Kids these days… Their role models for healthy and vibrant love relationships are hard to find. Shows like HBO’s Girls (which brought Adam Driver into our lives as a terrible boyfriend stereotype) and Marriage Story (again Mr. Driver doing a bang-up job of showing us an emotionally wounded soon-to-be-single dad) give us prime examples of what’s bad about trying to relate in a long-format relationship. Our current culture simply does not show great examples of authentic and honest love.
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If We Knew What Love Looked Like
Healthy love, for each of us, is a series of trials and errors. We weren’t shown what healthy love looks like so we give it a go and screw it up a number of times before we begin to pick up some clues. But even our clues can be misguided and point us in unhealthy directions. What do we know about healthy love today if we look for the information?
Signs of Healthy and Lasting Love
- both partners enjoy each other’s company
- the couple has learned to fight fair and is not afraid to express their needs
- sarcasm is minimal or completely eliminated
- each partner owns their shit when it comes up and makes efforts to clean it up
- when a fracture happens, both partners consciously craft repairs
- they easily express affection and commitment to each other
- the safety of the relationship is not threatened or used as a weapon
- when one partner is struggling extra care is taken to support but not to “fix” them
- each partner can listen deeply without forming a response or a defense, just listen
- they appreciate each other in actions and words every day
There is no proven method for finding and keeping a healthy loving relationship. Sometimes, what seems to be good and strong can turn dark and dysfunctional over time. But, today we have systems, ideas, and processes to use in conjunction with our trials and errors, that can increase our success rate and our evolution towards a lasting and loving relationship.
Several Approaches to Love and Loving Another Person
- The 5 Love Languages Gary Chapman
- Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone – Brené Brown
- The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom – Ruiz
- The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work – Gottman
- The Soul of Sex: Cultivating Life as an Act of Love Thomas Moore
And from all of these systems we now have proven processes for making our love relationships more functional, more truthful, and more likely to succeed. But, I’m guessing very few people under 40 have cracked the Gottman book, ever. I mean, if you’re not married why would you read a “marriage” book? You wouldn’t. But even the table of contents in Gottman’s classic is wildly informative. It might be the outline for any healthy relationship, not just marriage. Let’s check it out.
Gottman’s Seven Principals for Making Marriage Work:
- Principle 1: Enhance Your Love Maps
- Principle 2: Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration
- Principle 3: Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away
- Principle 4: Let Your Partner Influence You
- Principle 5: Solve Your Solvable Problems
- Principle 6: Overcome Gridlock
- Principle 7: Create Shared Meaning
It’s a damn good roadmap for doing the hard work of building and maintaining a healthy relationship. Everything is here, and the book came out in 2000. Ten years before my divorce. And, yes, I read it while I was still married, attempted some of the principles, but ultimately failed at keeping my family together. Divorce is a collaborative effort, just like a relationship is. We all play our part in the breakdown, but when one partner opts out, there’s no Gottman in the world that’s going to save the relationship. Let’s dive in for some of the juicy tidbits of all of these systems, and see if we can devise a hybrid of all of the best relationship thinking. Let’s go for something audacious:
The Four Laws of Love
ONE: Turn Towards Your Partner
This is the foundation of how love starts. We meet someone. We begin to explore our lives together and determine that things are better with them, that they enhance our lives. The first 4 principals fit nicely into foundation one: build maps of your future together, share your mutual admiration, allow yourself to align with your partner’s hopes and desires, and the bedrock: turn into your partner rather than away. There’s not a lot of literature about how to fall in love, it sort of happens. But this outline is a good framework for couples hoping to design their own love languages, their own agreements, and their own principals.
TWO: When Conflict Happens Own Your Part
This is really the magic of Brené’s work with BRAVING. Simply stated, when someone is triggered by a disagreement, Braving is a system for working through it together in ways that actually build trust and love. Here’s my outline. 1. Each of us comes into relationships with our own stuff, and we have to own our stuff. When disagreements happen, often some of our old stuff comes up, or is “triggered” in the language of Braving. 2. When the trigger is bigger than the disagreement we’ve got to stop our fight and take a time out for the triggered person to sort through their own overwhelm. 3. Once their trigger is better understood and better under control, the couple needs to return to the relationship with the idea of repairing any damage caused by the upsetting event. 4. As a final show of goodwill and loving faith, both partners agree to do better in the future. The triggered person might agree to see a therapist to work on their issue. The other partner might modify their behavior to lessen the restimulation that caused the trigger. Both people work together to build a bridge back towards each other.
THREE: Always Celebrate and Cherish Your Partner
Even when things are stressful, it is unlikely that your partner is being an asshole just to be mean. Often we take each other for granted, or we overlook some of the guiding principles that helped us fall in love with this person in the first place. From the 4 Agreements, we must do several things well in our relationships at all times: don’t take your partner’s actions or words personally, give them the benefit of the doubt, and always do what you say your going to do. If you tell your partner, I’ll call you back in an hour, after the meeting, call them back. Don’t wait two hours. Just do what you say you’re going to do: 100% of the time. If we could start there, we’d go a long way towards lessening conflict and building trust. But, of course, it’s not that easy.
I think the part that gets in the way sometimes, is our complacency and lack of enthusiasm and effort. When we know we have our long-term relationship in place we can begin to let the little things slip. The love notes that we wrote to them when we were dating become rare and more like Valentine’s Day exercises, rather than the little flags of affection that give our partners little warm fuzzies. We forget to tell them how beautiful they look, even when they’ve taken off their makeup and are getting ready for bed. We take for granted that they will be there, so we don’t give them the loving attention they deserve.
To rebuild the fire in a relationship it’s important to put some energy and thought into actions and expressions that make our partners feel loved. Learn their love language, and find ways to give them a healthy dose of what they want as frequently as you can remember to do it. Be thoughtful about your words and deeds. Get better at following through, at chipping in on the chores, at doing a little bit extra that says, “I love you, and I care about keeping our house in order, too.” When partners feel cherished, they also get that loving feeling for the person bringing them joy. Give joy, see what happens.
When in doubt, always give joy.
FOUR: Enhancing Your Time Together
In typical relationships, we spend most of our time away from our partners. This is a healthy thing. But it can also lead to apathy and neglect if we don’t pay attention to the time we do have together. Yes, as a single parent, my time always seemed to be compromised and a bit chaotic, but if I wanted to establish and maintain a healthy love relationship outside of my two children, I was going to have to make time and learn to make this new person a priority in my life. But, this same principle comes into play even without kids or prior relationships. We’ve got to find ways to align in our daily chores, in our meals, in our cleanup, in our rituals for bed or waking up.
Rituals are for everyday life, not just church. Leading a spiritual life is about maintaining a belief that there is some higher purpose to our existence on the planet and our relationship to others on the planet. In a loving relationship, spirituality is about building rituals and habits that celebrate your connectedness as a couple. If I’m spiritually connected to my partner, I want to wake up and see their smiling face each morning and give thanks for their presence in my life. My first-thing-in-the-morning hug is actually more like a prayer of thanksgiving.
Thank you, god,
for bringing me this amazing partner
and this amazing love.
By seeing god in our partner’s eyes we can begin to understand our spiritual connection and how our journey grow and evolve as couple is similar to our efforts to grow and evolve our connection with our concept of a higher power.
It’s the little rituals that can keep us connected to each other and our feelings of connectedness to the universe, or god. And, rituals can be part of our lives every day, not just on holidays. When we have a partner to appreciate, and we put our attention to making sure they are feeling appreciated, we are well on our way to building and maintaining a lasting relationship.
We all want to be loved. We’ve got a bit of work to do to keep that loving feeling between us. The tools and ideas are there for us to be successful. The rest is up to each of us. How are you going to show up in your relationship today? How can you celebrate your partner in a way that enhances their life? Do that and let me know how it goes. (grin)
Tell the Kids What You Know About Love
We’ve got to be better at giving advice about relationships to everyone around us. It’s hard work, building and keeping a loving relationship. Today, we’re more likely to start cruzing Tinder and Match.com when things get tough in our relationships. There’s seemingly an endless supply of people who are looking for love. The problem is we’ve not been taught how to keep the love alive once we find it. Here are some ideas. Find more of your own. Craft a new relationship model and share it.
I believe in love. I have never lost hope about finding and keeping a BIG LOVE. I’m still on that quest. I’ve got some great tools from these powerful educators of the past. I’m also looking for new ideas, new ways to connect brightly so we can burn away the discontentment and isolation in our loving relationships. When we feel connected, when we establish a deep connection with a partner, we never forget that feeling. That’s where love lives: in finding, holding, and building the flame of love in our hearts and in our partner’s hearts every day of our lives together.
John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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- Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way: Optimism and Hope Carry Us
- ME Cycles and Wondermints: Why Is Self-Care So Difficult?
- Commitment and Fear: Closing the Available Exits to Find Your Edge
- I Am a Big Love Generator: It’s Not Easy for Me to Slow My Roll
You can find all of my books on AMAZON.