The important things in life require hard work and persistence. Yet often we haven’t been taught the basics when it comes to how to make intimate relationships work. It takes skill and persistence to build a positive connection with your partner. Research has shown that oxytocin is the chemical that is released in our bodies when we experience a perceived sense of safety. This experience is necessary to allow the body to grow, heal and restore itself in the face of the stress of life. Human beings are innately sociable, and our intimate relationships play a central role in allowing the human nervous system to feel safe.
Dr John Gottman has done extensive research on what makes a relationship fulfilling. He surveyed thousands of couples over many years to discover the key ingredients to success. Here are five key tips adapted from his work to get you started :
- Keep up to date with your partner’s world (inner and outer). Be aware of their routines, hobbies, fears, current stresses, favourite films etc. Showing interest is a key first step in building trust and cementing friendship.
- Nurture fondness and admiration in your attitudes and behaviour. Remind yourself of your partners’ positive qualities and tell them and others. Be affectionate in little ways often.
- Turn toward each other instead of away. If your partner hints at time together, or reaches out for your affection be generous in responding positively.
- Let your partner influence you. Look for common ground rather than insist on having your own way.
- Solve solvable problems, show respect to your partner, be clear and concrete and deal with things as they arise rather than store them up.
One of the most reassuring ideas to come out of the research is that there are actually “unsolvable” problems in most relationships. Key differences in each person’s values, interests or direction. This is normal, but what takes skill is learning how to compromise and work out a way of existing and managing the differences. Gottman describes how in every relationship there are two choice dilemmas where the partners cannot have both things at once or where fundamentally different values exist which run through everything. For example, you want a new windsurfer. So you want to use your choice to get that. However, in most relationships a purchase of this size would require two choices, because the purchase significantly affects both your partner and your family, unlike buying a new tune from the itunes store. From past conversations with your partner, you assume that she will always say “No” to buying a windsurfer, so, you stop talking about it, but you fantasize about it, and one day you go out and buy it, tow it home. She will feel angry, hurt, and deceived. You reason that she will now go along with your purchase since it is in the garage. Also the payments you make on that windsurfer can be paid off. However, the resentment she develops toward you for “stealing her choice” about the windsurfer will most likely last much longer.
David Snarch in his great book Secrets of a Passionate Marriage describes how stealing your partner’s choice and having your own choice stolen in marriage is quite a regular occurrence. It happens when you don’t get what you want and how you want it. Instead of having the necessary conversations and facing the conflict directly to find a compromise, you choose to have an imaginary conversation in your head.
If these exist it is important to understand them, show some flexibility and be patient by approaching the gridlock with a lightness of touch. Just knowing that some issues can’t be solved but need to be accepted, can sometimes take the pressure off. These dilemmas require honest conversation to keep emotions expressed instead of building up. They need revisiting and continued efforts to seek a genuine compromise where possible. The happiest couples learn to face the feelings of loss and grief that comes when you cannot have something that is important to you and isn’t realistic or not possible. According to the research, the happy couples stayed with the conversations until they could come to an agreement they both could keep with little to no resentment.
With some problems this is very, very hard. This isn’t to say that each person liked the compromise, but it does mean each partner tries to find a way to live peacefully with it as best each can.
Intimate relationships are the most threatening peer relationships you can have, because so many of your wants, wishes, and desires are entwined with another person’s wants, wishes, and desires, each sharing equal power. A partnership forces both people to choose maturity or self-centeredness, healthy compromise or manipulation, and what is really most important in the longer run or momentary impulse. Being a couple allows you to choose either and to experience the consequences of each action, and to learn from each situation if you are willing.
How does a partnership teach these things? It forces you to experience feedback about your actions and attitudes that you can’t fully see but your partner can most clearly. Relationship pressures open your eyes to life on its terms instead of trying to dictate to life. Your spouse is not the cause of the frustration that you feel. It is from relationship. You put yourself into a constant series of “two choice dilemmas” because you chose to be in a relationship, NOT because of who you chose. A partnership challenges each person to mature in ways that are not comfortable or easy at times. A long-term, committed relationship is full of “stealing others choices.” That is the reality of what happens.
If you want a windsurfer, that is quite fine. Finding a way to have it in your life needs to be openly discussed and worked with instead of relegated to imaginary conversations in your head and impulsive actions. Stifle the urge to take your partner’s choice, and keep having open discussion no matter how hard. That is what a relationship is trying to teach you.
Sound easy? Probably not. However, it is doable with practise and repetition. It is just like going on a diet or getting fit, regular small steps towards changing your self takes time, patience and persistence. The key is to focus on changing yourself ~ not your partner! Be kind to yourself in the process, after all your mental health is important and it is worth you building solid relationship foundations to protect it and the ones you love. If it feels too hard to make these changes on your own, find an understanding professional who can support you both to learn better skills to build the positive connection between you.
Melbourne relationship counsellor, and psychotherapist Marg Ryan, is a leading specialist in working with couples and singles with emotional problems. She is specifically experienced in helping with self esteem problems that show up with symptoms like depression, anxiety, conflict, addiction and problems within relationships. She has a private counselling and psychotherapy practice in South Caulfield in the South Eastern Suburbs of Melbourne.