When two people fall in love, fairytales seem to take over. And while I love fairytales as much as anyone, they don’t necessarily help with the question of how two people can live together successfully through several decades of bill-paying and kitchen-scrubbing.
This week, I outline ten things everyone should know before they commit to any kind of long-term relationship.
It’s my firm belief that a huge amount of pain and suffering could be avoided if only we learnt some simple skills in communication and empathy, rather than staking everything on notions like “soulmate” and “the power of love”.
In that spirit, here are my ten best pieces of advice for the newly partnered-up, AND for the many long-term married people out there who are still finding things harder than they’d like.
1. Arguments are good for you.
If your parents never argued - just sniped at each other - or if their rows turned toxic and they divorced, you won’t have learnt that it’s possible to disagree, have your say, find a compromise and move on.
I believe arguing is the most intimate thing you can do with your partner. It shows what really matters to you and rather than hiding your feelings (‘I’m fine, really’ or ‘it’s not important’) brings everything up to the surface.
So what’s the difference between positive conflict and destructive rows? Firstly, deal with one subject at a time, rather than storing up a pile of resentments.
You can probably solve putting wet towels on the bed, but not if you throw in shoes left in the hall and not phoning when you’re going to be late.
Secondly, build bridges during the argument: ‘that’s a good point’ and ‘I agree with you on that but what about....’ This shows that although you disagree, you still respect and love your partner.
Finally, make certain there’s a benefit from the outcome of arguments for both of you -as these solutions are most likely to stick.
2. Learn to listen
Many people think good communication is about being able to express their point of view and share their feelings, but underestimate the second half of the equation: listening.
There are three types of listening and only one of them is positive. The first is argumentative where you are not really paying attention but waiting for a pause to jump in. These people not only fail to truly understand their partner’s viewpoint, but also their frequent interruptions leave both parties feeling frustrated and angry.
The second kind is dismissive listening. These people put mental brackets round parts of their partner’s argument. For example if you fail to collect some groceries on the way home ‘but really meant to do it’ this allows you to bracket your partner’s frustration about not having a vital ingredient for supper and therefore dismiss their anger.
The best kind of listening is respectful. It allows you up to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and truly understand them. After all, if they believe they’re in the right, they must have a good reason. Double check that you’ve heard correctly-‘so what you’re saying is....’ - rather than jumping to possibly the wrong conclusion.
3. Focus on comings and goings
When your partner arrives home, stop what you’re doing and concentrate on them. It shows that they’re more important than getting supper ready, chatting on Facebook or watching TV.
It also gives you a chance to catch up on each other’s day, so you don’t imagine that their bad mood is down to you, when their boss was really to blame.
If either one of you needs a couple of minutes to unwind before talking, just give each other a quick kiss and a hug but make certain that you debrief later as a good ‘coming home’ will set up a good evening together.
When you leave, in the morning, give each other another hug and a kiss rather than shouting up the stairs. If there is an unresolved argument, acknowledge it: ‘I know you’re still angry with me. Can we talk about it when I get home?’
Ultimately, good daily habits - like never being too busy to acknowledge and celebrate comings and goings - demonstrate how much you value each other and help you feel special everyday.
4. Stop what doesn’t work.
It is impossible to live with someone without getting on each other’s nerves from time-to-time. When asking nicely doesn’t change their behaviour, it is easy to fall into one of the poor communication traps - like dropping hints, sarcastic jokes, nagging, making them feel guilty, or simply demanding.
The results these strategies bring - a poisonous atmosphere, withdrawal, sniping - would suggest that they don’t work. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen in my counselling room, many are tempted to do the same thing, just bigger and louder, in the hope that stomping on the accelerator will provide a breakthrough.
Of course, this just ends with us a nasty crash. So why not stop and try something else? First, ask yourself: ‘why does this issue matter so much to me?’ (hint, it is probably because your parents did it this way.) Then, ask your partner: ‘why do we find this issue so difficult to solve?’ and ‘what would help us break the deadlock?’
5. Find the positive angle
Unfortunately, many people communicate in negatives. For example: ‘we don’t go out anymore’. Their partners become defensive, justify themselves or switch off. However, if you put the same thought into a positive -‘I really enjoy it when we go out together’ -your partner will feel complimented, committed and ready to please.
6. We see sex differently
Some of use use sex to feel close; some of us have to feel close to be our sexual selves. Sadly, lots of relationships fail because couples don’t realise that they’re after the same thing: intimacy.
So look for a middle way - like having a bath together and soaping each other down or feeding each other tempting treats - which build a bridge from the grind of the everyday into the sensual world of making love.
7. Marriage is forever; children are just passing through
It is easy to let adult love fade away in a comfortable easy family setting. You think you’re spending a lot of time with your partner but it centres on family days out and all you talk about is the children.
You may turn around after the early years of childrearing and feel like more like room-mates than lovers. And, even though you will probably feel like you’ve tried your best to be everything to everyone, your partner may well see themselves as the last item on an endless to-do list.
Setting proper time apart as a couple will help. Date nights can be fun, but better is to have a dedicated ten minutes each day to really communicate with each other.
Guard time with your partner and don’t be afraid to create a private space by putting a lock on the bedroom door.
8. Don’t lose sight of yourself.
In successful relationships, partners not only look after each other but also themselves. Unfortunately, though, some people focus all their care on their partner - hoping they will return the favour.
In the meantime, they become emotionally exhausted and either sacrifice their needs (and become a people-pleaser) or become resentful (and become a serial complainer).
Each month, stop and think: what have I done lately to nurture myself?
9. Remember why you fell in love with each other.
What attracts us to our beloved are often the very things that, several years later, drive us up the wall. This is because we chose people who have qualities that we lack.
For example, if you’re hopeless with money you’ll be impressed by someone with a ten-year financial plan. Unfortunately, that person is also likely to question how much you spend online when you’re feeling a bit low.
Instead of getting defensive or angry, look at what you could gain from each other. In this case, you can learn how to balance your budget and they can learn to relax and enjoy a good time.
With most relationship dilemmas, two heads and two approaches are better than one.
10. The best times are still ahead.
Love at the beginning is based on the promise of how life together could be. However, it is older couples who are the most romantic, because after thirty-years plus together, love is based on the solid reality of a life shared and obstacles overcome.
It’s the bit in the middle that’s toughest, because earning a living and raising kids comes centre-stage and couples can easily take each other for granted.
So capture the best of today, and everyday, by telling your partner what you appreciate about them. Be specific as possible (‘I really appreciate you collecting me from my office party’) rather than general compliments (‘You’re good to me’) because it shows that you’ve noticed when they’ve gone the extra mile.
In the same spirit, if you think ‘I love you’ say it; if you’re thinking of holding hands do it. What’s more, by expressing positive thoughts and gestures, you’ll encourage your partner to do the same.
In other news, I recently spoke to therapist Dr Anna Colton about coping with anxiety, a skill that modern life seems to demand more and more of.
I particularly liked the points she made about our “unlived lives” - if you have a dream you set aside and never pursued, this may be feeding into your everyday feelings of unease and irritability.
Listen to the interview for some ideas about coming to terms with this.
I also guested on the Divorce Social podcast with Samantha Baines - I talked about how divorce affected my early life, the danger of secrets, and the worst Boxing Day ever. Listen here.
And as always, if it feels like the right time to start marital therapy, send an email to Tricia (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a virtual or in-person appointment with one of my team of therapists in London, or with me here in Berlin.
A list full of good reminders everyone should keep in mind while in a relationship.
I have enjoyed reading it :)