When I started writing about relationships a few years back, I started with a simple premise and a question.
My premise was, in most cases when people get married they truly love each other and expect it to last. They believe they are committing to forever.
But many marriages fail. And many that “succeed” end up as unhappy marriages where people no longer love each other and live largely independent lives.
My question was, why? Why does this happen? What are we doing wrong, and how do we prevent it? How do give our marriages the best shot to last?
Over the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this. I’ve read other people’s stories, and I have to say I find it remarkable how although every situation is different there are many commonalities. I think we’re all doing the same things, and screwing up in the same ways.
People go into a relationship thinking Hey, we love each other. That’s what matters right? Isn’t love enough?
We all start with love, or at least what we think is love (more on this later). Yet divorce rates continue to hover around 50%. So while I think love is an important starting point, it’s clearly not enough.
I believe there are three basic rules needed for a strong relationship:
- Love each other
- Don’t be selfish
With a bit more focus on these three things, I think any relationship can be better. Thing is, you need all three. And when you don’t, problems arise over time.
Rule 1 – Love Each Other
Loving each other should be the easy part. However, depending on our age and experience I’m not sure if we really understand what love is. I recently saw a great line:
People don’t understand what love is, and they confuse the combination of sex and excitement for love
I truly believe that most of us don’t understand love, we really don’t “get it”.
We start in relationships that are mostly lust and excitement, and hopefully it grows into more over time. Learning to love one another takes time, effort and understanding.
But loving each other all the time isn’t easy.
It’s important to accept that loving someone and liking them are two different things. People have good days and bad days. Sometimes people are jerks. Sometimes people we care the most about hurt us.
In a relationship I think it’s fair to say that you won’t always like the other person. But for the relationship to be successful you need to always love them. And you need to understand that loving someone doesn’t mean you have to always like them.
How do we do that? Love isn’t just a feeling, and it’s not just a word. We need to love people through our actions. And we have to be vigilant against getting complacent and taking them for granted.
Rule 2 – Don’t be Selfish
If loving each other is fairly easy, than being unselfish is a bit harder.
We all come into our relationships as individuals. The relationship starts because of what it does for us, and what we get out of it. Yes, we want to do things for our partners because we care about them, but also because we like how it feels to see them happy.
The thing is we had our own lives before. Our own interests. Our own friends. Now we are fitting this new person into our life, and finding that balance that will allow the relationship to flourish while maintaining our own identity can be very difficult.
People say you need to put your partner’s needs before your own. That’s a noble sentiment, but I think it’s flawed. You matter too, and if you believe you always need to put your partners needs before your own then that is kind of like saying you should live for them or do things the way they want.
A relationship has to be mutually beneficial. For that to happen, you need to be willing to put your partners needs at the same level as yours. Not above, and not below. And doing that consistently is very difficult.
A relationship is a partnership. Both people need to be feel valued, appreciated, and happy. Any time one person is putting themselves above the other, they are creating an imbalance in the relationship.
Rule 3 – Communicate
I know it’s cliché, but the key to keeping a relationship healthy is communication.
I heard this for years and thought that I “got it”, but it’s only recently that I have truly started to understand this.
Imagine for a moment that in a marriage, people are like two ships heading for a destination. If you haven’t shared your vision of where you want to go, and you just assume the other person wants the same things, sometimes you find out you aren’t actually heading to the same place. And often by the time you find this out, it’s too late.
That’s a pretty fundamental flaw to start with.
But lets imagine that both you and your partner did actually start out with a shared vision of where you wanted to go. You are still two separate ships.
If one or both of you are off course by a little bit, the longer you go on this way the more impact it has. And in a long term relationship, we all get off course once in a while. Or maybe our course changes.
This is where effective communication has to come in. An ability to listen without anger, criticism, defensiveness or ego (something much easier said than done), and to respond with empathy.
Effective communication allows a couple to have periodic course corrections, preventing problems from getting too big and preventing them from getting too far apart.
Communication is freaking hard though. No one teaches us how to do it, so we try to learn it on our own. And because it’s hard, it’s easy to convince ourselves that avoiding problems will work. If we avoid things, maybe they’ll get better on their own.
Without those course corrections though, we just get farther and farther apart. And by the time we are willing to acknowledge there is a problem it is often too late.
Another issue with poor communication is that all relationships have problems and people can’t hold them in forever. So people turn to close friends either for advice, or simply to vent. But one of the biggest mistakes people make is having them come out with the wrong people.
This is a very dangerous thing to do. First, in doing so it can be very easy to violate trust. Additionally, the very act of opening up to someone is a large component of how intimacy is built in the first place. So opening up to the wrong person can place additional stresses on your relationship.
Someone is having problems at home, so they open up to a friend or a co-worker who lends a sympathetic ear. The opening up is a form of intimacy, and when the other person listens and understands, a bond is formed. Then they in turn start to open up. And suddenly, in addition to a troubled relationship at home you are building a bond with someone else.
This is how many affairs start.
And it’s something that could easily be avoided by simply working on communication in the relationship.
Making it Work
As people, we are always only one half of a relationship. We have no control over the other person and their actions (and shouldn’t want it), so there is no way to “divorce proof” a relationship.
But we do have control over ourselves and our own actions. And these three actions are the ways to give our relationship the best chance at success.
Love each other, don’t be selfish, and communicate.
Simple, and obvious rules. But although they are easy to understand, they aren’t always easy to do.
But if we can accept that and work on them every day, we give our relationships their best chance of long term success.