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Relationships: Keeping a Great Partner

3 things we can do to have a very loving relationship with our partner.

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In order to maintain a great relationship, we need to work on them. They are a lot like exercise.

If you want to be in great shape, you have to work out regularly. If you want to keep a great relationship, you have to work at it. If you get in shape and then rest on your laurels without doing any more exercise, you will get out of shape. If you work on a relationship, get it to a comfortable level, and then relax without attending to it anymore, the relationship has the potential to get out of shape. Both parties must work on it. You don’t know what the other person will do, so it’s important to do your part. You say, “All I can do is my part. I can’t do my partner’s part, but I can do mine.”

How do we make sure we are doing everything in our power to work on the relationship and keep it healthy? A large part of this is through connections. In relationships, it’s often through romance.

A few years ago, I took a course called Organizational Psychology. It’s about giving psychological help to companies. I distinctly remember my professor saying the companies either grow or they die. They have to be doing one or the other; otherwise they stay the same. Relationships are lot like that. We need to nourish them, we need to work on them, we need to spend time with them. There are many things we can do, but we need to make the relationship a priority.

Sometimes, we might take friendships or marriages for granted. It’s a lot like physical health. We can be in great physical shape and then think we don’t have to continue going to the gym. We all know what’s going to happen with that. This is no different from couples keeping their relationships in shape. When they don’t work on their relationship, they will begin to have problems. So no matter what’s going on—if we have children, if we are moving, if we are starting a new career or going back to school— our relationships still require time and effort. I know it takes two partners to make a relationship work, but all we can do is do our part. We need to ask ourselves, “Am I the best partner I can be?” And if the answer is yes, then it’s going to be a little easier to move forward if we have to.

What are we doing today about our relationship? What are we doing this week? What are we doing this year to make sure this relationship is getting our time and effort because if it isn’t, it’s not going to do as well. It’s often why relationships falter: one of the two people in the relationship stops making it a priority and focuses on other things, maybe other people, other activities, other interests, and then the relationship begins to die. So let’s frighten our brains that we have to work on the relationship and we can’t take it for granted. It takes effort, ongoing effort until the day the relationship dies. We have to put effort into relationships to maintain them.

So what can we do to maintain that healthy relationship? What specifically can we do to make relationships work? We need to do three things:

1. Make the relationship a priority.

2. Be kind to our partner or friend.

3. Engage in common activities together.

First, we make the relationship our priority by devoting time to it. Obviously to exercise and work out, we have to make time to work out. To keep a successful relationship, we have to make time for that relationship. If we don’t regularly connect with our partner or friend, that relationship is going to begin to falter. We ask ourselves how much time we are spending with our partners. Are we going on dates with them? Are we texting them? Are we calling them? Are we stopping and having lunch with them? It’s very important to make sure we have time with our partners, with our friends, because otherwise, like a flower unattended, the relationship will begin to wilt and eventually die.

Relationships take time. In working with couples and helping them build a healthy relationship, I focus first on their having time together, including going on dates. Even when people have been married for decades, they still need to go on dates, particularly if they have young kids. Most often, a difficult time of marriage is when people have young kids at home and then they just don’t make time for each other. So when I work with couples, I make sure they’re going on dates regularly, at first once a week if they have to get a babysitter. They need to make sure they can say, “This is something we have to look forward to.” With time, I get them to take a weekend away and then, with a little planning, to go away for a week. It is very healthy for us when we are in a relationship to get away for several hours or even days, spending time with just our partner.

I know it’s hard to do, particularly when there are children. But it is a very healthy choice because children benefit when their parents are doing well; children don’t want parents that are arguing or fighting. They want love in the family as much as the parents do.

The second important part in maintaining a healthy relationship is being kind and gentle with each other. Couples may spend time together, but if they fight and argue, the relationship is not going to thrive. It can be difficult to stay in an intimate relationship or friendship if too many harsh things have happened.

When I work with couples, I set rules. It’s okay to talk about things, but once a partner is becoming intense, it’s important to take a break. But couples get afraid that if they take a break they won’t talk about the topic again, so they keep going. To address this concern and still lessen the tension, I suggest they do something to reduce stress, such as a walk to get away from the situation, and then agree on a time when they can talk about it again, such as in an hour or the next day. We can’t continue the conversation in the heat of the battle. Once emotions get intense, a break is critical to maintaining a healthy relationship, and we will continue the conversation after we get calm. Too many couples just try to keep going through, thinking they’re finding a solution. They think they will feel better and can resolve the issue when strong feelings are flying, but they don’t realize that when we’re upset it’s a horrible time to keep going and try to resolve an issue. There are just too many emotions, and often we can’t think logically.

It’s like trying to talk to someone who is drunk. We don’t try to have a meaningful conversation with a drunk person, and when a person is angry, he or she often can’t think clearly. So if we give the one dealing with intense feelings space and take some space for ourselves and say, “Let’s talk about this tomorrow” or “Let’s take a break and get back together in hour,” we will feel better.

Sometimes it is good to find a third party like a therapist to help us through problems, but it’s important to stay calm and loving, no matter what. That is a great way to maintain a healthy relationship because when we’re calm, we’re going to listen to the other person. We’re not going to say derogatory things, and we’re more likely going to work through the issues that we have to work through.

Issues or problems can come up, and they can be a bit challenging to work through. We may disagree with our partners, so what should we do in such a case? Sometimes we have to make decisions where we disagree. What do we do when we both agree to disagree? What are our options? When we have to make a decision, we have three choices as a couple:

1. We can agree.

2. We can compromise.

3. We can take turns.

I use this all the time in therapy, and it’s a very effective way to navigate decisions when we have disagreements. For example, we’re going to go on a vacation this year. The first option is to agree. We can both agree that this year we’ll go to Hawaii for a vacation. Wouldn’t that be great? Yup, that is great. This is an easy situation; we all know how to make decisions when we agree.

But let’s say, for example, I want to go to Hawaii but my partner wants to go to New York City. What are we to do then? We can take the second option and compromise. Perhaps, we say, “Let’s not go to New York or Hawaii this year; instead let’s go to Santa Fe.”

If we disagree, we could also take the third option and take turns. We could say, “We haven’t been to Hawaii for a long time, so let’s go to Hawaii this year, and then next year, let’s go to New York City.” If we agree to take turns, we have to honor them; we can’t try to talk our partner out of it next year. Let’s be respectful to the other person and to ourselves, and respect means if we say something we stick to our word. We agree to it.

It’s very simple to make decisions if we agree. When we disagree, we have to either compromise or take turns because if we don’t, resentment is going to take hold. Fairness is a beautiful way to have a relationship work well. When we both feel that we are being fair, we both take something away from it, and then we feel good about our relationship. But if we aren’t trying to be fair and instead are focused on winning, on putting the person down, and on getting our way, resentment builds, and with time, resentment can turn into a loss of care to our partner, and we don’t want that.

When we began our relationship, we likely had things we liked to do together. Over time, we may have grown so far apart that we no longer have common interests. If so, we need to try new things and find activities to do together, because intimate relationships, like friendships, are built on having similarities. We need to have things in common that we both enjoy doing because, if spend time together in happy pursuits, we strengthen our relationship. We’ll have happiness and a fond feeling for our partner, which makes our relationship healthy.

I had a friend who worked hard on developing his career, and he did not have much in common with his wife anymore, so every week they took a day off together, and they just found things to do. They tried different things until they found what they enjoyed doing together.

Because we are committed to our relationship, including friendship, we do need to make that effort and find things we can do together that we both enjoy. This may involve a compromise. If only one of us loves camping, maybe we could stay in a log cabin and we both could enjoy nature with a little more comfort than camping in a tent. If one of us doesn’t like sports events, maybe we could join a low-key sports group, such as co-ed volleyball, and have fun, make new friends, and spend time together. This involves a give-and-take attitude and the openness to try new things.

There are numerous activities we can do with our partner if we want to maintain the relationship. We have to have some things in common—we don’t have to do everything together; it’s fine to have different interests. Some activities we do with our friends, and others we do with our partner. We have to have some things that we do just with our partner. These things are ours and make us say, “Wow, that was great to do together.” Like eating healthy food, engaging in fun activities with our partner gives vitality to the relationship. If we infuse our relationship with love and the memories of having good things to do together, it puts smiles on our faces that are going to make us like our partner more and enjoy our relationship so much more.

To recap, we can do three things to maintain a great relationship. First, we have to make the relationship a priority and to devote time to it and our partner or friend. Second, we need to be kind, romantic, and loving in a relationship. Third, we develop and engage in activities we like to do together so we look forward to spending time with our partner or with friends.

By following these three steps, you can develop a very loving relationship with your partner. If you’re unhappy in your current relationship, ask your partner, “Are we doing these three things? Are we spending time together, being loving, and creating fun memories together based on things we both enjoy?” If not, figure out how to do that because relationships are worth it.

All we can do is our part; we can’t make our partner do his or her part. But if we do what we need to do, then at least we’re going to feel good about ourselves. No matter what happens, we will be able to say, “I’m capable of being a good partner. Maybe it won’t be with you, but I’m capable of being a great partner.”

Sometimes our partners do change in a way that challenges the relationship. Sometimes they get addictions or go with someone else; sometimes they have disorders that affect them in the long run. So be it. All we can do is focus on our being a great partner. We take care of ourselves and are a great partner so, no matter what happens, we can look in the mirror and say, ‘I like me because I was a great partner in this relationship.” We’re going to be okay because we took care of ourselves; that’s the ultimate focus. The second focus is having our partners participate with us in making this a great relationship. We do our part, and that is going to make us feel good and happy.

Relationships take work, but it’s worth it for a life partner or awesome friend. And, we will attract great people if we are great partners and friends, allowing us to be in wonderful and fulfilling relationships.

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