, or defending yourself.
- Get your partner to say something like “yes, that is exactly how it is for me” and “yes that’s it, that’s all I have to say about that.”
9) Communicate with clarity about yourself. (Again: Do not talk about or analyze the other person.) Talk about your perceptions, thoughts, feelings, what you imagine and what you desire. If the other person’s words or actions are part of your perceptions, then carefully craft your sentences to reflect this: “What I imagine is that you…” “What I remember is that you…” “What I saw was you…” “What I heard was you saying…” In all of these cases you are really talking about yourself. Even if your partner has specifically requested feedback about some aspect of himself or herself, the best and safest way to communicate this is to use the “I” language mentioned above.
10) You and your partner do not have to agree. You can love one another passionately and be in the healthiest relationship possible and still remember things differently, want different things, have different feelings, think different thoughts, and have different priorities. In a healthy relationship, you don’t have to be like me in order for me to like you.
11) Only stay in conversations where you are both abiding by these agreements. This is because you are equally committed to being treated with dignity and respect at all times and treating your loved ones with dignity and respect at all times. Therefore, if you catch yourself breaking the agreements, apologize right then and there and re-commit to the agreements, or take a time out until you can. If you catch your partner breaking the agreements, lovingly invite them to treat you with dignity and respect (see the section on setting limits), or (should that fail) take a time out and set a time when you will be back to try again.
If you allow yourself to be violated, you are just as guilty of contributing to an unhealthy relationship as if you were breaking the rules yourself.
If you allow someone to be unhealthy with you – even for 30 seconds – you are teaching them that they can experience emotional release and satisfaction by hurting you. Teaching someone to feel better by being destructive will absolutely keep you and your relationship from growing.