Healthy relationships are built by cultivating trust. But, what does that mean? In her recent talk, “The Anatomy of Trust,” Dr. Brené Brown shares key components that are the hallmarks of trusting relationships with others and with yourself.
In her talk, Brené shares Charles Feltman’s “most beautiful definition of trust:”
“Trust is choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.”
Brené continues: “Feltman says the opposite is the essence of distrust: “What I’ve shared with you, that is important to me, is not safe with you.”
Basically, “When we trust, we are braving connection with someone. So what is trust?” Brené gives us the acronym BRAVING, which forms the anatomy of trust:
(“THERE IS NOT TRUST WITHOUT BOUNDARIES.”)
(“I CAN ONLY TRUST YOU IF YOU DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU’LL DO” AGAIN AND AGAIN.)
(“I CAN ONLY TRUST YOU IF WHEN YOU MAKE A MISTAKE, YOU’RE WILLING TO OWN IT, APOLOGIZE FOR IT AND MAKE AMENDS. I CAN ONLY TRUST YOU IF WHEN I MAKE A MISTAKE, I AM ALLOWED TO OWN IT, APOLOGIZE AND MAKE AMENDS.”)
(KEEPING A CONFIDENCE)
(BROWN’S DEFINITION OF INTEGRITY: “CHOOSING COURAGE OVER COMFORT, CHOOSING WHAT’S RIGHT OVER WHAT’S FUN, FAST OR EASY, AND PRACTICING YOUR VALUES NOT JUST PROFESSING YOUR VALUES.”)
(YOU AND I BOTH CAN STRUGGLE AND ASK FOR HELP)
(“OUR RELATIONSHIP IS ONLY A TRUSTING RELATIONSHIP IF YOU CAN ASSUME THE MOST GENEROUS THING ABOUT MY WORDS, INTENTIONS AND BEHAVIORS. AND THEN CHECK IN WITH ME.”)
I am excited to do something a little different this week. Kim Fredrickson, counselor and author of the book, Give Yourself a Break: Turning Your Inner Critic into a Compassionate Friend, graciously contributed a guest post as part of the conversation going on in the Kindness Community, A Word Imagined. Her message is both inspirational and healing for me personally and to many throughout the world. Thank you, Kim, for blessing us with your generous contribution:
Healing Power of Kindness
I’m so blessed to offer words of compassion and kindness today. Our world desperately needs the healing power of kindness. We need kindness when we are hurt, and we need kindness when we are the ones doing the hurting.
But how do we muster kindness for others from within? How do we speak words of compassion to others when our own inner critic speaks so loudly about our own mistakes and faults? That is the question…
The well of kindness we want to give others starts with a more compassionate relationship with ourselves.
A Compassionate Friend
Being a compassionate friend to ourselves helps us become better friends, spouses, parents, bosses and co-workers. We have more love and energy to give others when we are in a more settled place inside and aren’t wasting time and energy fighting with our inner critic.
But wait! Isn’t this just being selfish and self-centered? The answer is a resounding “No.” Jesus knew we’d have trouble figuring this out, so He explained it here:
Mark 12:28–31 says: One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest and He gave them two commandments encompassed by one principle: Love.
Love God with everything in you. Love your neighbor, and use your model for loving them as the way you love yourself.
Wait! What? Our model for loving others is how we love ourselves? Uh oh! Wait…I’m judgmental toward myself for lots of things! Exactly.
Wanting to be kind toward others is good, very good. We can even sustain this effort for a while if we try really hard.
A Changed Heart
We need God’s love to permeate our heart, mind and soul. We need His love and kindness to fill us in order to share with others. But, His love for us alone isn’t enough. That is what He’s talking about in Mark 12 – Love is a three-part deal…love God, love yourself and love others. Unless we also learn to love ourselves and be compassionate with ourselves, our inner critic will sabotage our heartfelt efforts to be kind to others. The ways we are critical of ourselves will spill onto others. Without meaning to, we will judge others harshly for the things we’ve never forgiven ourselves for.
We cannot live a life of kindness, if we do not have kindness and compassion for ourselves. Until we face our own brokenness with compassion and forgiveness, we cannot truly love others in the ways we want for the long haul.
We want to be changed people, instruments of healing and love to this very broken world. We want to do this as a lifestyle, and pass it on to our children, friends, family and community for generations to come.
To live a life of kindness requires a changed heart.
Practicing self-compassion changes our heart. As I treat myself with the care and compassion I would give a good friend who is struggling, I have more love to give others.
Improve Well-being and Relationships
Many studies link the practice of self-compassion to an increase in emotional resiliency, self-worth and contentment; reduced stress and healthier relationships. We become better friends, spouses, parents, bosses, co-workers, etc. We handle disappointments more smoothly and understand our own humanness, which helps us handle the humanness of those around us.
Just as I am an imperfect person, with great worth and value, so are those around me. The internal transformation of accepting God’s love for us and then extending it to ourselves, sets the stage for the sharing of that love and kindness with others.
Don’t worry if you haven’t got a clue how to turn your inner critic into a compassionate friend. You can learn, and your heart, family, community and world will never be the same.
We can all share great ideas on how to build more positivity into our society. Join the conversation on our public Facebook group, A Word Imagined, to share ideas.
I have noticed there seems to be way too much advice about relationships. If you struggle in your relationship, the conflicting opinions can feel frustrating and overwhelming. John Gottman’s recent article, “Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships,” is a helpful resource in sorting through advice that is actually helpful from the advice that causes harm. Over the past 30 years, John Gottman has studied extensively the practices that actually makes relationships thrive.
“I’ve found many myths about relationships that are not only false but potentially destructive. They are dangerous because they can lead couples down the wrong path, or worse, convince them that their marriage is a hopeless case. The notion that you can save your relationship just by learning to communicate more sensitively is probably the most widely held misconception about happy marriages, but it’s hardly the only one.” (John Gottman, Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships)
Check out John Gottman’s article by clicking on this link: Debunking 12 Myths About Relationships
I often walk alongside couples struggling to understand what happened to the love they shared early on in their relationship. I find it comforting to know that all couples go through times of disorientation and that moving through this experience together can actually foster deeper love. Michael Fulfiler’s article “The 3 Phases of Love,” explains the transitions that promote growth in love relationships. The good news is that times of conflict and turbulence is a common experience for all couples:
What do you do if you love your partner, but you are no longer in love with your partner? Does the feeling of love transform or change over time? In his new book Principa Amoris: The New Science of Love, Dr. John Gottman explains that there are actually three natural phases of love. His research has shown that being in love is a very complex experience, and he has identified choice points in the life course when love may either progress to a deeper place, or deteriorate. (excerpt from The 3 Phases of Love)
For more, click on this link: The Three Phases of Love
If the title of this blog resonates with you, know that you are not alone. Many couples are currently navigating how to adapt to new technologies in a way that balances with their relationships. I have personally pondered this issue for a long time in my own experience with my husband. Our relationship began long before the advent of emails and texting. Like most couples in America, we acquired our first smartphones several years ago. We were thrilled at the ease of instant availability and connection. Then, our relationship subtly began to change. Often after a long day at work, we found ourselves mindlessly checking texts, playing a game, or messing with Facebook. We started to notice moments of irritation and even sadness seeping into our time together. What was happening? There was nothing wrong with playing a harmless game or checking work emails, so why did we find ourselves feeling frustrated with each other?
Around that time, I listened to a podcast where Sherry Turkle described the new challenges devices bring into the interactional patterns between partners, as well as parents and children. My husband and I began to take notice of the subtle impact our phones had on our interactions. We were not as attentive to each other, a little distracted, during down times and unstructured moments. We decided to experiment with ways to balance our technologies within our relationship in a way that protected the closeness we desired.
What are interactional patterns in relationships?
An interactional pattern happens when we make “bids” for connection, and those bids are either received or missed by our partners. A successful interaction happens when partners are emotionally responsive to each other’s bids. These unsuccessful interactions, these “missed bids,” begin to create little nagging insecurities and uncertainties about the relationship that can build over time.
What is a bid?
“Bids” are the active ingredient in a relationship. Gottman shows how people make bids in the fine grain of everyday life, often without knowing they are doing it: “Did you hear about…,” or “You’ll never guess what my sister told me today.” Much is happening all the time in the form of these signals that partners are often unaware they are sending. These signals—these bids—are nonverbal as well as verbal: a wink, a smile, a shoulder rub, a gentle shove, or a mutual look of understanding about a friend’s quirks. What matters, Gottman suggests, is not depth of intimacy in conversation, or even agreement or disagreement, but rather how people pay attention to each other no matter what they talk about or do. What matters is the quality of attention.” (Dan Wile, 2010)
What is emotional responsiveness and why is it important?
According to Sue Johnson, the key indicator of a secure bond is the presence of emotional responsiveness. In essence, emotional responsiveness is the ability to respond to our partner’s bids for connection. We need to know that our significant other is available and willing to be there when we need them. A useful tool to understand emotional responsiveness is the acronym A.R.E:
Accessibility – Can I reach you? Are you there for me?
Responsiveness – Can I rely on you to respond to me?
Engagement – Do I matter to you? (Johnson, 2008)
The fabric of our relationship is built on a consistent flow of checking in, often in tiny unstructured moments. Is my partner accessible? Can I count on him/her to be there when I need them? Do I matter? Our devices can impede the interactional flow between bids for connection and emotional responsiveness. We miss the subtle shifts in tone and nonverbal facial gestures that offer vital information. Relational interactions get out of sync when bids for connection are missed. Over time partners experience missed bids for connection as indifference and may stop bidding altogether. Multitasking connection can lead to disaster. Relationships thrive on full presence.
Smartphones are not going anywhere, and they serve many important functions in current life. However, I am reassured that my husband and I are not alone in navigating this new relationship with technology. Over the past couple of years, research has validated the potential problems that phone use can create with our emotional responsiveness to the people we love.
The most recent issue of Psychology Today explored some of the current challenges couples and families are facing in relationship with their technological devices; technoference, Iphone Effect, Absent Presence:
- Technoference (term coined by Sarah Coyne) – 70% of couples report that face-to-face conversations were stopped in their tracks by partner’s phone use or even active texting.
- IPhone Effect (term coined by Shalina Misra): The mere presence of a smartphone degrades private conversations making partners less willing to disclose their deep feelings and develop understanding.
- Absent Presence (term coined by Kenneth Gergen): smartphones fragment human consciousness and lower quality of conversation. The diminished empathy comes about through our habitual use of devises. Communication becomes marked by delayed responses and lack of eye contact. The rhythms of responsiveness and synchronicity of feelings degrades. What comes across is indifference. (Psychology Today)
How can I create balance between my relationships and my devices?
Smartphones may pull our attention, but we can implement changes that create the balance and closeness we desire. In my own relationship, we have found that it is essential to maintain awareness between the use of our phones and our ability to be available to each other. We continue to negotiate changes as needed any time we notice we are out of sync in our relationship or with our children.
I have also taken some time to talk with friends and family about their own challenges with balancing their relationships and technologies. I have learned some terrific ideas of things to try:
- Implement “cell free” zones at family meal times, running errands, and coffee time. My husband and I love our “cell free” coffee time every morning. We start off the day connected and in sync.
- Tech Sabbath (http://www.onbeing.org/program/tiffany-shlain-growing-up-the-internet/8545) – Take a day off each week from checking emails. Enjoy cooking together, folding laundry with the kids, running to soccer games, etc.
- Vacation responder – Set vacation responder while on vacation to protect the time with your partner/family.
- Airplane mode – A friend of mine who is a medical doctor set her phone on airplane mode during her family vacation. She was able to turn work off and soak in her time with her husband and children. When she turned her phone back on, she was inundated with texts and emails. But, she said it was worth it to be free of distractions and feel connected again with her family.
- One of my friends told me that he exchanged his smartphone for a flip phone for a couple of years. After time at work all day on a computer he wanted to create a break from emails and Facebook at home. He found that his time away from a smartphone now helps him use it when he needs it and set it aside more easily.
A great way to experiment and implement changes is to talk openly with the people you love. Psychology Today has a helpful list of discussion points to get you started on creating balance in a way that best fits your relationship:
- What are your expectations about tech use by your partner and by you?
- Exactly what kind of contact does each partner regard as cheating?
- What is appropriate to disclose about the relationship; about your spouse?
- Do you exchange passwords or not?
- Do you tell your partner whom you are texting?
- When is it okay to be anonymous online?
- What, if any, places in the home are off-limits to electronic devices?
- What are some potential times to set tech free zones?
- What are the rules for the car?
- When is it okay to post photos of your children?
- How much checking on each other is okay?
Some people, friends or coworkers, might not understand why you would turn your phone off or set aside times to be unavailable. That is okay. You are setting a protective boundary around those little moments of emotional connection with the people most precious to you. Remember you are not alone. These technologies are new and all of us are navigating how to adapt in a way that balances our relationships with the precious people in our lives.
I recently had the honor of facilitating a class about healthy relationship practices. During one discussion about the importance of anger as an emotion, we examined how anger in relationships can be detrimental if we are not gentle with those we love. Anger is neither good nor bad. In fact, it is an essential emotion for our health and safety, and part of a healthy human experience. Anger can alert us to unjust treatment, and gives us needed energy to address harmful behavior.
“Negative emotions most likely aid in our survival. Bad feelings can be vital clues that a health issue, relationship or other important matter needs attention. The survival value of negative thoughts and emotions may help explain why suppressing them is so fruitless. Even if you successfully avoid contemplating a topic, your subconscious may still dwell on it.” (Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being, Scientific American, 5/1/13)
But anger is not a thinking emotion. Our ability to think clearly is diminished when we are angry. The front part of our brain goes dim. In the midst of conflict we can say and do things we later regret. We can protect our relationship when we first cool down and then seek to understand each another.
Seek to Understand
The goal of conflict in a relationship is to understand each other. The relationship loses when someone has to win. During times of conflict, relationships can actually grow and become stronger when our conversation focuses on understanding and care. If you argue well, it is even possible to feel closer. Unfortunately, people are often more focused on “winning” than understanding. This often occurs when the intensity of the anger becomes greater than the desire to seek meaningful solutions. With this in mind, we need to develop strategies to decrease the intensity of the anger and increase our ability to listen to one another.
Learn to Cool Off
Learning to control your emotions rather than allowing your emotions to control you is an important skill to develop. Instead of allowing your anger to build up until you “explode,” it is more productive to disengage until you are able to think clearly and feel at the same time.
Once both people in an argument have “cooled off,” it is easier to re-engage and reach resolution. Unfortunately, many people want to “finish” the argument immediately, rather than allowing “time-outs” to occur. Frequently, this results in one person pursuing and the other person running away until they feel cornered. When this occurs, the argument often becomes destructive. Remember, in a relationship, you do not have to resolve everything “right now.” It is appropriate to cool off and re-engage when the anger has subsided.
Boundaries that Protect
Creating safety is essential for a relationship to thrive. The behaviors listed below are destructive and will harm the relationship. When we draw the line at these behaviors, we create a foundation that protects and respects the relationship.
- No hitting
- No cursing
- No name-calling
- No yelling
- No throwing
- Stay focused on one issue at a time
Commit to Resolving Issues
It is important to remember that calling a “time-out” does not mean that you never have to talk about the issue again. A designated time needs to be established to re-engage in the discussion. If you do not create a time to return to the discussion, the anger tends to re-emerge in later arguments. “Time-outs” only work if both people are committed to continuing the discussion until true understanding is reached.
A number of communication tools are available to help couples communicate with understanding and care. One of my favorite tools is L-O-V-E Conversations. If you are unable to work through issues without anger dominating your relationship, couples therapy can provide support, as well as healthy alternatives to address conflict.
In the following video, Bruce Muzik uses the metaphor of a game of tennis to illustrate healthy communication skills. His video is informative, witty, and fun to watch. Many of the couples I work with in my therapy practice have found this useful in their efforts to improve their communication skills.
Many of us want “happily ever after” relationships. How can we cultivate relationships that stand the test of time? Many marriage vows are based on commitment to the marriage that includes phrases such as “til death do us part,” and “in sickness and health.” Before marriage we often assume that we all know what “commitment” means. Oftentimes, however many people differ in their opinions about what it means to be “committed” in a relationship. Unless we talk openly about our assumptions, as well as the possible pitfalls that hinder a committed relationship, we can set ourselves up for disappointment.
First, it is important in any relationship to begin by building a healthy foundation that includes protective walls around the relationship. Actively work to build trust, emotional connection, and intimacy with one another. A healthy marriage does not come naturally. It takes investment. A number of resources are available like books, videos, retreats, classes, couple’s counseling, and marriage seminars that offer great tools to cultivate love and also increase awareness of behaviors that damage trust and intimacy.
Second, talk openly about how to protect the walls around the relationship. What are some “red flags” that can alert each partner that the marriage is in need of attention? Talk about how to approach one another when feeling disconnected or taken for granted. If we receive emotional support from someone outside the marriage other than our spouse, cracks begin to form in our walls and weaken the relationship. If it is difficult to approach one another, seek professional help to work through challenges or obstacles together.
Third, talk openly about the potential of temptation outside the marriage. Just because we are committed does not mean that we will not find someone else attractive. This is perfectly normal. How can we protect our relationship when we find someone else attractive, or when someone makes advances on us? Shirley Glass, author of “Not Just Friends,” offers a brief list of suggestions to consider:
- Know that attraction is normal. But just because you feel it doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Being attracted to someone else doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the wrong person. One of the measures of true commitment is that you don’t allow yourself to be pulled away from your priorities by distractions.
- Don’t let yourself fantasize about what it would be like to be with that other person.
- Don’t flirt.
- Avoid risky situations. (Glass, 2004)
Above all, keep communication inside the walls of marriage. If outside support is needed, make it a rule to confide only in someone that puts the marriage first.
In her book, “Not Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity,” Shirley Glass has several quizes that offer warning signs that a partner may be on the slippery slope to an affair. The book also offers great insights on how to build healthy walls around the relationship and close cracks or openings that appear.
Quiz: Is Your On-line Friendship Too Friendly?
What are the warning signs that you (or your partner) are on the slippery slope to an on-line affair? Take this quiz and see:
- Do you find yourself coming to bed later at night because you are chatting on-line?
- Do you ever exit a screen because you do not want a family member to see what you are reading or writing to a chat room member?
- Have you ever lied to your spouse about your personal Internet activities?
- Would you feel uncomfortable sharing your Internet correspondence with your spouse?
- Have you ever set up a separate e-mail account or credit cared to carry on personal correspondence with an individual on-line?
- Has your Internet correspondence had a negative effect on your work or household tasks?
- Have you ever lied in response to a question from your spouse about your e-mail correspondence?
- Have you ever exchanged photos of yourself with a secret e-mail correspondent?
- Since beginning a secret e-mail correspondence, have you ever experienced a loss or an unusual increase in sexual desire with your spouse?
- Have you made arrangements to talk secretly on the phone with your e-mail correspondent?
- Have you made arrangements to meet with your secret e-mail correspondent?
Two or more yes answers to questions 1,2,3,4 indicate a potential Internet romance developing. It is time to either share your on-line correspondence with your mate or break off the correspondence and begin to examine how to improve your marriage.
A yes answer to any of questions 5,6,7 indicates you are crossing a boundary from an Internet friendship to an Internet romance. Acknowledge this relationship for what it is about to become and take action to preserve and enhance your marriage.
A yes to questions 8 or 9 indicates you have begun a fantasy romantic relationship with your on-line correspondent. Even if it never moves to a physical stage, this relationship has great potential to damage or destroy your marriage.
A yes to questions 10 or 11 indicates that you have taken positive action toward initiating an extramarital affair. Consider the impact this will have on the marriage and your children and take steps to sort this out with a professional. (Glass, 2004)
A “happily ever after” relationship goes through a number of ups and downs. It takes investment, a willingness to be open, and a good amount of courage. Healthy walls take work and need to be maintained daily in order to grow a life-long relationship.
In his recent article, “The Difference Between Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication,” Guy Harris discusses the impact communication has on the health of relationships. He offers helpful insights into the difference between passive, aggressive, and assertive styles of communication and to create healthier conversations.
“Communication breakdowns are a common cause for conflict, and poor communication strategies can lead to rapid escalation. Likewise, effective communication strategies can help you correct these miscommunications to move conflicts quickly towards resolution.
One idea that can help you choose the best communication strategy for the situation comes from what I call the communication continuum.” (Guy Harris, The Difference Between Passive, Aggressive, and Assertive Communication) Read more….
“Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” Melody Beattie
I have so many reasons to be thankful:
- My husband and I sipped coffee together before we started our day.
- I enjoyed a long walk by myself at Memorial Park.
- Our teenagers have found their groove at school and are enjoying soccer pre-season.
- I am currently savoring a bite of dark chocolate as I type.
In 2012, I decided to incorporate an intentional habit that did not depend upon my mood or daily circumstances. I started a gratitude project and began experiencing the powerful benefits of an active practice. My husband and I have both been amazed at the positive impact a gratitude habit has had on our marriage and other relationships over the past three years.
I can tell you from personal experience that gratitude will change your life. The following list, compiled from a growing body of research, describes the powerful impact an active gratitude practice can have on your health and relationships.
Seven Ways Gratitude Will Change Your Life
- Gratitude boosts health and wellness: “ “Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, and regular physical examinations. Grateful people also tend to be more optimistic… studies link optimism to better immune function.” (Elizabeth Heubeck, Boost Your Health With a Dose of Gratitude)
- Gratitude protects against depression: “Gratitude supports the neurochemistry of well-being, and protects against depression. It builds resilience, so we get less rattled by events and bounce back faster. And gratitude turns us toward others as we appreciate the people we care about.” (Rick Hanson, What Are the Health Benefits to Thankfulness?)
- Gratitude increases happiness: “In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” (Harvard Health Publications)
- Gratitude can help you through hard times: “Expressing gratefulness during personal adversity like loss or chronic illness – as hard as that might be – can help you adjust, move on, and perhaps begin anew. Although it may be challenging to celebrate your blessings at moments when they seem least apparent to you, it may be the most important thing that you can do.” (Sonjia Lyubomirsky, Eight Ways Gratitude Boosts Happiness)
- Gratitude increases satisfaction and longevity of relationships: “It starts within our own self. When we consciously foster feelings of appreciation for our loved ones—whether by doing a gratitude mediation about them every morning or by deliberately focusing on specific things we love about them—our relationship improves.” (Cristine Carter, A Surprisingly Simple Way to Feel Madly in Love)
- Gratitude increases satisfaction of parenting: “I am happy and proud to say that my relationship with my teenager is better than ever! Now he seeks me out to tell with me stories and jokes. He listens to me intently when I give him guidance. I can’t tell you how much this simple practice has changed our relationship. In retrospect, while teaching my family about this principal it also affected me positively. I noticed how my attitude towards him changed and softened because I started seeing him through a gratitude lens.” (Debbie Lyn Toomey, Gratitude Tip for Positive Parenting)
- Gratitude increases self worth: “Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. I think that’s because when you’re grateful, you have the sense that someone else is looking out for you—someone else has provided for your well-being, or you notice a network of relationships, past and present, of people who are responsible for helping you get to where you are right now.” (Robert Emmons, Why Gratitude Is Good)
Create Your Own Gratitude Practice
- Start a gratitude journal. Write down three items each day that make you grateful.
- Share gratitude at the dinner table. My family shares “Highs and Lows” every night during our evening meal to stay connected through the week. If not with your family members, pick a friend and share a high point and low point each day.
- Say “Thank You” often: Look for ways to express gratitude to those who cross your path every day. Express thanks at the grocery story, gym, at home, or just about anywhere.
“If one wishes to know love, one must live love, in action.” – Leo Buscaglia
At the dinner table this week, my family had a conversation about satisfying relationships. My teenage daughter wanted to know some things that my husband and I do to help us to keep our love on track. In the moment, I was pretty excited that she was interested in learning from us. As a parent, it is very cool and sometimes rare when teenagers perk up and listen.
So we jumped in and shared an idea: Relationships take daily attention and work from both parties. Not exactly the most romantic notion. But, what kind of work?
I often use a garden analogy when I work with couples. But when I started off with this metaphor, my daughter laughed because she knows that I kill plants. She gave her dad a worried look.
Since our conversation, I read Kate Walker’s recent article, “Make it to Your 50th Wedding Anniversary… Together!” She takes the illustration way beyond gardening:
“To help partners understand this particular kind of work, I ask them to picture a relationship with a plant, a goldfish, a dog, and a human. Plant relationships only need your attention a couple of days a week (and if that’s too much you buy a cactus). Goldfish relationships require a bit more work because you must feed it a couple of times a week and clean the bowl. Dog relationships are more intense because they require daily work: food, training, and entertaining. If you decide to marry (or create) a human relationship, this person is going to need time, attention, physical touch, and words of affirmation every day. This doesn’t make them ‘needy,’ this makes them normal. If that feels like too much work, get a goldfish instead.”
How Do I Work on My Relationship?
In my last blog post, I talked about four ways to build trust in your relationship:
- Learn to listen
- Practice gratitude
- Turn toward each other
- Create boundaries around the relationship
The following practices explore four more ways you can grow love in your relationship:
- Daily Commitment: With Kate Walker’s dog analogy in mind, one important aspect of loving relationships is consistency. The work you put into your relationship should not be based on how you feel at any given moment. If you have a pet, you care for your pet daily, regardless of your own illness, fatigue, stress, or boredom. Likewise, you and your partner need daily reminders that you matter. We all go through challenging times and sometimes do not feel like working on the relationship. But daily commitment is essential for health. We need to keep showing up for each other. As the years pass, moment-by-moment, trial and error, good times and bad, this is how we grow love.
- Limit Criticism. Many of us have a couple of things that irritate us about our partner. Seriously, if you are a human being, you will irritate your partner at some point! But a focus on the negative erodes the health of the relationship. Marriage researcher, John Gottman, found that satisfying relationships have five times as many positive interactions as negative interactions. When something needs to be addressed, make sure your partner knows you care about them first and make every effort to let your partner know the ways they matter.
- Have Fun: Find things to do together that make you both happy. We hear this all the time, but we are often just too busy to get away. I get it. Through the years, my husband and I have found it difficult to break away for date nights or quick weekend getaways. But time together is essential to stay connected. The most challenging time for marriages is the time directly following the exit or launching of the last child. Careers and children often take center stage and life can become too serious. It is common for couples to wake up after the kids leave home and realize, “We really do not know each other any more.” Make time to have fun together and stay connected. To inspire your next date night, check out these “Fun Dating Ideas.“
- Seek Help: Do not be afraid to ask for help when you get stuck. Life transitions, such as navigating in-laws, childrearing, geographic moves, etc., are normal and disruptive to any relationship. When you find yourself stuck, marriage seminars can provide a beneficial marriage tune-up. For more challenging issues, a couples counselor is an excellent source of professional support and safety that allows couples to explore and heal wounds in their relationship. A word of caution: be careful whom you choose to confide in. If you receive emotional support from someone outside you relationship make sure the person is a “friend of the marriage.” If you confide in someone who does not support your relationship, you risk building an emotional attachment that threatens the bond between you and your partner.
I am so glad my husband and I had an opportunity to share some of our experience with our daughter. The most important thing I hope she learns is that she does not have to do relationships perfectly. She just needs a commitment to start over and over again every day. There is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Satisfying relationships are a learning process. When things get challenging… and they will… keep trying. Compassion for yourself and your spouse goes a long way.