Everyone tends to “do relationships” a little differently. A “happy couple” doesn’t always look the same from house to house or even relationship to relationship. What “happiness” looks like with your first love is not necessarily what you would define as “happiness” when you settle down for a long-term relationship. There are, however, some universal behaviors that will quickly kill a relationship’s chance for long-term success, and other behaviors that enable a relationship to thrive.
Relationships do not stay strong by accident. They thrive as a result of particular behaviors that therapist William Glasser, described as the "Seven Caring Habits" (Glasser & Glasser, 2010). These make-or-break traits are counterpoints to a list of equally significant behaviors which are considered "Seven Deadly Habits." Take a look at the lists below and reflect on which of the two habits in each pair that you are more likely to exhibit. If you find yourself leaning towards the danger zone on any of the vectors, consider consciously shifting yourself the side of caring.
Are you Caring or Destructive in your Relationship?
If your partner is going through a rough time, has run into some difficult challenges, or hit a run of bad luck, which of the following would be your first reaction:
1. Criticizing or Listening?
Do you tend to hear your partner out when she’s sharing his or her perspective or do you jump in quickly to point out the problems with their views? Try listening and giving your partner space to share their opinions—it’s easier to find a compromise or the best solution when everyone has a chance to share their thoughts.
2. Blaming or Supporting?
When things go wrong for your partner—on the job, with friends, or personally—do you tend to identify the faults in them that may have led to their difficulties or do you offer support and a willing ear? Tearing down your partner when the world is doing a good job of this already does no good for your relationship.
3. Complaining or Encouraging?
If your partner is taking on a new challenge or trying to solve a problem or fix something that’s broken, do you complain about their success and pace or do you offer encouragement and act as a cheerleader? All of us know how stressful it is to take a test with a teacher standing over us: Improve your partner’s chance of success by giving them space and positive encouragement. You should view yourselves as a team, not as rivals.
4. Nagging or Respecting?
Do you have a set way of looking at the world or doing things that is 180-degrees different from your partner’s? Don’t nag them to change how they do things; respect the differences that exist and let yourself off the hook for being the “expert” in everything. We all see the world differently; that’s how we’ve managed to solve so many sticky problems.
5. Threatening or Trusting?
If a partner needs to work late, do you threaten them that they’d better be back on time, or that they’d better be telling the truth about their plans? Learning to trust your partner’s commitment can ease a relationship’s path. When we stop trusting someone, they may decide to actually do the thing you’ve been accusing them of doing—even if they never had the desire to do so.
6. Punishing or Accepting?
If your partner goofs up and forgets to pick up groceries on the way home from work or forgets to set the alarm on a Monday morning, do you tend to insult or belittle them? Or do you accept that everyone—even you—is human and that mistakes, though not always pleasant or easily undone, are going to happen? Learn to accept the imperfection of others, as you expect others to accept in yourself.
7. Bribing or Negotiating?
When you want to convince your partner to do something your way, do you try to bribe them with promises of giving in to their requests later? Healthy adult relationships don’t function well when disagreements feel more like payoffs than negotiations or mediations. Parents are encouraged to avoid bribing children for the same reason: Bribes don’t inspire long-term behavioral change; they are about power and control. Brush up on negotiation skills to ensure that both you and your partner maintain a feeling of equal power in the relationship.
Not everyone craves constructive feedback, but when you are able to recommend a specific “caring habit” to replace the “deadly habit,” it makes it easier to begin behavior change. If you find yourself always telling your partner what not to do, rather than just asking for what you need, perhaps the list above may give you some concrete ways to approach your next discussion with about what you might both want to do to ensure that your relationship gets back on course.
Glasser, W., & Glasser, C. (2010). Getting together and staying together: solving the mystery of marriage. New York: Harper Perennial.