“Love guards the heart from the abyss.”
– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
I’ve had the privilege in my 25 years as a couples counselor of working with hundreds of couples. They’ve been old and young, straight and gay, and of various socioeconomic and religious backgrounds.
As I have worked with them to heal and strengthen their relationships — and sometimes to help them part ways in the most humane fashion possible — these couples have taught me priceless lessons about what makes for great relationships.
Here are 10 of the most valuable lessons I have learned:
1) The Biggest Thing Missing in Many Relationships Is Listening
We all need to be heard. Sometimes we feel uncertain or confused, need to vent or complain, or want to express fear or longings. Letting your partner speak and feel heard can do wonders. When listening, give your partner the gift of your attention and focus.
When your partner is speaking, don’t interrupt, refute, roll your eyes, or play devil’s advocate. Instead, encourage with an open gaze, nod, or use phrases such as “I understand” or “Tell me more.” Ask open-ended, deepening questions, like “What part of your day did you like the best?” or “How did that experience affect you?”
2) All Relationships Need Three Things: Love, Trust and Mutual Respect
Build love by expressing it. You can never say “I love you” too often.
Build trust by delivering what you promise, or don’t make the promise.
Build respect by finding the good in your partner and savoring it.
Don’t: Fight with or put your partner down in public.
Do: Compliment and support your partner in public.
3) Blaming and Defensiveness Are Enemies of Your Relationship
You are a team. Your partner is not the enemy. Blame is a dead end. When we are hurt, disappointed, afraid or frustrated we often look for something or someone to blame. But blame is different than responsibility. You are responsible for your actions. You cannot make your partner take responsibility; they must do it for themselves. Both partners contribute to relationship challenges just as both contribute to what’s good about the relationship.
Don’t: Call names or assign fault.
Do: Start sentences on sensitive topics with “I” (which connotes ownership) not “You” (which can connote blame).
4) Healthy Relationships Are 60-60, Not 50-50
Scorekeeping and tit-for-tat arguments are corrosive to relationships. Relationships are not always equally balanced. Sometimes you give more, sometimes you get more. If you fixate on the scorecard you are likely to be less generous and more suspicious.
This doesn’t mean you should accept a one-way relationship. But love is generous, not stingy. Love does not keep score. Love is not concerned with payback. Let yourself give more than half of what it takes. Take more than half the responsibility. Compromise more than half the time. Stop worrying about things being equal.
Ask yourself: Am I willing to give more to my partner if it will bring harmony, contentment and love? Am I willing to give more than I take? This doesn’t mean you always have to, but being willing works wonders.
“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”
5) Apologies Are Good Medicine
Hurting your partner, even unintentionally, is eventually going to happen. That’s why apologies are essential in healthy relationships. They can allow tender wounds to heal. People differ in terms of what makes apologies most meaningful. For some it is expressing remorse, offering to make amends or simply saying the words “I am sorry.” This online test may help you identify what kind of apology is most meaningful to you and your partner.
6) Don’t Use Date Nights to Discuss Relationship Problems
Date nights are for having fun and and building intimacy. Make a separate time to discuss problems. How far would your relationship have progressed if on every one of your first five dates you talked about what wasn’t working between you?
7) Be Affectionate
Hugging and kissing are gifts. While there is a wide range of how much people express physical affection, more couples get too little rather than too much physical affection.
Physical affection bonds you with your partner, heals wounds and makes the body and heart healthier. Want proof? See this thermal imaging video of what happens in your body when you hug or kiss your partner.
8) Do at Least One of These Every Day
Hold hands. Laugh. Make your partner laugh. Give unexpected gifts and compliments. Say “please” and “thank you.” Express gratitude for your partner and the relationship.
9) Say “I’m Done” or “I Want a Divorce” a Maximum of One Time in Your Relationship
These phrases are nuclear options that put a relationship into question. When a relationship is in question, couples’ ability to work out problems and communicate declines and anxiety skyrockets. If threatening to end a relationship is not meant literally but said out of frustration, this reduces trust and safety.
Instead, say what you are feeling, such as hurt, angry, afraid, lonely or neglected, rather than putting the relationship on a cliff.
10) Remember: Your Partner Is More Rare Than One in a Million
Don’t take your partner for granted. You picked him or her out of seven billion people. Intimate relationships are sacred. If you look, you may find spirit, god, the meaning of life — or even yourself — from gazing into the eyes of your partner.
This is the first part of a two-part series on secrets of a great relationship. You can read Part Two here.