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Six Ways to Keep Your Relationship Healthy
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim
Updated on October 21, 2012
As a follow-up to a previous post on Six Questions to Ponder in Choosing a Life Partner, I thought it would be helpful to create a post where our readers can chime in with thoughts on how to sustain a life partnership once you're all in.
Clearly, all relationships face their own unique challenges. 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.
But for 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.
Now some 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 for you.
My marriage 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.
But I'm 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.
You Have to Show Up
I think one of the reasons why we've had a number of horrible fights is that both of us like showing up in our relationship.
We're 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.
For example, 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.
Something 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 so.
The reasons 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 disrespected.
And I 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.
What's Important is How You Show Up
I think author Gary Chapman says it best:
"Love makes requests, not demands. When I demand things from my spouse, I become a parent and she the child."
In a marriage or life partnership, no one wants to feel like a child who constantly needs to be corrected, reprimanded, and controlled.
Margaret's 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 7 and 5 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.
But I 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.
So when 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 me.
The thing 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 so.
And it's 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:
"Hey 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."
For Margaret and me, approaching any life issue in this manner makes a huge, positive difference in the quality of our relationship.
Requesting 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.
And something else that really helps us: Before we bring up our mindfully composed requests, we try to say something like:
"I wanted 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 you do."
Sounds 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.
Know Your Partner's Primary Language and Act on this Knowledge
Of the following five choices, which one makes you feel most loved and cared about?
Kind 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.
Quality time - when you and your partner spend quality time together.
Gifts - 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.
Acts 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.
Physical affection - when you and your partner hold hands, hug, and share physical contact that reflects how much you care about each other.
In his 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.
For most of us, I think it's natural to show love to our partner through the primary language that we most feel loved.
For example, Margaret's primary love language is quality time, while mine is acts of service.
So while 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.
I don't 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.
Know what your partner's primary love language is. Act on it. Repeat as often as possible.
Know How to Apologize
I suppose 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.
I don't 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.
So how 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.
If you keep your focus on your partner's pain, it shouldn't be too difficult to say you're sorry.
"I'm really sorry."
"I'm sorry that I've caused you hurt."
All of 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.
Please don't ever say "I'm sorry if you were hurt by what I said (or did)."
This 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."
It's simple. Focus on your partner's pain until you can say sorry from your heart. Then say it without qualifying it.
Know How to Accept an Apology
If you're 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.
For your 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.
I repeat: 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.
A while 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.
Regrettably, 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.
Remember 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.
To put it another way, when your partner apologizes to you, don't go on a power trip.
Remember What You're Grateful For
I believe 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.
You can do this by regularly giving silent thanks for all that you're grateful for in your partner.
If it's 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 by life.
Since 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.
She 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.
You 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.
She 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.
I could 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 hefty 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.
As Mahatma Gandhi shared with us:
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
So those are the healthy relationship strategies that I've learned thus far through my marriage.
I know that our readers have plenty of valuable advice to share on this topic. Please consider sharing via the comments section below. Thanks for reading.
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