Start with managing yourself, not them.
April 23, 2023
It amazes me how hard we all work to impress our friends and the people we work with.
And then we come home with the idea that we shouldn’t have to work as hard to make our partners or kids happy. They should accept us ‘as is,’ even when ‘as is’ isn’t pleasant.
An ex once told me, “I know this is nuts, but I have this deep-seated belief I should be able to come home and grab a beer and watch TV after a tough day at the office.” He was wise to acknowledge that though he had that deep-seated belief, it WAS nuts. I agreed while preparing dinner, changing a diaper, and planning my next workday.
The truth is, we all have hidden ideas (hidden even from ourselves) about how our relationships should work, and it’s usually in our favor.
Where’d we get this idea that our friends and coworkers deserve to meet our best selves every day, but our partners should take us as we are?
Remember that your friends and coworkers may not be at your funeral, much less caring for you when you’ve lost your mental or physical capacities. Guess who will? Your partner, and if you’ve got kids, and you’re lucky, maybe they’ll be there too.
So, consider doing a 180 degree flip, and start bringing your best self to your partnership, working as hard as you do at maintaining your friendships and co-worker relationships.
Over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about what that might look like, and I want to share some of them with you.
What Makes a Healthy Relationship
Here’s a yardstick for what a good relationship might include. Many of these suggestions are from a training mentor and master couples therapist, Sara Schwarzbaum. My experience with my clients and with myself is that these guidelines are a reliable measuring tool.
1. Collaboration, negotiation, and teamwork to solve problems no matter what kind.
There will be conflicts. Contrary to popular opinion that there may be 10 to 20% of things you and your partner will have to agree to disagree on, in my experience working with clients, it may be more like 60%.
Learning how to problem-solve together is critical.
And then knowing how to repair after a difficult conversation can be just as important.
There are two critical elements in repair work:
Self-management — calling a time-out when you feel yourself getting jacked up and you need to table the conversation until you feel capable of managing yourself healthily.
Be the first to reach out — both of you need to work on becoming more comfortable with being the first to reach out a hand and revisit the issue when things have calmed down.
2. There is a decision-making process based on turf, negotiation, or veto power when disagreements arise.
Turf means the one primarily responsible for the job, say food prep or yard maintenance, gets to be the tiebreaker when there’s a disagreement.
Negotiation is just what it says. You work together on growing your capability to give and take as situations arise.
You each have veto power when something leaves you feeling unsafe or insecure. However, there is an agreement that somebody can revisit the topic if new information surfaces to reduce insecurity.
3. Mutual influence.
How open are you to being influenced by your partner’s wants and needs? Mutual influence is as simple as paying attention and not ignoring your partner’s wishes.
4. Listening well.
- One person talks at a time.
- Catch yourself when you start planning your response while your partner is still talking and return to listening.
- Say, “Tell me more,” until you understand your partner’s position and they agree you get it.
- Take turns.
5. Keeping each other accountable with kindness and humor.
Learning to take me and my ideas more lightly has been life changing. Kindness and humor naturally arise when I’m less attached to my thoughts and open to exploring others’ perspectives.
These days I love laughing, especially at myself.
6. Understanding one’s triggers and managing one’s reactivity.
This means working hard to first notice what triggers you, and second, practicing alternative behvioral responses.
Just because you’re triggered when your partner says something you interpret as controlling or insufferable doesn’t mean it was or that was their intention.
Here’s a simple, quick fix to avoid demonizing each other when you’re triggered.
Separate the behavior from your thought about it.
For example: If my partner explains something to me that seems obvious, I may say something like this.
“When you said that, I had the thought that you must think I’m an idiot, and I felt angry.”
There is a world of difference between that statement vs. saying, “When you said that you made me feel like an idiot, and I felt angry.”
In the first case, I’m responsible for the thought that made me feel awful. In the second, I’m blaming my partner.
Both you and your partner will benefit from becoming familiar with your tender, possibly hidden, unhealed wounds so that you can help each other understand and avoid inadvertently causing harm.
7. Focusing on what works rather than putting attention and energy on what doesn’t work or what you don’t have.
The problem with focusing on what’s wrong is that by repeating what you don’t like, over and over, your partner has yet to learn what you WOULD like, what would make you feel loved.
8. Expressing wishes with clarity and persistence.
Asking for what you want, rather than what you don’t want, can be more challenging than it sounds. Often, when I ask a client, “What is it that you want?” I get this, “I DON’T KNOW, ROBYN!”.
If you’re unsure what you want, your partner has little chance of figuring that out for you.
And remember, if you don’t get your want met at first blush, that doesn’t mean you give up. Instead, revisit it as often as necessary, with as much kindness, humor, and respect toward your partner as you want from them.
9. Anticipating the wishes of your partner. (Not to be confused with mind-reading, which no one’s good at.)
If you know your partner’s love language, you’ve got a great start. If not, check this out together.
10. Spending time together without screens.
There’s a subtle but essential difference between being in the same room with your eyes on your screen and being in the same room with your eyes on each other.
One of the most loving gestures I learned from my partner is that when someone you care about enters the room, you turn toward them and smile.
That one thing has made me feel more loved than just about anything else.
We won’t be perfect at any of this stuff. But if our most intimate relationships matter, we’ll work on them with persistence and compassion (for ourselves and our partners) for the entirety of our time together.
There are no guarantees, but if you sit down with your partner and check your progress in each of these areas and see ongoing improvement, you may have one of the lucky partnerships that not only survives but thrives.
And however things turn out with your partnership, you’ll feel stronger and like yourself a whole lot better if you practice these skills with every relationship you have.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share your reactions.
I’m always thrilled to hear from you, and I appreciate every time my articles are forwarded to someone new.