People often assume relationships mean a romantic bond.
Not even close!
You have a relationship with every living creature on the planet: your spouse, your mail person, your furry companion, your tax accountant, the stranger behind you in line at Starbucks. When I talk about “getting clear in your relationships,” it’s more than just romance.
These are my eight golden rules for making any relationship last. Because they work.
You can’t expect anyone to know what you want or what’s bothering you if you never tell them. So many friendships and partnerships break up because too much goes unsaid for far too long, creating a rift that feels impossible to cross.
If something’s amiss in a relationship or something’s bothering you, and you don’t understand why it’s happening, then bring it up and put it on the table. It’s essential; the only way to heal the issue is to examine it.
When you feel talk is needed, tell the other person before the situation escalates. Make it clear, but work to keep the emotion out of the request.
When two people go into a conversation as equals — rather than one making demands and one on the defensive — they can accomplish more understanding in less time with fewer bumps and bruises.
Make It About the Challenge, Not Personal Sniping
Let’s say your partner is hogging all the closet space. How would you typically handle this situation? If you say, “You always hog all the closet space and my stuff ends up on the floor,” what kind of response would you expect? I’d guess an unfavorable one.
What if you said instead, “My clothing is ending up on the floor; can we figure out a way for me to have more closet space?”
Notice, the “we” pulls you and your partner together for a relationship-based solution. You won’t come across as saying, “This isn’t fair” or “you’re a closet pig.”
When the talk is about the challenge and not the person, our partner’s guard doesn’t go up. When we feel included and not on the defense, we’re more willing to listen and work on a compromise. A mutual challenge to solve is less provocative than a personal attack.
To vs. At
BIG difference here. When we yell to others because we’re frustrated or angry, we’re venting about something that may not have anything to do with them. All we want is for someone to hold space for us and validate our emotions through their compassionate attention.
When we yell at others, they become the target. And if the person you’re with can’t distinguish between the two, miscommunication is usually the result.
When you feel your temper or frustration rising, and someone’s within earshot, be clear about whether they are the cause — or your support system.
If the individual is in the line of fire and not the intended target, stop. Take a deep breath. If all you need is to pop your cork or let loose the steam vent on your internal pressure cooker, tell them so first.
Prepare your support team so they’re ready to listen without needing to duck the fireworks. And if they are the target of your explosion? Remember, the idea is to explore a mutual challenge, not attack.
Fix vs. Listen
In any relationship, but most especially a partnered one, there’s always a fixer.
Fixers see or hear a perceived problem and make suggestion after suggestion until they come up with a solution.
That’s a problem when people aren’t asking for advice.
Some folks just want to vent or think out loud to see if a solution makes sense. We crave a supportive sounding board, not someone else’s two cents on a matter.
Trust me: if someone you’re with is having an out-loud go-round about a problem or challenge, the magic phrase is, “Do you want me to try and fix this, or just listen?”
If they want your input, they’ll invite you to help them solve the problem.
If they say, “Please just listen,” then put the Spiritual Duct Tape over your mouth and hold the space for the other person to figure things out.
People talk about 50–50 relationships, but I believe in 60–60.
It’s the idea that every individual goes a little bit more than halfway to listen, appreciate, and engage with the other. The extra ten percent tends to overlap, and gives the relationship a strong anchor for the tough times.
To be honest, relationships of any kind are always in flux. There’s never perfect equality. Sometimes one person will lean on the other a little more — needing more attention or help during a tough situation.
That, my friends, is Life.
If each partner is willing to give more on occasion, or in the face of unforeseen circumstances, there is loving equilibrium. The leaned-on person knows that their own relationship reservoir has been filled in the past, and they have the emotional support to give now without feeling used.
When I had my third bout of cancer early in my marriage, Carle and I already had four years of a relationship and eighteen months of marriage behind us. We both understood the idea of 60–60 and had been building up that reservoir from our first date.
As a result, Carle was able to be there for me under terribly difficult circumstances — ones that, for many other couples, spelled separation or divorce.
Eighteen years later, that 60–60 means our marriage is stronger than ever.
The 60–60 is one of the best practices you can adopt to keep a relationship — any relationship — intact for the long run.
You First, Then the Relationship
“Wait, what about the 60–60?” you ask? Let’s not confuse you first with, “It should be all about me!” The reality is simple: if you fail to take care of yourself first, you have nothing to give to anyone else.
Sometimes you are unable to move a work deadline. Sometimes someone is asking for a personal appointment that can derail your health and stable progress. And sometimes you simply need some time for yourself without demands.
In all of these cases, don’t say a “Yes” you don’t mean.
Learn when saying “No” is a fabulous idea.
Most importantly, remove the guilt you attach to making yourself unavailable.
Calmly making it clear that you are a priority too can help your friends, family, and partner accept that when you say “No,” it’s not a rejection, but a point of self-care.
Don’t Sublimate Needs
Familiarity is comforting for most people, especially in relationships. But Life asks us to change and grow, and that can’t help but affect our connections with others.
In order to honor our authenticity within a relationship, we need to admit when changes are necessary. Otherwise, communication breakdowns and misunderstandings are sure to result.
Remember the Make It About the Challenge rule?
If a habitual part of the relationship needs changing or if your life has altered parts of the relationship’s expectations, talk about it.
Ignoring the changes or avoiding the conversation will always end up fueling a misunderstanding. The relationship will thank you in the long run if you both address what you want and need from each other.
Give the Relationship the Time It Requires
Just as we all need me time, relationships need us time. While some of us are incredibly lucky to have those friendships that last through long bouts of non-communication, most relationships need some proper care and feeding.
Between the pandemic, work schedules and just plain 21st century craziness, the old idea of coming over for an evening or spending a day together doing an amiable bunch of nothing is hard to come by.
And because our globe is shrinking — sometimes our best friends are in Nairobi when we live in Nevada — that can put a double strain on things because getting together physically these days is rare-to-impossible.
So make a conscious effort.
Send an email or text (the relationship equivalent of MREs). Get on a phone call or ZOOM. Make time for a friendship to grow.
If you’re lucky enough to be within meeting distance, set aside time to be in each other’s company.
It’s tempting to let “have to” get in the way of “want to,” but any friendship worth keeping is worth cultivating (and is far easier than looking for a new one).
As for a romantic relationship, my philosophy is always, “Friends before lovers, not lovers before friends.”
Why? When you are friends, you have built up some degree of trust and understanding of each other’s foibles and world views. That level of confidence in each other makes the evolution to the physical part of the relationship sweeter and easier.
Lovers before friends can create sticky situations where you’re unsure about the person you woke up next to. You have no idea what they’re thinking or how they are going to react. And later that afternoon is when you usually pick up the phone and call me for a psychic reading, isn’t it?
When a relationship — any relationship — is clear to both partners, the bond can grow strong and healthy roots. As any good gardener knows, the beauty of the blooming garden is worth every bit of effort and love you can lavish upon it. I encourage you to look at each of your relationships as a personal flower patch. Pull up the weeds. Feed and water your delicate flowers sufficiently. They’ll repay you with heart’s ease, nourishment, and beauty for a long time.