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The New Rules of Relationships

Kindness counts, but fun is at least as important.

Source: Maridav/Shutterstock

Human beings crave intimacy, need to love and be loved, and function best when they are. Yet people have much trouble maintaining relationships.

It's clear from the many letters I get to my advice column that lots of folks, men and women, have no idea what a healthy relationship even looks like. Because I write about these things, and care about the environments which children grow in, I feel obligated to say something.

From many sources and many experts over the years, I have culled some basic rules of relationships. This is by no means an exhaustive list. But it's a necessary list. Print the rules out and pin them up on your refrigerator door. I won't test you on them—but life will:

1. Choose a partner wisely and well. We are attracted to people for all kinds of reasons. They remind us of someone from our past. They shower us with gifts and make us feel important. Evaluate a potential partner as you would a friend: Look at their character, personality, values, their generosity of spirit, the relationship between their words and actions, their relationships with others.

2. Know your partner's beliefs about relationships. Different people have different and often conflicting ideas about relationships. You don't want to fall in love with someone who expects dishonesty in relationships; they'll create it where it doesn't exist.

3. Don't confuse sex with love. Especially at the beginning of a relationship, attraction and pleasure in sex are often mistaken for love.

4. Know your needs and speak up for them clearly. A relationship is not a guessing game. Many people fear stating their needs and, as a result, camouflage them. The result is disappointment at not getting what they want and anger at a partner for not having met their (unspoken) needs.

5. Closeness cannot occur without honesty. Your partner is not a mind reader.

6. Respect, respect, respect. Inside and outside the relationship, act in ways so that your partner always maintains respect for you. Mutual respect is essential to a good and fair relationship.

7. View yourselves as a team, which means you are two unique individuals bringing different perspectives and strengths. That is the value of a team—your differences.

8. Know how to manage differences; it's the key to success in a relationship. Disagreements don't sink relationships. Name-calling does. Learn how to handle the negative feelings that are the unavoidable byproduct of the differences between two people. Stonewalling or avoiding conflicts is not managing them.

9. If you don't understand or like something your partner is doing, ask about it and why he or she is doing it. Talk and explore, don't assume or accuse.

10. Solve problems as they arise. Don't let resentments simmer. Most of what goes wrong in relationships can be traced to hurt feelings, leading partners to erect defenses against one another and to become strangers. Or enemies.

11. Learn to negotiate. Most modern relationships no longer rely on roles cast by culture. Couples create their own roles, so almost every act requires negotiation. It works best when good will prevails. Because people's needs are fluid and change over time, and life's demands change too, good relationships are negotiated and renegotiated all the time.

12. Listen, truly listen, to your partner's concerns and complaints without judgment. Much of the time, just having someone listen is all we need for solving problems. Plus it opens the door to confiding. And empathy is crucial. Look at things from your partner's perspective as well as your own.

13. Don’t take everything personally. Sometimes a lousy day is just a lousy day.

14. Work hard at maintaining closeness. Closeness doesn't happen by itself. In its absence, people drift apart and are susceptible to affairs. A good relationship isn't an end goal; it's a lifelong process maintained through regular attention.

15. Take a long-range view. Marriage is an agreement to spend a future together. Check out your dreams with each other regularly to make sure you're both on the same path.

16. Never underestimate the power of good grooming.

17. Sex is good. Pillow talk is better. Sex is easy, intimacy is difficult. It requires honesty, openness, self-disclosure, confiding concerns, fears, and sadnesses as well as hopes and dreams.

18. Never go to sleep angry. Try a little tenderness.

19. Apologize, apologize, apologize. Anyone can make a mistake. Repair attempts are crucial—highly predictive of marital happiness. They can be clumsy or funny, even sarcastic—but the willingness to make up after an argument is central to every long-term relationship.

20. Not every major problem requires a solution by talkathon. Sometimes just doing something together—a hike, for example—calms and reconnects partners.

21. Some dependency is good, but complete dependency on a partner for all one's needs is an invitation to resentment at the burden and unhappiness for both partners. We're all dependent—to a degree—on friends, mentors, spouses. This is true of men as well as women.

22. Maintain self-respect and self-esteem. It's easier for someone to like you and to be around you when you like yourself. Research has shown that the more roles people fill, the more sources of self-esteem they have. Meaningful work—paid or volunteer—has long been one of the most important ways to build and exercise a sense of self.

23. Keep the relationship alive by bringing into it new interests from outside. The more passions in life that you have and share, the richer your partnership will be. It is unrealistic to expect one person to meet all of your needs in life.

24. Cooperate, cooperate, cooperate. Share responsibilities. Relationships work only when they are two-way streets, with much give and take.

25. Stay open to spontaneity. Fun and surprise are sexy.

26. Maintain your energy. Stay healthy.

27. Recognize that all relationships have their ups and downs and do not ride at a continuous high all the time. Working together through the hard times will make the relationship stronger.

28. Don't just run away from a bad relationship; you'll only repeat it with the next partner. Use it as a mirror to look at yourself, to understand what in you is creating the relationship. Change yourself before you change your partner.

29. Remember that love is not a limited commodity that you're in or out of. It's a feeling that ebbs and flows depending on how you treat each other. If you interact in new ways, the feelings can come flowing back, often stronger than before.

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