Several factors can lead to problems in a relationship or marriage, and some issues absolutely require more attention and specialized help. If this is the case for you, I encourage you to seek outside help, because the stress of trying to “fix” your partnership or marriage is too much to do alone.
Nonetheless, the core relationship principles I outline below are absolutely essential not only to a solid relationship but for the repair of one that’s suffering. Here are six things to keep in mind:
1. Begin with you.
Many people don’t realize that being in a committed relationship or marriage is an inside job. You may have the best of intentions, but if you’re not taking care of yourself emotionally, you will have problems in your relationship. Tending to your emotional fitness is the most important job you have, and that means taking 100 percent responsibility for your behavioral patterns in the relationship and following it up with immediate action to address them.
If you aren’t fulfilled with your life outside of your relationship, you must do everything you can to create a more meaningful life. If you have low self-esteem, make that your priority. Hire a coach. See a therapist. Meditate. Emotional fitness isn’t a goal, it’s a daily, minute-to-minute practice that, when committed to, transforms all of your relationships—beginning with you.
2. Lessen the emotional charge.
When a couple goes to battle, there’s an emotional intensity that leads them to create stories about the other person. “He never cleans up after himself, so he just doesn’t care,” or “She is always complaining about me so she clearly couldn’t care less about what I do for her.”
Once we have a negative story in our heads about how the other person feels, we get into trouble. However, when you lessen the negative emotional charge, you’re likely to come up with a better story. This holds true for anything in your life. How do you do that? Take a timeout. Splash cold water on your face. Go for a walk, exercise, or practice deep breathing. You need to see your partner as your partner, not a monster who’s trying to hurt you.
3. Transcend your reactivity.
This is one of the most important relationship skills for two reasons. First, you don’t want to be a grown-up version of your little kid self. When we react, we’re operating from a place of old wounds since childhood. When you can emancipate yourself from your reactivity, you become an autonomous adult. It isn’t easy, but it’s essential. The second reason is strategic. We’re taught from a young age that if we get into a debate, our aim is to win, and couples in trouble fight with one goal in mind: to win.
In the world of relationships, this is a lose-lose strategy. Instead, you have to sit with your discomfort and LISTEN when your impulse is to fix, flee, or yell. Once you’ve really listened, then you must do what psychiatrist Terry Real calls “help them win.” Helping them win means that if your partner is raising his/her voice, for example, instead of reacting, you say smoothly, “It would really help me understand you if you spoke more calmly.” This immediately conveys that you want to understand, not to fight. This is a win-win strategy because you lessen the emotional charge, you transcend your reactivity, and you inspire your lover to do the same.
4. Stop complaining.
There’s a difference between complaining and venting, and you must know the difference. You may have to listen to your loved one vent from time to time, and I suggest that you do. You could say sweetly, “You’ve got 10 minutes of my undivided attention; let it rip.” But when you’re in the habit of complaining about each other, that’s a problem. Turning your complaint into a request is a skill worth developing.
Here’s why: Every complaint has a request hidden in it. If you are the one who is habitually complaining, identify what it is you need from your partner and request that, because complaining is going to fall on deaf ears and won’t get you what you want. If you’re the one dealing with a complaining partner, rise above your triggers and look for his or her request and address it. Help the other person win, remember?
5. Don’t blame.
Blaming will get you nowhere, period. Whenever you blame anyone or anything for your circumstances, you immediately relinquish your power, and you prime your partner to be defensive. It never works. Ever. Nothing good ever comes out of harshness. It is one of the worst behavioral patterns that causes often irreparable damage to a relationship. No situation calls for it.
6. Remember the love.
When you’re in it for the long haul, it’s normal to dislike your significant other from time to time. It really is OK, I promise. Intimacy is not the absence of tension; it’s what you do with that tension that matters. That’s why remembering the love as much as possible will have a profound impact. It’s human nature to seek excellence and wholeness, and, unfortunately, we expect perfection from our relationships and wholeness from our partners.
The truth is that we’re all imperfect, and the greatness in any relationship lives in the growth. You have to embrace your humanity, as well as your partner’s, and allow for the imperfections of both of you to collide. Then, together, work on the healing. When you’re angry, disappointed, or hurt by something your spouse did, you have to apply positive intent and assume that their intention was not to hurt you. This is when you remember the love: when you remind yourself that he or she is not the enemy.
Treat your partner with respect, be kind, listen, and breathe. And please, do seek out help—as it really is too much to do alone.