Tips for a Healthy Relationship
By Dr. Ben
follow-up to last week's post on How
to Pick a Mate, I thought it would be a good idea to share some
thoughts on how to sustain a life partnership once you're
all relationships face their own unique challenges. And I've been
around long enough to believe that sometimes, it may be best for two
grossly mismatched personalities to end a long term relationship and
begin anew the quest for a mostly peace-filled life.
those who aren't quite ready to separate, let's discuss strategies
that have worked for us. Things that we have found to be helpful in
healing wounds, preventing wounds, fostering genuine fondness, earning
respect, and just plain old surviving life with your significant other.
folks I know say that they hardly ever fight. I even know a couple
who insist that they have absolutely nothing to fight about. If you
and your partner belong in this category, perhaps this post isn't
has given me more heartache and stress than any other life experience.
Pretty much everything that I've written over the years on maintaining
healthy relationships, finding meaning in suffering, and just trying
to treat others the right way has flowed out of this vat of personal
grief that I suspect will always be a part of me.
still together with my life partner, Margaret, mother of our two boys,
and though I suspect we'll continue to walk through more moments of
despair and gnashing of teeth, I believe we will stay together forever.
I didn't feel this way in the first few years of our marriage. I feel
this way now because we've walked through the valley of the
shadow of death more than a few times. And in surviving, I think we've
developed some strategies that have been immensely helpful in allowing
us to work at everything I mentioned above: healing wounds, preventing
wounds, fostering genuine fondness, earning respect, and just plain
old surviving life by each other's side.
Have to Show Up
one of the reasons why we've had a number of horrible fights is that
both of us like showing up in our relationship.
both pretty clear on things that are important to us as individuals,
and when we feel that the other isn't being respectful, we show up.
one thing I am highly sensitive to is someone other than me even mildly
criticizing anyone on my side of the family. Yes sir, when I'm annoyed
by one of my blood family members, right or wrong, I'm allowed to
bellyache about it, but nobody else better say anything about my mom,
dad, sisters, aunt, or grandmother. Because I'm liable to go medieval
on them. Or at least read them the riot act.
that Margaret doesn't tolerate for a second is condescension. No matter
how well it's dressed up, if I'm annoyed or grumpy about something
and give her even a whiff of that fragrance of believing that I'm
fundamentally a better human being, she gets deeply hurt, and understandably
for us having these and other sensitive buttons are not as important
as knowing that they exist. Though, for the record, we've had countless
conversations on all of the ways in which each of us refuses to be
would argue that this is an essential ingredient in all healthy relationships.
Not showing up on big life issues is a precursor to resentment, which
is ultimately what destroys a genuine desire to respect, trust, support,
encourage, serve, and love.
Important is How You Show Up
author Gary Chapman says it best:
makes requests, not demands. When I demand things from my spouse,
I become a parent and she the child."
marriage or life partnership, no one wants to feel like a child who
constantly needs to be corrected, reprimanded, and controlled.
big on keeping violent images out of our boys' lives. She concedes
that eventually, they need to be aware of war lords, arms dealers,
and other realities of our world, but at 6 and 4 years of age, she
argues that they don't need to know about how some humans have a tendency
to fight and kill one another. And I would agree with her.
do want our boys to one day enjoy the magic of "The Karate Kid" and
a few other classics in my limited collection of movies. And I have
to admit, I would enjoy seeing them experience the joy of playing
with Nerf and water guns.
she tells me in a flat, no-nonsense voice that she doesn't want our
boys to see Daniel-San's journey just yet, and that she won't allow
any toy guns whatsoever in the house, I feel like she's parenting
is, I'm fine with waiting on these life experiences. A little disappointed
maybe. But I can respect these wishes. I just don't like the way they
feel like demands. Like this is how it's going to be because she says
not that I need her to ask for my permission so that I feel like I'm
the leader of our household. I just want to feel like we're parenting
our children together. So in this particular instance, I asked her
how she felt about sharing such views in the form of a question, kind
of like this:
Ben, how do you feel about waiting until the boys are about 12 and
10 before we watch 'The Karate Kid'? Because I really feel like they're
still too young to see Daniel get whaled on by those bullies wearing
the skeleton costumes."
and me, approaching any life issue in this manner makes a huge, positive
difference in the quality of our relationship.
rather than demanding. Expressing thoughts in terms of feelings. Asking
for the other person's feelings on the matter. All excellent guidelines
to keep in mind whenever we show up in our most important relationships.
else that really helps us: Before we bring up our mindfully composed
requests, we try to say something like:
to share something with you, but just wanted to tell you first that
I don't mean in any way to make you feel bad, so please tell me if
like a lot of work, right? And maybe this is unnecessary for some
couples. But for us, a little preface like this sets the stage for
a healthy discussion where there is little tendency to get defensive.
Worth trying, I think.
Your Partner's Primary Language and Act on this Knowledge
following five choices, which one makes you feel most loved and cared
words - when your partner speaks kindly to you, encourages
you, gives you an unexpected and genuine compliment, or tells
you that he or she cares about you.
time - when you and your partner spend quality time together.
- when your partner surprises you with a gift. The cost of the
gift is irrelevant. You feel cared about because he or she spent
time thinking about you and what you might like.
of service - when your significant other does things
that make your life less stressful or more enjoyable. Like the
feeling you get when you're tired and hungry after a long day,
only to be pleasantly surprised to find that the dishes are already
washed, the recycling has been taken out, or there is a nice meal
waiting for you.
affection - when you and your partner hold hands, hug,
and share physical contact that reflects how much you care about
brilliant book, The
Five Love Languages, Dr. Gary Chapman discusses how each of us
are geared towards having a primary love language. Whichever answer
you choose to the question above is your primary love language - the
way in which you most feel loved and cared about.
of us, I think it's natural to show love to our partner through the
primary language that we most feel loved.
Margaret's primary love language is quality time, while mine is acts
she appreciates various acts of service I might perform with her in
mind, they don't end up meaning as much to her as, say, spending an
evening together just talking about this and that after the boys have
gone to sleep.
know how many times I've forgotten this and spent one too many hours
at the office, thinking that she would appreciate how hard I was working
for our family, only to become devastated and angry in discovering
that she was angry with me for neglecting her. The perfect example
of two people looking at the same event with completely different
perspectives and all the heartache that can be caused by not knowing
and acting on your partner's primary love language.
what your partner's primary love language is. Act on it. Repeat as
often as possible.
How to Apologize
the first step is to recognize when an apology is in order. Here's
my general rule of thumb: If Margaret is upset with me over something,
I probably have something to apologize about.
say this tongue in cheek. When she is upset about something, if I
dig deep enough within my memory bank of things I said and did and
didn't do over the past little while, I can almost always identify
something that I can take responsibility for. And I think the same
holds true in reverse. It really does take two to tango, and provided
that both parties are mentally stable, both people usually have something
that they can take ownership of in times of conflict.
to apologize. First, you have to really feel it. This means putting
your feelings aside for a moment, and doing your best to feel your
partner's pain. Not so easy to do, but become good at doing this,
and I guarantee that it will lead to more happiness and less misery.
keep your focus on your partner's pain, it shouldn't be too difficult
to say you're sorry.
sorry that I've caused you hurt."
these are acceptable. And if you can't say one of these with a genuine
expression of sorrow and humility on your face, spend more time thinking
about your partner's pain until such an expression is a natural printout
of what you're really feeling.
don't ever say "I'm sorry if you were hurt by what I said (or did)."
sends the message that you're not fully convinced that your partner
is justified in feeling hurt. To some, this is as good as saying "I
wish you weren't so emotionally weak, but I see that you're all hysterical
again, so I'm sorry for whatever it is that's ailing you. Whatever."
simple. Focus on your partner's pain until you can say sorry from
your heart. Then say it without qualifying it.
How to Accept an Apology
lucky enough to have a partner who knows how to take ownership of
his or her behavior and deliver a genuine apology, don't mess everything
up by using this opportunity to get high and mighty.
partner to deliver a proper apology, he or she has to swallow some
combination of hurt, pride and ego. Remember this, and it will be
natural to be gracious and forgiving. This is the magic of one person
stepping up and delivering a real and true apology; it tends to melt
away the hurt on both sides, and dramatically improves the other person's
capacity to feel compassion.
please remember the work that is involved in apologizing from the
heart. Even if you still feel hurt, try not to make your partner feel
any worse than he or she already does.
back, Margaret, in a moment of sincere concern and panic, told what
she felt was a harmless lie to a family friend. Her intentions were
good, but almost immediately, she realized that she shouldn't have
lied. So she mustered up the courage to call the family friend and
take complete ownership of her behavior.
the friend, while accepting of the apology, delivered a bit of a sermon
about how she never, ever lied, would never allow her husband to lie,
held Margaret to a much higher standard, and expected that Margaret
would learn something from this experience.
what I mentioned about Margaret and the way she's wired to respond
to condescension? The friend's rebuke was like dynamite; it destroyed
a family friendship that we had cherished. A powerful and painful
reminder to be gracious and never rebukeful when someone delivers
a sincere apology.
it another way, when your partner apologizes to you, don't go on a
What You're Grateful For
that you can use the power of your thoughts to lift yourself, your
partner, and your relationship into rarefied air. It's difficult to
stay up there all the time, but for spurts, you can indeed get there.
do this by regularly giving silent thanks for all that you're grateful
for in your partner.
helpful, keep a picture of your partner as a baby nearby and meditate
on all of the good qualities that the baby in the picture came to
possess as an adult despite many decades of getting hurt and disappointed
I've shared some gritty details from my marriage, I guess I deserve
to list a few of the qualities that I'm grateful for in Margaret,
qualities that remind me that I found the best possible partner for
me in this world.
lives for our boys. She really knows how to be with them. She
doesn't lie nearby with her nose buried in a book or cell phone
while they go brain dead in front of a television. She talks with
them, reads with them, plays games with them. It's exhausting
work, to really be emotionally present with little ones, and she
does this beautifully.
know that person who gets up at his wedding and raises a glass
to toast a table full of relatives whose names he isn't quite
sure of, and yet, without a hint of shame, declares to the crowd
of guests that he loves said relatives and lives for them? My
wife is the opposite of this type of person. She is absolutely
genuine. No matter her emotion, you know what it is. She is the
opposite of phony. I adore this about her.
values health over looks and function over style. She doesn't
need to visit the Eiffel tower to be happy; she'd much prefer
a good memoir and a cup of tea. She will never get the difference
between our Hyundai and the neighbor's BMW. She's almost right
out of the pages of Little House on the Prairie, except she does
TaeKwonDo and she doesn't know how to milk a cow.
go on, but that should just about help me round out my point. When
I focus on these and other qualities about my life partner that I'm
deeply grateful for, I find that I want to try harder to be a good
husband to her. Though I like to think that I'm getting better at
it with age, as a fellow human being with a good backpack full of
my own personal issues, I need to regularly choose these thoughts
to keep my game sharp. When I don't consciously feed myself these
reminders, I start taking her for granted, and inevitably, it becomes
easier to have a fight over nothing.
Gandhi shared with us:
thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
are the healthy relationship strategies that I've learned thus far
through my marriage.
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