Learn how to cultivate healthy, happy relationships
“I was in a great relationship before: my husband was loving and kind at first. But, after 4 years of marriage, he left me for another woman. I don’t blame myself for it, I am still processing my anger and sadness about it, and I can’t help but worry: How do I know that the same thing won’t happen to me again?”
I’m not sure why, but for some reason, many of us think relationship just happens. It’s as if we just have to instinctively know how to be in relationship with other people, figure it out as we go along, and when it doesn’t feel that comfortable anymore, the relationship was obviously just ‘not meant to be’.
In reality, though, being in a relationship – any relationship for that matter, not just romantic ones – requires some skill. And these are skills that you can learn, and get better at.
Without going into too much detail, I wanted to share some tools and insights that I’ve picked from coaching people on their relationships.
Appreciate the differences between you
In any given situation, there are at least 5 entities in the room:
- The view you have of your partner (in your mind)
- The relationship between you
- The view your partner has of you (in their mind)
- Your partner
During an argument, we usually get these confused, and it helps a lot to differentiate between these. For example:
Sarah gets home, and Michael says hi, but doesn’t look up. Sarah had a long day, and just wanted a hug to feel better. In Sarah’s mind, Michael should have seen that she needed a hug, anticipated it, and met her need: he has done it before, after all. Now that the Michael in front of her didn’t live up to the Michael in her mind, Sarah gets angry, and stomps off to the room and slams the door. Michael hears the door slam, and is confused. He was still busy reading an email from his boss, and suddenly Sarah comes in and slams the door. Sarah has done this before, and said that she just needs some time-out by herself to get over her anger. So, Michael responds to the Sarah in his mind, and leaves her to her time-out.
You can see how this escalates. One misunderstanding feeding the other, and one assumption adding petrol to the flames. Soon, this situation can turn into a full-blown argument of mis-read queues, and unintentional wounds.
There are a few powerful, and simple tools you can use to avoid this catastrophe in relationship.
State your needs in the moment
Maybe your partner swept you off your feet when you just met. You were so drugged by your hormones, that you couldn’t see their flaws, and everything they did felt like they just ‘knew you’ and that they ‘read your mind’. But this is not true. Your partner will never fully know you. Partly, because we grow and change over time, and partly because you have different needs at different moments.
Learn to say what you need, and make this part of the culture of your relationship. It avoids confusion, it clears the air, and it gives your partner the opportunity to meet your needs exactly the way you want it.
Ask your partner what they need in the moment
When your partner is acting moody, or looking down, or seems under the weather, just ask: “What do you need from me now?” If they don’t know what they need, then the agreement should be that you can try and meet their need as best as you can, and that you can revisit whether that worked for them, after the situation had passed. The reason this line is so powerful, is that it forces the person who feels angry, sad, lonely, vulnerable or annoyed to own their experience, and voice their need. It gets rid of all the other people in the room, so it’s just Me, and You (without all the versions we have of each other in our minds).
Own your stories
The best way to get rid of the ‘version of you in my mind’ and the ‘version of me in your mind’, is to name them. Start with: “The story in my head is…” so your partner can have an opportunity to confirm this, or to clarify what is really going on for them.
“Michael, I just got home after a long day, and I feel so vulnerable – I didn’t meet my sales targets, and I don’t feel very confident in myself. Then I find you here, looking at your phone, and not even getting up to hug me and make me feel better. The story in my head is that you don’t care, and that your work is more important to you than me. I know I’m irrational, but that’s just how it feels right now.”
“Zoe, you always joke about my t-shirts in front of your friends. The story in my head is that you don’t think I’m attractive anymore, and I feel so embarrassed every time you do that.”
These moments of vulnerability give your partner the opportunity to connect with you, and to recognise how they impact on you. It takes out the assumptions and projections and makes room for each of you to love each other better.
Partner together to work on the relationship
When we get stuck with each other, we tend to become defensive. Your partner becomes the enemy, and it sets up the relationship in a win : lose dynamic. This is an impossible situation, for to win an argument, you usually have to sacrifice the relationship.
When you notice you’re getting trapped in this battle, it’s useful to take a step back. Call a time-out, and regroup – remind yourself and your partner that you are on the same team. Ask yourselves: “How can we see our argument as something that is part of the relationship, and work together to repair the relationship?”
“Gustav, I feel like we are just fighting now. You think we should go out more, and I feel like we never get enough alone time. Can we talk about ‘going out’ and ‘alone time’ as aspects of the relationship? Can we rather partner and see how each of these affect our relationship, and work together build a connected, loving, healthy relationship?”
“I don’t think this argument is helping either of us, Jane. In my opinion, Saturday was a great time, but you feel like I behaved like a dog. Can we partner and look at how Saturday affected our relationship, and work on that instead?”
It’s a slight shift in the language, but it can powerfully change your interactions from defensive and attacking, to collaborative and solution-oriented. It deflates a little of the emotion, as you look at the relationship, and how each of you are adding to, or taking from the relationship. It also helps you see how you negatively or positively impact on the relationship, and makes both parties responsible to make it work, instead of the ‘loser of the argument’ having to assume full responsibility.
Contrary to near every Hollywood depiction, it takes skill, intention and structure to nurture a healthy relationship. Give these tools a try, and let me know how you find it.
Additional relationship support
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