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In our last blog we discussed the importance of boundaries to healthy romantic relationships, but boundaries are only one small part of what makes for a healthy, and satisfying relationship. In this blog we will discuss the five ingredients for a healthy relationship based on evidence-based marital strategies and the book “Fighting For Your Marriage”.
Ingredients for a healthy, satisfying relationship are:
- Do your part
- Decide don’t slide
- Make it safe to connect
- Nurture your commitment
- Open the doors to positive connections
1. Do Your Part
This is the main ingredient in my version of the recipe. As someone who is biologically prone to depression and anxiety, I learned early in life that often the best thing you can do for your partner and your relationship is to take care of yourself. I couldn’t be the best girlfriend (or student, employee, friend, sister, or daughter for that matter) if I wasn’t taking my M.E.D.S. (Meditating, Exercising, eating a healthy Diet, and Sleeping enough). When all of those areas of my life are in balance, if there was something I wasn’t satisfied with in the relationship, I felt like my thoughts and feelings were more valid because they weren’t a reflection of being hangry for example. This new-found self-confidence empowered me to better ask for what I wanted and needed from the relationship, but it also put me in a better position to provide my partner with what they needed and wanted as well.
The most important thing to understand about “doing your part” in a relationship is that it’s about a willingness to work as a team with your partner toward the shared goal of maintaining and enhancing your relationship. For example, being willing to let the little things slide, but also being willing to discuss and set boundaries around the things that matter. Which brings us to our second ingredient.
2. Decide Don’t “Slide”
When it comes to things like: do I/you want to have kids? Should I quit my job? Do we share the same values? Don’t just let these things happen without making a decision about them as a couple first. Set aside time to talk about whatever is important to you. Even if it feels like a little thing, little things can accumulate over the years into immense resentment, so talk about how you want to divide the chores etc., before you find yourself engaging in destructive behavior such as “scorekeeping.” (Scorekeeping is when you keep track of how often you are doing the dishes, for example, so that the information can be held as evidence of your partner's failure-- we’ll discuss this more later.) As Ben Franklin put it “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”
The hard thing about deciding not sliding, is that deciding requires more effort, and it can be scary. What if you ask your girlfriend if she wants to move to New York with you and she says “no”? You took a risk. You made yourself vulnerable. You were self-aware and communicative. You did everything right, and you got rejected. The possibility is very real, but I strongly believe that it is better to have the conversation because it will show you your options. Perhaps the reason they are rejecting you right now is because they have a deeper issue in the relationship, they aren’t sure you are committed and if in fact you aren’t, it would be a bad idea for them to move to New York for whatever reason. It’s much better to have the conversation, and find out the deeper issue, because now you are in a position to address it. Without the conversation both partners are just trying and failing to mind read. This is why it’s essential for you and your partner to feel comfortable saying things like “I want to have three kids, even if it means adoption,” instead of merely asking “do you want kids?” or not having the conversation at all.
3. Make it Safe to Connect
For you and your partner to be able to communicate openly and productively, you need our third ingredient, safety in connection. Making it safe to connect looks like: feeling comfortable having the tough conversations-- not always evading sensitive issues; and respecting your partner's thoughts and feelings-- even when you don’t agree with them. People don’t feel safe to connect when conflict results in destructive patterns such as: escalation, invalidation, negative interpretations, and withdrawal/avoidance.
Escalation is the tendency to, when angry, make hurtful comments to and about each other. For example, if you threaten to end the relationship, or say something hurtful out of contempt that you can’t take back. Escalation is relatively normal when fighting, it’s more about how often escalation occurs during conflict-- if it’s a pattern, if it happens more often than not, you have a problem. Ideally when one person starts to escalate the conflict, the other would de-escalate the argument, by soften their tone, letting down their shields, etc.
Invalidation is when one partner puts down the thoughts, feelings, or character of the other. Ideally both partners would show respect for and acknowledged the viewpoint of the other. “You’re overreacting-- you shouldn’t be so upset.” “That’s a dumb idea.” “You are so dramatic.” These are the kinds of statements you want to avoid in your relationships.
Negative interpretations is the systematic mis-attribution of maliciousness as the intent of your partner. For example, thinking that your partner isn’t using a coaster on the coffee table, even though you’ve told them a million times that it’s going to ruin the wood, just to annoy you-- when in fact, your partner just forgot. What’s tricky about negative interpretations is that your brain has actually evolved to search for evidence that confirms our theories about the world instead of challenging them. This “confirmation bias” can make it really hard for either party to correct the misconception. Furthermore, believing that your partner is more negatively motivated than they are can make them respond with hostility and rejection. Ideally, both partners open themselves up to the possibility that they might be wrong, and even go as far as to look for evidence of the contrary.
The commonality between withdrawal and avoidance is that they are both characterized by an unwillingness to get into or carry on important conversations. If you tend to withdraw… like me… then you have a tendency to literally leave the room (it’s not my fault I have an opportunistically small bladder!) when your partner tries to make you talk about something hard to hear. Or, because they waited for you to be stuck in the car or at a restaurant with them to bring it up, you kind of shut down by getting all quiet, or agreeing with no intention of following through on it. I withdraw less now that I’ve been with my current boyfriend long enough to recondition my brain to expect aversive conversation to constructive, instead of just painful and awkward like in my last relationship.
If you can unlearn these destructive behaviors then you can make it safe to connect in your relationship, and your closeness and intimacy will flourish as a result of your enhanced communication and reduced conflict.
4. Nurture Your Commitment
This ingredient can be a little bit tricky because it depends on where you are in the relationship. If you are one week into dating and your partner is physically violent towards you, don’t nurture anything, leave. But that’s an extreme case. If you are married and have a “no matter what” attitude about it, then absolutely nurture your commitment to the relationship. The truth is it is easy to fall in love, people do it all the time without even trying, even when they are actively trying not to. Staying in love is hard work because it is “for poorer,” it is “in sickness,” and so dissatisfaction is not always cause to leave. That said, even if it’s brand new, you can still nurture your commitment to the relationship by, for example, deleting Tinder from your phone, or doing whatever makes it easier for you to feel satisfied with your partner choice, and to act with integrity in the relationship.
5. Open the Doors to Positive Connections
The final ingredient for a healthy, and satisfying relationship is to open the doors to positive connections. This is not a euphemism for sex… necesssarily. Sex can be very important, but what we mean by this is make time to enjoy your partner. If you are both too busy to ever have a date night, your partner can feel more like a roommate than a lover. Conflicts and obstacles are unavoidable, but at the end of the day what is the point of nurturing commitment if it’s not to something that makes you happy.
You now have an evidence-based list of ingredients for a healthy, satisfying relationship. Your ingredients are prepped, and it’s time to get cooking. Start with what’s in your control (your part), and divide up the rest of the work between you and your partner. (This recipe is best served warm with a side of ice cream.) Most importantly, take joy in the process of creating something beautiful with your partner.
Everything that you read in today's blog is based on the book "Fighting for Your Marriage" by Howard J. Markman, Scott M. Stanley, and Susan L. Blumberg. This is a user-friendly book that provides you with an evidence-based approach to healthy relationships. We have no affiliations with this book and simply recognize that it's an excellent source of support for any marriage.