Our relationships determine our quality of life and how healthy they are is directly linked to how healthy we are, both physically and mentally. A healthy relationship shouldn’t be hard work, but it will need some work if we are going to get the most out of it. So, in this blog post I am going to share with you the 6 keys to a healthy relationship.
Key No. 1 – Understanding
Not just any old understanding however, Empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It might seem an obvious one, that being able to empathise with your partner will improve your ability to meet each other’s needs and the health of your relationship, however, obvious, maybe, easy, not at all. We are all very internally focused, it is a survival strategy, spend too long focusing on someone else and you might get eaten by a predator, or knocked down by a bus, depending on which version of humans you prefer to think about. This means that we use ourselves as a point of reference when we think about others, so you may think that you are thinking about your partner but in fact you are more likely to be thinking about what You would do if you were your partner. These two things are very different with the latter resulting in you giving your partner what you would like in any given situation. And the problem is that the closer someone is to us the more likely we are to use ourselves as a point of reference when thinking about them.
Knowing this is half the battle. Follow these steps for the other:
To meet your partner’s needs:
1. Identify your thoughts and feelings about the situation
2. Put these to one side
3. Observe how your partner is behaving and use this to work out how they are feeling i.e. what would someone have to be feeling to behave in that way?
4. Once you have identified how you think your partner is feeling work out what they might have been thinking in order for them to feels this way.
5. Use this information to work out your next move.
If it is possible to talk to your partner about this new approach to things it will cut out some of the guess work and clear the path to a healthy relationship.
Key No. 2 – Getting What you Need
In this section I am going to explain how to get what you need in your relationship, because when this happens harmony and satisfaction rules.
When doing couples counselling I often hear couples say ‘if my partner loves me shouldn’t they just know what I need?’. As I mentioned in the first article of this series, human beings are internally focused, so thinking about others does not come naturally. It is a skill that must be learned but even when this has been learned our default position is still to use ourselves as a point of reference, so as soon as we are under the slightest bit of pressure we will revert to this.
This means that even if your partner has built their skills up here, the most reliable and stress-free way of getting what you need from your partner is to just ask for it. In theory this sounds simple, maybe even too simple for it to work. However, it is surprising quite how effective this strategy is and how it leads to considerable harmony and contentment if both partners follow through with it.
There are 2 obstacles to success here, the first is working out what it is you actually need from your partner. This can be tangled up with unmet need from your previous relationships including those with your parents, so it is worth taking the time to think through whether what you need is reasonable to ask for in this relationship. The second obstacle is in the asking, it can be hard to ask for what we need, we might feel embarrassed to ask; it can feel very revealing to admit that we need something because of the risk of being judged. We also might believe that we don’t deserve what we need especially if we have low self esteem. We might feel anxious at the thought of exposing ourselves to potential rejection. There may also still be a niggling anger than if someone cares about us enough they should be able to read our minds and if they can’t this means they don’t actually care.
The proof however is always in the pudding so try it, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Key No. 3 – The Dance
Now I am going to look at our tendency to get stuck in repetitive communication patterns in our relationships.
In our relationships we often unknowingly, engage in repetitive patterns of interaction, a kind of communications set piece, or dance. These dances can be healthy leading to both partners getting their needs met, however, often we are drawn to recreate unhealthy interactions or dances from our past, simply because these are familiar and this feels safe, even if it does us no good.
Two of the most common patterns I see in my clinic are:
- Mark expects to be rejected, Sarah often copes with life by withdrawing. This behaviour confirms Mark’s expectation for rejection and leads him to repeatedly ask for reassurance that Sarah loves him. Sarah finds this behaviour overwhelming and withdraws further. This pattern continues, with neither Mark or Sarah feeling they are getting what they need from the relationship.
- Sue and Dave both have low self-esteem. Dave copes by believing he is never wrong, Sue by believing she is never right. This dance leads to Dave feeling superior but always slightly angry and dissatisfied and Sue feeling depressed. Neither Sue or Dave feel any joy or contentment in their relationship.
The best way of tackling your (unhealthy) dance is:
1. Accept that a relationship dance involves 2 equal partners, the dance only exists because both partners contribute.
2. Take responsibility for identifying your moves and encourage your partner to do the same.
3. Being able to identify your dance will, over time, enable you to step back from it, creating the space to do something different. This will happen far more quickly if both partners are involved in this process, however, even if one of you does something different, the interaction will change, because ultimately, no one wants to dance alone.
Key No. 4 – The Impact of the Past
Here I will explain how our past relationships can have a negative impact on our current ones.
People struggle to remain completely present in the current moment. This is because our ancestors were physically safer if they frequently reviewed past experiences to make predictions about future risks. As evolution is a slow process, we retain this tendency despite the fact that the risks modern people face are very different. This means that our current relationships and interactions are heavily influenced by our past relationships and interactions, especially those early ones with our parents.
This means that, particularly when interactions are intense, the door to similar interactions from the past is opened and these memories flood whatever is happening now, influencing how we think, feel and respond. Just knowing this enables us to step back a little, giving us the opportunity to do something different.
Another little trick to ensure your past relationships aren’t having a negative impact on your current ones is to use your emotional temperature as a warning flag. When it starts to rise, work out what past interactions you are being reminded of and how these are affecting what is happening right now. For example, are you hearing criticising where there is none? Are you anticipating a rejection when a rejection is unlikely? Are you interpreting your partner’s behaviour as a sign that they do not care when maybe it is a sign of something else entirely?
To begin with it may only be possible to make this kind of assessment after the event, but the more you practice this technique the easier it will become and then you can use it as a way of stopping heated discussions turning into full blown arguments.
Key No. 5 – How to Stop Arguing
In this next section I will share 6 tips to help you and your partner stop arguing.
No one agrees all the time, in fact, if a couple does it is usually a sign that one partner is dominating the other and only that person is getting their needs met. Disagreements are necessary if relationships are to grow, deepen and adapt to changing demands, however, to be productive, certain ‘rules’ need to be observed, otherwise disagreements quickly disintegrate into shouting matches.
Here are the ‘rules’:
1. Agree a mutually convenient time to talk
It is not always a good time to talk. If one of you is tired, distracted, busy or just not in the mood, any type of discussion is likely to deteriorate into an argument, even ones that start out as uncontroversial chats. So, if there is something bothering you, agree a good time to go through it e.g. ‘I have been feeling a bit wound up about something and I would really like to talk it through with you, when would be a good time to do this?’. If the answer comes back as ‘right now’, delay, so that you both have enough time to prepare, discussions that are planned and prepared go better than ones that are started impulsively and driven by emotions.
2. Don’t have a conversation if you are too emotional
It is very hard to talk about things that are important without getting emotional. However, feeling anything too strongly makes it hard to think clearly and thinking clearly is essential if a discussion is to be productive. So, agree before you start that if either of you begins to feel too angry, upset or anxious, or if you notice that in each other, you will take a time out and return to the discussion at another time. It is worth agreeing a ‘safe’ word or phrase that you use if you notice yours or your partner’s emotional temperature rising past a useful point. Time outs should last at least 1 hour and should be spent well away from each other to stop an argument being sparked.
3. Stay on topic
When you are talking about something that triggers strong emotions, it is difficult to stay on point and not be distracted by other perceived injustices and past unresolved issues. However, it is only possible to deal effectively with one thing at a time. So, to help you stay on point write a few key notes as a reminder to stick to them. If something else comes up you should agree another time to discuss it.
4. Take it in turn to speak
This is hard to do, but is vital if your discussion is not going to disintegrate into an argument. With strong emotions comes an urgency to express them. To make it easier to wait your turn have a pen and paper handy and jot down any burning comments, this will help you to contain them until it is your turn to speak.
5. Don’t try and resolve it all in one go
Measure your expectations about how much can be achieved in one ‘sit down’ and as soon as you notice that the discussion is going around in circles, take a break and come back to things later. Circular discussions tends to whip up emotions and the higher your emotional temperature, the more likely it is that things will boil over.
6. Record your conversation to make sure you are both sticking to the rules
Finally, record your conversations with your partner. This should not be used as a weapon to point out your partners mistakes and mishandlings but for you to notice how you handled things and how you could do things differently and maybe more effectively next time. You are also more likely to stay calm and in control if someone else (i.e. you in the future) is listening.
Key No. 6 – Avoid Negative Comparisons
In the final part of this blog I am going to talk about how damaging negative comparisons with other people’s relationships can be. Nature has programmed us to do this, to compare ourselves to others, its function is to motivate us to improve our performance, an important strategy in the ‘survival of the fittest’ game.
However, sometimes this tendency kicks in, not when it can help us, but as a default response when we are feeling bad, self-critical, self-doubtful, lacking in confidence.
It is important to remember that we are not neutral, objective observers, even less so when we are feeling insecure. At these times we are more likely to filter out information that would support our self-confidence and more likely to focus in on information that suggests we are ‘less than’. This applies to all aspects of our lives, including our relationships e.g. her husband is more caring/attentive, they have more fun, she just understands him/doesn’t give him a hard time etc.
When we are happy, we are far less aware of what others are doing, when we are happy we are content in our own worlds, our attention is less likely to be drawn outside. These thoughts are a sign that self-doubt has crept in, that our confidence has taken a knock. These thoughts are not necessarily related to the health of our relationship and even if it is your relationship that is knocking your confidence, these thoughts are not a helpful focus.
Instead of buying into these thoughts:
1. Write the thought down so you can start to get a bit of distance from it and limit its power to dictate your mood.
2. Look at the evidence that supports it.
3. Look at evidence that contradicts it e.g. what information are you filtering out, how much goes on that you don’t see.
4. On the back of this try to put together a thought that more accurately represents what is going on and provides a more helpful focus.