“We waste time looking for the perfect lover instead of creating the perfect love.”
In my 25 years as a couples counselor I’ve been privileged to work with hundreds of couples, old and young, straight and gay, and of various socioeconomic and religious backgrounds.
As I have worked with them to heal and strengthen relationships — and sometimes to help couples part ways in the most humane fashion possible — these couples have taught me priceless lessons about what makes for great relationships.
In Part One of this two-part blog I shared 10 of the most valuable lessons I have learned. Here are 10 more.
1) Stop Waiting
If you are waiting for your partner to go first — to make up after a fight, plan an adventure or let you know you are loved — stop waiting and take the first step yourself. I have seen couples wait each other out right into divorce court.
It doesn’t matter who goes first if it leads to greater connection. Reach out and speak from your heart. Vulnerability can melt barriers and end arguments.
2) There Are No “Wrong” Feelings
Feelings do not have to be justified. Neither you nor your partner choose your feelings, though you can choose what you do with them. If you or your partner feels sad, mad, afraid, joyful or anything else, none of those feelings are wrong. Feelings provide valuable information and can spark communication.
Feelings roll through us like dynamic weather patterns. All feelings, pleasant or unpleasant, will pass. Blocking or denying them puts you at odds with yourself or your partner and can make difficult feelings linger longer.
Don’t say: “You shouldn’t feel that way” or “That emotion makes no sense.”
Do say: “Tell me more” or “I appreciate you sharing your feelings with me.”
3) If You Find Yourself Stuck in Arguments about Little Things, Look Deeper
Repeated unresolved arguments often are about core relationship questions such as, Are you there for me? Do you love and accept me? Can I count on you? Is it safe to give you my heart? Can I trust you?
Whether your relationship is four weeks or four decades old, these fundamental questions are at the heart of intimate connection. Give voice to these questions and you have a conversation that can transform you and your relationship.
4) Ask, Don’t Tell
Don’t expect mind-reading. This is a hard one for some of us but as much as you might wish that your partner can read your mind or that you could know theirs, it is not possible. Don’t tell your partner what he or she is thinking or feeling. If you wonder what your partner is thinking, ask. If you want your partner to know something, say it.
5) Words Matter
Every harsh or thoughtless word strikes your partner’s heart. In truth, it also hurts your heart to speak unkindly to someone you love.
By the same token, every kind or appreciative word warms and heals both your hearts. As my mother used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Generally underneath harsh words is a fear or hurt of your own. Voice that, don’t act it out. Vulnerability is the golden ticket in intimate relationships.
6) Have High Hopes, High Standards, and Low Expectations
Your partner is not perfect. You’re not either. You married a person, not a fantasy. Optimism and high standards are wonderful. Unrealistic expectations are a prescription for disappointment.
7) Conflict Is Not Bad
Over the course of a relationship you will disagree on things. Accept that some of these disagreements will never be resolved. When you don’t see eye to eye, compromise, adjust or simply let it go. Agree to disagree. Nearly all couples, even happy couples, have conflicts. Avoiding all conflict can stifle love and intimacy.
“Every couple needs to argue now and then. Just to prove that the relationship is strong enough to survive.” – Nicholas Sparks
8) Don’t Say “Always” or “Never” Unless You Want an Argument
If you hear the words “always” or “never,” take it as an indication that your partner feels strongly about what they are saying, not that the “always” or “never” statement is factually correct.
Don’t say: “That’s not true, I did that just yesterday so you can’t say never.”
Do say: “It sounds like you feel very strongly about this. I want to understand your feelings and try to make things better. Can you tell me more?”
9) Make Time for Sex
Partners can have a wide range of desires and libido but research shows a multitude of benefits from regular sex in a relationship. Couples that have sex at least once a week report viewing their partner and/or the relationship more positively than couples that have sex less than once a week. These benefits are even higher when sex includes the feeling of affection and being cherished.
Sex also offers a host of health benefits including lower blood pressure, lower incidence of prostate cancer for men, better bladder control for women, better sleep and heart health for both. Though many of us live busy lives, think of all the things you make time for daily or weekly. For greater relationship satisfaction, make sex one of them.
Don’t: Use sex as a weapon or reward.
Do: Be open to being sexual even if you don’t feel it at the moment.
10) There is No Autopilot for a Good Relationship
Your intimate relationship is a living, sacred entity, jointly created. Like building a career or raising a child, relationships take attention, prioritizing, compromise and love.
In healthy relationships you may need to do things that you don’t feel like doing for the good of the relationship or your partner. Protect, nurture, and grow your relationship and it can protect, nurture and grow you.
Don’t: Take your partner or your relationship for granted.
Do: Spend time together. Find ways to regularly inject spontaneity and novelty.
This is the second of a two-part series on secrets of a great relationship. You can read Part One here.
Copyright © Dan Neuharth PhD MFT