Long-term relationships are hard. You have to share your life with a person who has a different personality and way of doing things.
They are now harder than ever. We have lost our village. We need our partner to play all the roles our fellow villagers used to play. Friend, family, lover, partner. All these expectations put unprecedented pressure on our relationship.
As I dug into how to improve relationships, I found a few ‘bad’ things to be actually good:
Too little fighting is as harmful to a relationship as too much. Fighting helps you express your anger and surface the real issues. You learn each other’s hot buttons. You let everything out in the open and then you can constructively work for solutions. It is therapeutic and healthy.
Stored unexpressed anger will create a wall between you and your partner. It will also suppress your immune system.
The way you fight matters. Having a heated discussion and working things out is good. Going in for the kill is not.
2. Doing your ‘own’ thing
Do you want to keep on doing this hobby of yours even if it does not include your partner? Spend time with your friends? Have your ‘me’ time? Please go ahead. Not only will self-love help you love your partner more. Your separate interests, independence, and occasional distance will help keep the flame alive as well.
In her book ‘Mating in Captivity’, Esther Perel, argues that familiarity and certainty can kill the passion. These are the very things we work towards in the merging phase of the relationship.
She asked people when they tend to find their partner more attractive. Answers had a similar pattern: when they are away, in their element, performing, at a party surrounded by people…
Distance helps attraction as you cannot desire what you already have. Seeing a new part of your partner will bring surprise and excitement. We are attracted by the unknown and the uncertain. Protecting your individuality is essential to the success of your relationship.
There is another reason for doing your ‘own’ thing. Sacrifice creates resentment. Unmet expectations. Victimization. Burdening your partner with ‘making you happy.’
Do not give up doing your thing. You need to balance masterfully closeness and distance. Security and surprise. It is a lifelong journey. It is not easy, but it is worth it.
3. Not helping
Your partner comes from work and starts talking to you about her bad day. You want to help. You start giving advice. You try to fix it.
Stepping in is most people’s natural urge and is almost always counterproductive. You are better off just listening. Trying to understand. Empathizing and asking questions.
Your partner is resourceful. She can solve her own problems. She likely does not need your help. She needs your listening and understanding. Showing that you are on her side.
If you need to maintain a balance in the relationship, avoid always taking a ‘helper’ role. It implies that one member is more competent and stronger than the other. This is rarely true.
Of course, you should not shy away from acts of service which are a powerful way to express love. Or doing your fair share of housework and childcare. Or offering your opinion and help to your partner when asked.
Yet, you should be able to hold the space for your partner to express negative feelings. Do not immediately jump to find a solution.
Avoid taking responsibility for your partner’s problems. Let them own them. Be there for them, support, but do not take over.
When I started coaching, I learned how giving advice is mostly counterproductive. It can trigger people’s defensiveness and resistance. They will play the ‘yes, but…’ game or shut down. Also, often, the advice is inadequate. I never have as much information about the issue as the client has. Coaching is about working with the client so that they come up with their own answers.
I learned a similar lesson from my toddler. Whenever I try to do something that she can do by herself, she will forcefully react protecting her independence. She will cry ‘on my own!’
You can apply the learnings from coaching and parenting to your intimate relationship. Often, not helping will be your biggest act of love.
Loving relationships are like a long walk holding hands with your partner. You will need to negotiate the pace and path even if it involves some fighting. To be able to walk, you will only be able to offer one hand and keep the other one to yourself. And finally, each of you will need to do the walking on your own. Carrying each other will only get you that far.
This post was originally posted on Medium.