“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.” -Ursula K. LeGuin
In thirty-five years of counseling couples and families, I have continually been reminded about how little most of us are taught about specific tasks and principles for building and maintaining happy, loving relationships. There seems to be a myth afoot: once married, the relationship grows on its own.
Unfortunately, without some form of guidance from a mentor, minister, therapist or close friend, often what grows are bad habits and distance.
Research indicates that, on average, couples arrive at a therapist’s office six years later than they should have. This makes the task of changing all the more difficult for both the clients and for the therapist. Ineffective habits have been practiced for years, and where once there was trust and connection, there is now loneliness and frustration.
“How’s Your Family Really Doing? 10 Keys to a Happy Loving Family” grew out of our desire to steer couples and families in the right direction.
Here are eight pointers to keep in mind as you journey into the land of intimate relationships–whether as a parent, a partner, or close friend.
Tip #1: Happy, loving relationships take time and attention. Just as flowers in a garden wither without water, so will the best of friendships grow more distant without concerted effort to stay close and connected. Decades of research have found that couples who report high levels of marital satisfaction have five times as many positive interactions as negative ones. All of us thrive on positive attention.
Tip #2: Staying close and connected takes communication. Communication comes in many forms, all of which are important. Make time for a daily ritual of touching base with your partner, checking in to see about how her day is going. Remember to touch–even that hug or kiss goodbye and hello again makes a huge difference.
Tip #3: If you want to receive more love, try giving more love. This is an interesting form of the glass is either half full or half empty dilemma. Since so much of what we do is to project ourselves onto our partners, we can get caught in seeing only the negative behaviors or what is lacking. Often the person who claims her partner never listens is also not a very skilled listener. Make a concerted effort to give more of the very thing you want back and see what you notice.
Tip #4: Remember that all couples must work out a delicate balance of power. Often the harder we push on someone else to give us something, the more the other person resists. The same thing happens between parents and kids or managers and employees. In order to avoid this dance becoming a full blown power struggle, practice the art of surrendering daily. Think of all the little things your partner asks for–a cup of tea, grabbing the groceries, checking on the kids, helping fold laundry–and try saying yes each time.
Tip #5: It is far more effective to change yourself, rather than try to change your partner. When you fall in love, it is tempting to think that, after a while of basking in your love, your beloved will change with your help. Unfortunately, it takes more than love to change persisting patterns. It takes willingness and self-motivated efforts. Try making one small step towards positive change.
Tip #6: You are responsible for your own feelings and your own happiness. Many clients come into counseling either to change something about the other person or to complain about how the other person makes them feel….stupid, lonely, unloved, undesireable–you name it. No other person can make you feel something without your implicit permission or participation. If you catch yourself blaming your partner for your distress, remember that you can do things to make yourself happy.
Tip #7: Get regular tune-ups. Any car owner knows about the importance of regular maintenance and does not think the car is flawed because it requires a tune-up. Don’t our relationships deserve the same attention? You can go to a couples workshop, read a relationship book together, talk to other couples about what has worked for them, or simply make time to set goals for how you each want to improve your relationship.
Tip #8: Don’t wait until you have a serious problem to seek help. So many relationships could be saved with the help of a counselor. Bad habits can be pinpointed, and new ways of communicating learned and practiced. A few pre-marital sessions can get a new couple off to a healthy start. You don’t have to be crazy to benefit from therapy. You just need to be willing to take a step in a new direction. You and your loved ones are well worth the effort.