College offers one of the last opportunities for life preparation that students will have before they launch out to live on their own. The famously insightful Sigmund Freud once said that mature individuals are those who can love and work. Colleges mainly prepare young people for work. Who or what prepares young people for love? Who teaches them how to fix a relationship or how to stop arguing?
When my son Jesse was about to graduate from college, he asked me to give him 20 copies of my book The Power of Two. “Why?” I asked, surprised by the request.
“I want to give them as graduation gifts to my friends,” Jesse explained. “We’ve learned about Chinese history and computer mathematics, but we know far too little about how to have successful relationships.”
I thought about Jesse’s insight this week when I received an email from an enterprising college journalism student, Tanisha Ramsey. Tanisha wanted to interview me for an article on relationships she was writing for her Penn State college newspaper. Bravo Tanisha Ramsey for your focus on these issues!
Here are Tanisha's questions. To share with Tanisha the answers you would give to these questions, please feel welcome to click and write in to the comments section at the bottom of the post.
1. What are three key skills (characteristics) that every relationship should possess?
The first is the ability to stay in the calm zone. Young children often get mad. Adults interact primarily only from what I call the EEZ, the Effective Emotional Zone. That’s a zone of positive emotions, or else calm talking and listening.
When mature people feel angry, they change the subject or take a break to get a glass of water for a few minutes. After they’ve calmed down, then they continue the conversation in a constructive vein. People can only uptake new information when they are calm, so continuing to talk once tempers rise risks lots of hurt for little gain.
Second, learn to listen—that is, listen for what you agree with, for what you can learn about or from that person. Narcissists, by contrast, listen to show that they are right and others are wrong. They disagree often with “but," "but ..." They also tend to talk, taking more than their fair share of air time instead of alternating equal time talking and listening. Narcissistic habits like these bode ill for relationships. In healthy relationships, both folks are genuinely interested in understanding and learning from each others’ perspectives.
Third I’d add that how positive a relationship is can be measured by how much you share fun times. In healthy relationships, both partners genuinely enjoy time together. They make a priority of sharing activities together, making time to talk together, and being intimate together.
2. Name one characteristic that you think most relationships lack. How can it be fixed?
If you want to fix your positivity level, take a day to count your Sunshine Factors. How many times during that day did you reach out to hug, smile at your partner, connect eye-to-eye, agree with something your partner has said, ask more questions with interest about learning your partner's perspectives, offer a compliment, etc?
3. How long is too long to hold on to an issue you have with your spouse/significant other?
Talking within 24 hours is often a good rule of thumb. Immediate talk when something bothers you is problematic if you will be speaking in anger. Waiting too long means you’ll be unlikely to remember to discuss it.
Mistakes are for learning. When couples can talk over their mistakes in a cooperative and mutually respectful way, their relationship keeps getting better and better over time.
4. How do you know when a relationship is over? What are the signs?
Negative feelings tell you something’s awry. If you often feel negative feelings like hurt, anger, boredom, annoyance, or anxiety when you are with your partner, something’s amiss. Fix it, learn the skills for talking over tough issues and then fix it, or move on.
5. Do you have to love someone to have a successful relationship? Why is love not good enough?
Love is a good starting point. Skills for talking collaboratively instead of arguing about sensitive issues come next. Then commitment, and trustworthiness…And most of all, if you want the love to go to marriage, good matching: similar cultural and religious values, life style ideas, ideas about parenting and money, etc.
6. When confronting your spouse/significant other about a current issue in the relationship, is it appropriate to bring up past situations? Should the focus stay on the current issue?
Yes and yes. Start with the current issue. Bring up past issues only if they shed light on the current one.
Most importantly though, when you raise issues, your job is to focus on your parts in what went wrong. Let your partner explore his or her part. Otherwise you risk getting into criticism and blame, neither of which have high odds of leading to learning and change.
Healing after upsets so that you learn from mistakes is a high-skills activity. Do it carefully. Learn the skills for how to talk about sensitive situations, and then proceed with caution.
7. Once the trust in a relationship is broken, can it ever be mended? Name two or three ways to mend the trust if it is possible.
To mend trust the person who broke the trust needs to do thorough soul-searching. If that person can identify the underlying concerns that led to straying, and then also can identify at least three points where they took a left turn and would have been better off turning right, there’s hope.
8. When someone cheats because of issues in the relationship, are those issues now worth fixing?
Maybe yes and maybe no. It depends on how much in the relationship feels worth saving. Some relationships were iffy to begin with and best ended with the first infidelity. A young guy who is cheating on a girlfriend, or vice versa, is likely to be an iffy bet for longterm reliability.
Still, some people do learn from their mistakes, and infidelities can offer a good opportunity to reassess what's worked and what's been missing between the two of you.
One relationship lesson for the future from affairs: Finish one thing before going on to another.
That is, it’s best in relationships first to fix the problems. If there seems to be no sufficient fix, then end the relationship. At that point, going on to another relationship is fine.
When the order of these three steps gets messed up, everything is harder.
9. When is it OK to be selfish in a relationship?
Always be self-centered (centered in your self) in the sense of being in touch enough with yourself, with your feelings and thoughts, to verbalize your concerns and preferences. Then spend equal energy on understanding your partner’s. Lastly, aim to create win-win solutions, plans of action responsive to the concerns of both of you.
Emotional maturity can be measured by what I call bilateral (two-sided) listening. Listening only to yourself is a huge problem. Listening only to what your partner wants is also a huge problem. Both selfishness (narcissism) and excessive altruism (enabling) can sink potentially positive relationships.
10. Is it OK to stay in a relationship because of the children?
If the relationship includes fighting, that’s bad for the children. They are likely to be happier if the relationship ends, provided they are not left to have to cope on their own with an aggressive parent.
If the relationship is not ideal but also not actively aggressive, staying is generally better for the kids. The best though is to get help and fix the relationship so that the love that once was there returns again.
11. What is the worst thing about being in a relationship?
Being in a bad relationship, one that creates anger, anxiety, distrust or other negative emotions, is probably worse than being without a relationship.
Also, in college being in a relationship can prove too time-consuming. Relationships need nourishing with shared time. As a college student once told me, the going rule at his school: "Studies, activities (sports, theater, etc), girlfriend: pick two." On the other hand, for many students the support from having a steady partner makes study and extracurriculars all the more interesting.
12. What is the best thing about being in a relationship?
Even Adam found that he was lonely until he got his Eve. In her book Meet Your Happy Chemicals, PT blogger Loretta Bruening points out that oxytocin, the chemical of bonding, evolved in other mammals even before the advent of people because survival—that is, ability to gather food, to fight off foes, and to raise offspring—all gets enhanced when two or more animals pack together.
As it says in the book called Ecclesiastes, “Two are better than one,…for if one falls, the other will lift him up; but if one falls alone, there is no second to lift him up. When two lie together, they warm each other; but one alone, how can he keep warm? If one is attacked, both can stand up against him; and a threefold cord cannot be quickly broken.”
I am a graduate of Harvard and NYU and most recently authored Prescriptions Without Pills, a book of ways to handle common psychological dilemmas.