There is a difference between a personal boundary and a defensive wall. When a person has experienced painful childhood relationships, it is a guarantee that the personality structure of that person will be riddled with walls and defense strategies. Walls that do not come down easily. Defense strategies designed to incapacitate other people. The difference between a couple comprised of people who both experienced loving childhoods and a couple comprised of people who both did not, is that the couple that comes from loving childhoods, does not connect the dots between relationships and the inability to maintain the self (self safety, self integrity, self happiness). As a result, it remains possible for them to act lovingly in the midst of a disagreement because each person is not seen as a threat to the other. People, who come from unloving childhoods, learned that they could not maintain the self (self safety, self integrity, self happiness) and be in a relationship at the same time. This is especially painful since they need intimacy as much as anyone. But as a result the couple comprised of people that did not come from loving childhoods, finds it extremely difficult to act lovingly in the midst of a disagreement because the other person becomes a threat. The other person becomes an enemy. Relationships are turbulent between people who come from abusive childhoods because there is a constant vacillation between love and hate, love and war.
I have always wanted to be in a relationship that was stable and that felt consistently good. A relationship I could trust in above all else. I kept hoping that the answer to that stability and unconditional love was the combination of myself with whatever new man I had fallen into a relationship with. It never was. It never was because I always brought myself into every new relationship with me. My self-esteem in relation to love was always so low that I could only attract men into my life with equally low self-esteem in relation to love. When you combine two people who both have low self-esteem, defensive walls and incapacitating defense strategies into a relationship do you know what you get? Dysfunction and emotional disaster. It seems I have had to learn and employ every relationship technique in the book, because my early experiences with love have made my adult romantic relationships a disaster.
Since yesterday, my e-mail accounts have been flooded with e-mails from people wanting to know how to create a happy, lifelong marriage. As a result, I jumped this morning into my “transcendent perspective” in order to start writing an Ask Teal episode about why most relationships fail and what we can do to attract a long term relationship into our life.
I think the hardest pill to swallow when it comes to marriage or committed relationships, is that a relationship is not just the act of two people making their love public and/or permanent. It is the promise that two people make to each other to enter into a bond which will constantly require growth from both parties in order to stay intact and enjoyable. For many reasons, marriage in this day and age is increasingly cut short by divorce. Couples often venture into marriage with the illusion that their relationship and feelings for each other will never change. But relationships are a dynamic, mutable force. And loving someone is something we re-learn to do. It is something we must practice.
I have learned some practical tips that will not just serve to maintain an enduring relationship, but a thriving relationship as well. I’m going to list them here today:
#1 Practice Positive Focus through Appreciation and Gratitude
Remembering to recognize things that you like about your partner as well as things that cause you to feel grateful for them may seem trivial, but appreciation and gratitude acts like super glue for a relationship. Gratitude and appreciation is a deliberate focus of our attention towards the good qualities in our partners, which in turn allows the emotions associated with love to flow in abundance. Over and over again in studies of co-habitating couples, it has been shown that on days that one partner expressed more gratitude, the other felt more satisfied with the relationship. The routine of taking each other for granted is really just the loss of focus on positives about our partner. The good news is that focus is completely in our own control.
#2 Make Room for Fun and Excitement Fun and excitement are usually two of the first casualties of married life.
Often, when a couple gets married, their life quickly becomes overwhelmed with working, paying bills, keeping up the house, and trying to make room for time to sleep. This problem is confounded if the couple has children. Often, the result of this increase in stress is that playfulness completely disappears from the relationship. Predictability and monotony consume the relationship. So, couples should look for ways to have fun, joke and be playful together.
#3 Learn to Speak Your Spouse’s Love Language
After centuries of studying human behavior and relationships, experts have determined that couples do not necessarily express love in the same way. No expert has perhaps studied this more in-depth than Dr. Gary Chapman. Over years and years of counseling couples as well as studying human relationships around the globe, he noticed the pattern that everyone he had ever met had a “love language,” in other words; they had a primary way of expressing and receiving love. He also discovered that, for whatever reason, people are usually drawn to those who speak a different love language than their own. He discovered that of the countless ways we can show love to one another, there are five key categories, (which he calls the five love languages), that prove to be universal and comprehensive among humans. Every person has a love language, and we all identify primarily with one of the following five love languages: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch. Ideally, we would be able to both give and receive love in all of these ways. But the rule remains the same that if you learn to speak your partner’s primary love language, and she or he learns to speak yours, the relationship will truly thrive and both partners will feel the demonstrations of each others love.
#4 Be a Partner in Good as Well as in Bad
Our partners provide us with support when we are struggling. This support is in fact one of the biggest benefits of marriage. But often this is all marriage becomes. Partners share bad times but not good times. Partners who respond enthusiastically to each others successes by asking questions, paying compliments, and offering encouragement, experience greater relationship satisfaction over time. A relationship can truly thrive if a couple finds the ability to capitalize on and benefit from focus on positive events in each other’s lives. When something good happens to your partner, seize the opportunity to make the most of it. Revel in it and be a partner in that moment as much as you would be a partner to them if something bad had happened in their life.
#5 Allow Your Partner to Change Letting your partner as well as yourself change is vital to sustaining your relationship.
Why? because it is inevitable that you both will. Relationships are the heart of expansion. The relationship itself will cause each person within the relationship to change. Most of us get so familiar with our partners that we stop really noticing them. But the fact that you have stopped noticing them does not mean they've stopped changing. Thinking that it is possible to ever truly know anyone, including your spouse is an illusion. Change is an inevitability of life. The illusion of thinking we know our partners, leads us to conclude that our partners are fixed, static entities. We also often expect ourselves to be static and fixed as well. So, we get upset when we get blindsided by change. You cannot control changes within your partner. And so, a key component of maintaining a happy, enduring marriage is to allow your partner to change and allow yourself to change. Allowing change will help you grow immensely as a person as well as grow as a couple.
#6 Practice Random Acts of Kindness
One of the most effective ways to show love and support to your partner is to perform random acts of kindness. Random acts of kindness are externally focused demonstrations of love. These acts can be both spontaneous and planned. They can come in many forms, such as the form of a gift, service, physical affection, positive words, or undivided time and attention. These random acts of kindness do not need to be elaborate. They can be as subtle and simple as helping to wash the dishes or surprising them with their favorite treat. One subtle act of kindness is to express physical affection. Physical affection increases oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates bonding, and it reduces partners' blood pressures and physiological stress levels. Just a quick hug or back rub can boost your mood and increase your connection with your mate. A simple touch can go a long way. You will find that only will it make your partner happy, but you will also be initiating your own happiness by initiating happiness for them. You will feel good about yourself when you are cultivating kindness in yourself and that allows love to flow freely and abundantly.
#7 Practice the Art of Healthy Communication
Healthy communication in a relationship takes intention and a great deal of practice. Without communication, it is nearly impossible to resolve conflicts between each other or maintain a true, understanding partnership. The heart of every argument between couples arises because of failure to recognize the root of argument it’s self. The root of all argument is fear. The root of all argument is fear because the emotion behind all anger is fear. It is useful to remember in every relationship especially marriage that fear is always at the heart of every argument. It is a good idea then (before ever entering into a discussion about a conflict) for both partners to ask themselves… “What am I afraid of?” Focusing the conversation on the root of the problem (the fear) will ensure that the conversation does not start out as a struggle for power. Each partner’s goal will instead be to abate each others fear. It will not lead to partners becoming defensive and it will ensure that both partners will be highly motivated towards a solution.
Emotions are energy and energy moves. Emotional energy has to go somewhere once it arises. Because of this, it has been shown that whatever one partner suppresses and denies, the other feels and expresses. This is what often gives rise to the outward appearance of one person being the “bad guy” and one person being the “good guy”. Healthy communication in marriage is dependent on the partner who tends to bottle emotion up, learning to express them self and the partner who is prone to volatile expression, learning ways to express them self in a non volatile way.
Relationships are not about Compromise. Compromise all too often means settling, self-sacrificing or forcing oneself to like things that in reality one doesn’t like. Relationships are about finding a solution that suits the needs and desires of both partners. Therefore, before bringing up a problem, make sure you have thought of ways that you can help solve a conflict by mutual agreement.
Speak in honest and direct “I feel” statements. Statements that begin with “you” undermine communication because they put your partner in a defense mode. When a partner is able to express the way they feel without making it the other partner’s fault, the couple can get to the real heart of the issue without making it a struggle for self-preservation.
It is a good idea to make sure that your body language; facial expressions and tone of voice are all in line with the message you are trying to convey. Almost all of the emotional meaning behind what you say is expressed by your facial expressions and body language, which means that the emotional meaning behind a message is not expressed verbally during a conversation.
Be a "reflective" listener by making sure you completely understand what your partner has to say. Be honest, direct and focus on the real issue. If you enter a conversation insecure about conveying the real issue to your partner, you most likely will not make your point, but instead create an argument in which both partners feel powerless. The feeling of powerlessness leads to defensive behavior, which leads to arguments instead of resolution.
Communicate deeply not just about conflict but about other things as well. True partnership must come with understanding. The greatest gift you can give your partner is to reveal yourself. Reveal things to your partner such as your desires, your joys, your fears, and your experiences. The security and closeness that comes as a result of this type of intimate sharing is unparalleled by any form of connection. It is a connection which sex cannot substitute for. It will help a partnership feel like a partnership and prevent the common occurrence of couples “growing apart” while still living under the same roof.
#8 Maintain A Healthy Self
It may seem counter intuitive, but the key to making a marriage work, is to achieve a healthy self-concept and a state of happiness, which is independent of any other person including your partner. Most people think that the best way to improve their relationship is to focus more on their partner, but that's not necessarily true. Focusing on your own happiness actually serves your relationship more. By making your own life more satisfying, you take pressure off your partner to be your sole source of happiness. Feeling good about yourself and learning to focus positively on your partner is what will allow love to thrive and endure in a marriage. By taking care of what you need to in your own life, you will replenish yourself so you will bring a more positive attitude back into the relationship. You will also then have the energy to put into a relationship. When you, yourself are happy and healthy, it spills over onto all the people around you and the first to receive the benefit of this “spill over” effect will be your partner.
Committed relationships are a commitment to love. Falling in love is easy. The real growth that is the byproduct of commitment to love begins when we take personal responsibility for our own health and happiness, learn how to love our partner and practice that love in little ways every day.
It has come to my awareness that the greatest achievements on the planet will forever go unnoticed. They are not awarded with medals or fame. They are private achievements, like the re-opening of a broken heart or the rebuilding of a shattered self-concept.