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The Do's and Don’ts of Great Relationships

Here are 10 guidelines that successful relationship partners regularly practice.

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All intimate partners are likely to face unpredictable and challenging situations as they spend more time together. Some partnerships fold under such stresses, while others not only survive but gain in strength. The couples whose love deepens when faced with difficulty do so by focusing on two things — the blessings of their relationship and knowing how to stay out of harm’s way.

There is a plethora of published advice to help long-term partners stay attached when crises threaten, but much of it is hard to put into play in the midst of significant distress. When relationship partners are overloaded and fragile, they cannot always respond effectively. As a relationship therapist for four decades, I have often seen couples during these difficult times. Their lives have been upended, they are overwhelmed and confused, and they are desperately searching for a simple set of workable rules to help them through an often anguishing time.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that a simple set of attitudes and behaviors not only work well during times of stress but are also good guidelines for partners to follow every day. These are key “Do’s and Don’ts” that successful partners regularly practice. Together, they form the bookends that protect intimacy from its most common enemies. If couples practice them as a way of life, they will be much better prepared for any crises they might face in the future.

10 “Dos”

1. Attunement

Accurately “tuning” into another person means that you get them. When intimate partners intuitively resonate with each other’s heart, mind, and soul experiences, they understand how their thoughts and behaviors will affect them before they speak. That knowledge drives what they do and say to help each other feel truly seen and heard.

2. Tracking

All people are continuously affected by their past experiences and unconsciously weave them into their present and future behaviors. Successful partners make it a point to remember those thoughts and experiences and track them. They mark, note, and weave in everything they know about each other, and regularly communicate that understanding to each other.

3. Transparency

Intimate partners share their internal experiences with each other because they feel it's safe to share them. Successful partners do not hold back thoughts, feelings, or intended behaviors that might at some time affect the other partner. Both partners agree that they would rather know the truth, no matter the outcome.

4. Prime Time

I often ask a couple in the first hour of therapy where each currently is at his or her best in their lives. Much of the time, sadly, they do not respond with “in my committed relationship.” There is a predictable correlation between how long people have been together and the quality and quantity of time, energy, and fresh love they prioritize for each other. Great partners make certain their relationship is where they rejuvenate, rather than simply regenerate.

5. Traumas

No one escapes traumatic experiences in life, but some have been more damaged by them than others. Those emotional, intellectual, and bodily experiences result in exceptional vulnerability when they are triggered by specific events. People who love each other always keep in mind what those fragile experiences are, and when they might arise.

6. Communication

There are two crucial aspects of communication. The first is the verbal content of what partners are sharing. The second is the nonverbal way they present themselves, and how those behaviors affect each of them in the moment. Partners who communicate effectively never forget that what they are saying is affected by how they say it. The medium is always the more powerful message.

7. Mattering

Every human being needs to know that he or she is significantly important to the person he or she loves. They need to feel they are automatically included, welcome to speak about their upsets, and free to share their concerns. They feel safe in that space, able to be understood and forgiven, even when they falter. Loving partners give one another the sense that how they feel and what they do are important and worthy of both recognition and response.

8. Focusing on the Positive

Every relationship has assets and liabilities. Many partners focus on what upsets them, rather than the benefits the relationship continues to provide. When successful partners feel like their relationship is being threatened in any way, they consciously and intentionally remind each other why they still want to be together, and resolve those crises as rapidly as possible.

9. The Gift of Sanity

Whenever one partner speaks his or her truth, the other validates and supports that point of view before offering one that might be different. Successful partners want to know what each other is thinking and feeling, and they do what they can to learn more about what may be driving those experiences.

10. Faith in Each Other and the Relationship

Great partners believe that they are blessed to have one another and that their relationship is truly special and unique. They know that this faith is based on a continued commitment to do whatever is necessary to keep it that way.

10 “Don’ts”

1. Breaking Confidentiality

As they spend more time together, intimate partners often begin to share vulnerable and sacred thoughts, feelings, and memories with each other. Those intimate experiences can run the gamut from telling someone about painful traumas to feelings of hostility toward a family member. As they reveal these often fragile and sensitive experiences, they know that they will be sacredly held and will not be shared without the other partner’s permission.

2. Withholding

Partners who treasure honesty, authenticity, and each other’s resilience do not hold back on thoughts or feelings that can unexpectedly explode at some future time with unintended painful consequences.

A routinely withholding partner may be having thoughts, feelings, or intended behaviors that could eventually hurt the other partner, without ever giving the other the opportunity to vote. That policy will eventually destroy trust.

3. Hitting Below the Belt

Over time, most partners know enough about each other to understand and acknowledge which behaviors they could say or do that could be crucially hurtful to the other. Expressing any of those, especially during an argument, can leave deep scars and erode trust. Successful partners always keep in mind exactly what they must never bring up, especially during times of animosity or stress.

4. Loading the Emotional Bases

When either partner feels powerless during a conflict, he or she may try to strengthen the platform by citing other sources: “Everyone agrees with me that…,” “I read in this article that…,” “My whole family thinks that you…,” “Even our therapist agrees with me about…,” etc.

Successful partners make it a point to simply tell each other when they feel cornered or powerless during an argument. They count on the other to listen and respond supportively. Very rarely is winning an argument by padding the opposition worth the loss of intimacy when that strategy is employed.

5. Blame

Volumes have been written about how damaging the effects of blaming are on an intimate relationship. One of the most confusing and destructive varieties of blame is when one partner attacks the other for something that he or she is also guilty of doing. Whether conscious or unconscious, projecting one’s own faults onto another is especially destructive.

Another destructive blame behavior is putting down the other partner when he or she cannot, or doesn’t want to, do what the blamer wants. No partner can always give the other what he or she wants. Blaming only makes these situations worse.

6. Chronic Nagging

Unsolicited advice is rarely welcome, especially if it is negative. Nagging is the continuous repetition of preaching, instructions, or directions that the other partner has not asked for and doesn't want.

Most partners being given constant “cattle-prods” to live their life as the nagger wants will eventually rebel, disconnect, or sink into a passive-aggressive reaction.

7. Broken Promises

When either partner asks for something important, it is crucial that the other be honest about their ability or willingness to grant it.

If one partner believes that the desired behavior will occur, but it never does, he or she may eventually stop asking. Promises that are continually postponed or broken eventually become excuses, and then lies. Any partner continually exposed to the disappointments and disillusionments of broken promises will eventually stop asking for them.

8. Character Assassinations

All intimate partners have conflicts. Even when their relationship is mostly compatible, they can still get frustrated with how their partners are behaving. But successful partners know how to fight fair because they know their disagreements will become more ruthless if they don’t. Character assassinations are heartbreaking: The partner's angry expressions eventually go from challenges to unwanted behaviors to mean attacks on the core of their character, often expressed in wipe-out statements. “You always go for the gut, don’t you?” “Let’s just face it; you’re an a***hole, and always have been.” “You hate men; why don’t you just admit it?” “You’re a really insensitive lover.”

9. Exploitation

Caring partners know of each other’s vulnerabilities and are careful not to take advantage of them. For instance, some people are just natural givers. Others feel immediately guilty if they disappoint their partners in any way. People who have social anxiety can’t handle groups of people or social surprises. Absent-minded people sometimes lose themselves in private thoughts without meaning to exclude others. People who care for each other understand that their partner’s innate personality characteristics are part of them, and they do not use those traits to their own advantage.

10. Boundary Violations

Boundary violations include any physical or emotional behavior that makes the other partner feel uncomfortable or threatened. It is sadly common to find that intimate partners in unsuccessful relationships do not remember, or do not care, to respect and honor their partner’s physical or emotional boundaries.

When intimate partners experience a boundary violation, they are likely to feel like symbolic “prey” to seeming “hunters.” Their natural responses will be to fight, flee, or become immobilized. All three responses are counter to trust and will eventually destroy intimacy.

Partners who value and respect each other willingly and continuously embrace these “dos” and avoid these “don’ts.” They know that they cannot achieve perfection in following them, nor do they expect to, but they realize how important it is to apply these behaviors as part of the commitment they have made to each other.