If you follow popular news stories about the celebrities in our midst, it is easy to conclude that relationships are destined for failure. Everyone from youthful pop singers to royals, to our beloved movie stars and super-elite athletes, (and let’s not leave out politicians), wear out relationships at the same rate they wear out their running shoes. With an almost fifty percent dissolution rate in modern marriages, many of us have tasted failure first hand or have gone through the devastation of relationship breakdown with a close friend or family member. Relationships are getting a bad wrap. So how do we stay optimistic? The simple answer is: take care of what you have!
Although it isn’t true of everyone, most people prefer to be in “a relationship” than to be on their own. The parameters of “relationship” vary greatly in terms of sexual orientation, ages of partners, roles and expectations with respect to child-rearing, income, distribution of work, connection with extended family and so on, but there are some basic features that enduring relationships have in common.
A great deal has been written about the characteristics of relationships that “go the distance” but most authors agree that trust, integrity, respect and a willingness to adapt or change expectations are at the core of relationships that last. Of course, these characteristics are generally indicative of friendship which is why the well-known writer and researcher John Gottman states that friendship is at the base of every successful relationship. (Gottman, 1999).
In his book “The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work (Crown, 1999), Gottman suggests that the best way to achieve a resilient relationship is to increase positive interactions. The result is the creation of a resource bank of good will and positive regard ideally suited for sustaining the relationship in good times as well as bad. His seven principles of increased positive interaction include the following:
1. It is important to know one another. This involves paying attention to likes, dislikes, dreams, wishes, hurts and hopes.
2. Focus on one another’s positive qualities. If your partner is kind, or generous, remind yourself of this often. Develop the habit of “replaying “the good times you have shared together.
3. Interact frequently throughout the day, via phone, text, email, an old fashioned note left on the counter. Be sure to share experiences, your thoughts, what has made you laugh or made you cry. This is the “stuff” of real emotional intimacy.
4. Be open to your partner’s influence, in other words, be ready to compromise and to share power in the relationship.
5. Solve your solvable problems” through respectful communication. This includes taking responsibility for your complaints or concerns by using “I” statements and avoiding blame.
6. “Overcome gridlock” through awareness of underlying feelings which might be overwhelming one or both of you and preventing resolution.
7. “Create shared meaning.” Relationships thrive on shared values, attitudes, interests, and traditions. Taking time out to walk your favourite trail together or discussing an issue you both care about might be invaluable investments in your relationship.
Relationships survive and even thrive because people are remarkably good at adaptation and change. Some theorists believe that opposites attract, in other words, we seek out in our mate that which is under-developed or latent in ourselves. For example, a shy, retiring individual might be drawn to a person who maintains a high level of social engagement because of the energy and excitement they bring. The socially outgoing person may be drawn to the shy person because of their calm.
This attraction of opposites might start out as a great resource in the relationship. However, if the individuals involved do not grow into the challenge of developing those opposite characteristics in themselves, the differences might become a source of resentment or stress.
Relationships suffer when we hold our partners responsible for our satisfaction and fulfillment in life. It is very possible to grow individually within relationship, and in the best possible case, such individual development deepens and strengthens relationship. So if what you love in your partner is that he or she is able to knock off work and relax with friends on the golf course, don’t resent him or her for it. Perhaps you need to do more of that yourself.
If you need something to change, ask. Most people don’t read minds. Assume that your partner is on your side and that they have good intentions. If that assumption changes fundamentally, you should assess whether or not your partner is really your friend.
Relationships, not unlike organic living things, benefit from energy that is generated from within and energy that is generated from without. Take time to invest in the relationship by paying attention to it, being affectionate, being generous, caring and concerned. At the same time, invite a positive orientation to the world around you, and enjoy life together; family, friends, work, and fun.
Remember that relationships have a cyclical feature to them, which involves fluctuations in individual needs for closeness and separateness. This is a normal part of maintaining a strong and resilient attachment to another person over time. Be patient. If the basics are there, you have the makings of an enduring relationship. Just remember to water and feed as required!
Written by Val Mills-Milde, MSW, RSW