Let’s say, you’re in a great relationship. Things are working out. Problems and arguments are handled with honesty and empathy. Let’s say, you really want this one to work out, to be THE ONE, to last a lifetime. What’s the plan? Is there a secret formula to building and keeping a lasting partnership?
How We Keep Our Lover First
Relationships are critical for my success. I can do it alone, but I prefer to have a warm hand to hold both during the highs and the bumps at the bottom. Having a partner to have and to hold, has been my goal since my divorce in 2010. And it took me 12 years to find a truly available and willing partner.
Is it so hard to find a healthy person to date? Yes.
What complicates the process? We’re all broken in some way. Our previous relationships have either informed us and given us new information about what we need to be securely attached, or we are merely barreling on into the next relationship, to see what happens.
Well, in my experience, fuck around and find out is not a good strategy. I believe you need intention, focus, and an open mind to give your vision quest, your love quest, a chance for success.
But, let’s say you’ve found them. You’ve found each other. What’s next?
Advice For Lovers
There are a number of great resources available to the willing seeker. If you want a partnership to last, you’re probably going to need to do some growing, some stretching, and some aspirational resets of both your expectations and your path forward as a connected couple. Let’s dig into a few of the best resources for lovers.
Brené Brown has written so many great books and given so many amazing presentations on YouTube, that you don’t have to dig to deep to hit the gold that is BRAVING. My simple explanation is this: we cannot fix or heal another person. When our partner is going through troubled times we want to help, we want to offer advice, we want to rush in with a fix. What we learn in the real-world lab of life is we can’t fix another person or make them happy. What we can do is support them, reassure them, and sit beside them as a partner. (I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) – Brené Brown.
The 5 Love Languages is an important book for anyone in a love relationship. While some of the ideas have become mainstream, the biggest ah-ha moment I had after reading it was, “My wife and I had almost no connection between our two primary love languages.” I don’t think it would’ve kept us together or prevented me from falling in love with her, but I would’ve loved a bit more of the data as my marriage crumbled over the stress of parenthood, career, and emotional challenges on both our sides.
The Four Agreements is another wonderful frame for respect and love in all your relationships. The principles are simple. 1. Keep your word. 2. Don’t take *anything* personally. 3. Don’t make assumptions. 4. Always do your best. If we believe that our partners are also “doing their best” it’s hard to fault them when things go wrong. We can negotiate and soothe each other by keeping things loving and open between us, and the agreements are a great starting point.
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman is the holy bible of marriage therapy. And in his continuing work, the Gottmans are masters of keeping it fresh, keeping it honest, and leaving the personal bullshit out of the partnership. A few of Gottman’s harbingers of doom are 1. criticism; 2. defensiveness; 3. contempt; 4. stonewalling; 5. flooding. This is from one of his later works where he outlines the Cascade Model of Relational Dissolution.
Keeping Your Center
These are fantastic resources for lovers wanting to keep in the zone. And yet, they are merely frameworks we can attempt to apply to our own lives. What core lessons can we take from this canon of good intentions, to build a strategy to keep our partnership healthy and inspired?
- Not giving advice
- Turn toward your partner
There are plenty of memes in today’s world that preach kindness as the answer to life’s struggles. In relationships, kindness must be the first approach to everything. A mismatch in sexual style or frequency can cause issues, but if the overall energy is kindness, then both partners will stay curious and open to each other’s experiences. Kindness first, means finding a way to respond with kindness even if you are being attacked. Being kind even when things feel broken. Giving a kind response to your struggling partner is the first lesson in relationship-building.
I don’t understand exactly what’s happening in your world. I will listen. I will reflect your words back to you, so you know I “got it.” And then I will respond with empathy or silence depending on the moment. Often, the best form of empathy is listening and not responding. Or, responding when your partner has a specific request. Empathy is hearing and resonating with your partner’s distress. Empathy is not trying to offer advice. You don’t even need to share your story of how you have similar life experiences. Nope. Just listen. Ask your partner what they need. Stay in your lane.
If we don’t understand our own inner struggles we’re going to project them onto others. Getting mindful of your own issues and your own challenges in relationships is a great step to growing beyond your limitations. Do the work. If you’ve got lingering sadness or anger about a previous relationship, it’s best to dig in and work that out with someone who is not your lover. I can hold and reassure you. I cannot be your coach or therapist. We’ve got too much living ahead for me to try and take on your issues as well as mine. The biggest lesson of self-awareness is this: my happiness is up to me, my sadness is up to me, my relationship engagement is up to me. Rely on yourself and your care team to dig into your hurts and fears. Ask your partner to be your confidant but not your counselor.
Not Giving Advice
Most advice is unsolicited and unappreciated. Until your partner explicitly asks for advice, keep your solutions to yourself. You don’t know the full story. You’re not a therapist or a mind reader. Even when asked, make sure your advice is simple, kind, and helpful. But, mostly, don’t offer advice unless you are explicitly asked to weigh in on a topic.
Turn Toward Your Partner
There are so many opportunities to exit an intimate relationship, it’s hard to stay 100% in. Sometimes, in previous relationships, I’ve tried to keep the door open to “other” opportunities. But what I learned was any exit (a door out of your current intimate relationship) would drain my energy and enthusiasm for the work that needed to be done with my lover. You need to work out a bunch of your stuff with others, but for intimacy and honesty, only your partner will do. Taking lunch with a “person of interest” while in a hopeful relationship, is one of the signs that it’s not that wonderful. If you’re looking outside your partnership for intimacy (this can be emotional infidelity as well as sexual infidelity) you are effectively exiting your relationship. There are no soft exits. There are no allowed secret lunches. Even browsing Bumble during lunch can be an exit. In a lasting intimate partnership, we learn to close our exits and turn toward our partner with issues. And, if the issues are deep and dark, we must look to a professional to help us, not another “friend.” Friends can become confidants. Confidants can become lovers. And then you’ve broken your promise and killed your future with your current partner.
Setting Our Sites On the Future
If this partner you are with is THE ONE, there are some comforts you can attain by reading the books and ideas listed above. And you can relax a bit about all that feels unsettled and unsteady. If you’ve got time ahead, and you’re committed to the partnership, you have plenty of time to get the details right, if you stay on the path toward togetherness and building the “WE.”
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