Listen to the talk recording:
[mp3t track=”4 Foundations Talk@http://www.thecouplescenter.org/wp-content/uploads/foundations.mp3″ caption=” by Gal Szekely” ind=”n” vol=”75″ style=”bigger2″ bold=”n”]
Every couple wants to have a great relationship, one in which they both feel love, passion and intimacy. Yet no one gives us a map or a guidebook for creating a successful long term relationship. In this special report I will do exactly that. Based on my experience of working with hundreds of couples I found that you there are four main areas, four foundations, that are important for a thriving relationship – a love that lasts. I will describe the key principles of each one of those areas and will give you a tool for each one of them so you can start improving your relationship today.
Too many people believe that good relationships happen naturally. You find the right person, the proverbial soul mate and everything will be plain sailing and happily ever after. If that does not happen then they assume that this was not the right person for them after all.
This is a dangerous misconception. In almost every other area of your life in order to do things right you know that you have to keep learning and improving. Take your career or job for example. Think about how much time you spent learning to do what you do. How many years, degrees or on the job trainings you did to master what you do. Isn’t it interesting that when it comes to relationship we assume that we are supposed to just know everything?
Another example – If you buy a car, drive it for years and yet never bother to take it in for maintenance it is reasonable to expect that at a certain point the car will simply break down. Yet in a relationship the same logic is rarely applied. People just expect things to go right without having to work on anything, or learn anything and if it does fall apart the fault lay in the relationship.
So, learning about relationships is very important and a great investment for your future together and if you are reading this page you have already taken an important step in that direction. Here’s one principle that is very important to remember: A good relationship is not something that you have, it is something that you do.
Let’s jump right in. Here are the four foundations that have to be addressed and worked on to create a relationship that lasts.
Awareness – Without learning about yourself, your partner and your relationship you will go through it navigating in the dark. Think of awareness as the torch that shines the way, or the map that guides you.
Connection – Ultimately what we all want in our relationships is to feel loved. It often comes very easily in the beginning but as time goes on you have to learn how to maintain closeness and intimacy.
Conflict – All couples fight. However, when you do not handle your arguments well they create a great deal of stress in the relationship and is, sadly, the number one reason couples break up. People will say they have ‘communication issues’, but what they really mean is they do not know ‘how’ to fight. Conflict can in fact be a very valuable thing in a relationship. It teaches you not only about your partner but about yourself as well. If you learn the skills to work with this information in the right way you will actually become much closer to your partner.
Vision & Values – In this aspect you are asking yourself the deep questions. Why am I in this relationship? What is the meaning of it? What is important for me in this relationship? Once you discover the bigger context you can build a framework, a framework that can hold you together as a couple and will also encourage you to grow and develop together.
Make sense? So let’s go over each one of these in more detail.
There are two types of awareness to address. The first is an awareness of relationship patterns. Most of us do not talk to one another about the difficulties in our relationships so for a couple experiencing them it can seem like everyone else has a wonderful relationship, really has it together and it is only them dealing with these struggles. And yet many are universal and do effect even those ‘perfect couple’ types.
Then there is personal awareness. The more you know about yourself, the more you understand what you are really looking for in life and especially in your relationship the better you will be able to communicate that.
What happens when the honeymoon fades
Every relationship goes through phases. There is the one we all remember so fondly, the honeymoon phase. When you are getting to know one another both partners are being very nice, and very careful with each other. They are usually on what you would call their best behavior. And there are also some hormones at work in this stage that make us feel really good and do all of this much easier!
Over time the magic does wear off though, usually as you become more committed to one another, dating exclusively or engaged for example. When the commitment level is high the tendency is that each half of the couple decides that they would like to get back to being themselves, that just being the ‘nice person’ is now authentic enough. This is when the power struggles begin. Partners become less happy with one another, more annoyed by them and the fights and conflicts begin.
This example may be a little old fashioned, but it can give you a clue to what’s happening in relationships. A heterosexual couple meet each other and starts to go out. At first the woman is feeling great about her new guy. He’s so strong and sensible and reliable and he has such a great long term vision! And the guy? He is thinking what fun she is to be with, such a passionate girl and so spontaneous!
But fast forward a few years. She now thinks “OMG he is so boring. Everything is about his job and anything I want to do is ignored. He is always thinking about the future instead of living for today!” He is equally disillusioned. “Everything is a big deal with this girl; she is so emotional and irresponsible. Mature people don’t act like that.”
You might have realized that the big irony is that what they both once found so very attractive and wonderful about each other (in the honeymoon phase) is now what is driving them nuts (in the power struggle phase). What they need to learn is how to accept and appreciate each other differences. How to compromise, become less polarized and even learn from each other so they can be better connected. If you do that your relationship will deepen and your satisfaction will go up. Couples who don’t succeed in doing that start to be more frustrated with each other and less engaged and in love.
Two destructive patterns you should watch for
When things don’t go well there are two common destructive patterns that couples fall into that cause them to break up. The first is couples who are high conflict, the firefighters. Arguments start small, but overtime if they never get resolved they escalate. In the end just a single phrase can trigger a huge fight because each partner is thinking “I know what’s coming next and it never goes well”.
The second is the roommates pattern. This is the couple who, to the outside world, look like they are doing just fine. They may even be considered one of those ‘perfect’ couples. Inside however they feel distant, not happy, or not happy enough. They end up growing apart. They almost lead separate lives, rarely ever doing anything together. This often stems from the opposite problem to the previous couple. In this case there is not enough conflict. They don’t talk, they don’t address issues because they want to keep the peace.
Awareness tool – setting your relationship goals
Many times we feel that we want something different, or better in our relationship. But if you don’t define what you want more specifically, how will you get there? To begin doing that ask yourself these questions:
1. What do you want to cultivate in your relationship? What do you want more of? What do you want less of? If you had your dream relationship, what will it look like? How will you feel? What will you do together? How will your communication, sex, intimacy be?
2. Next, take the answers to the questions above and ask yourself what you have to do – not your partner – to make these things happen?
Many times it’s easy for us to see what our partner needs to change. But this only cause them to feel defensive and even worst than that – then you don’t have the power to do anything because it’s only up to them to change things. By focusing on yourself, you can start changing things immediately, and you become an inspiration for your partner.
Connection and conflict go together, creating what you might call the ‘love account.’ Like a bank account you can invest in it, have a positive balance and sometimes you take things out, resulting in a negative balance. The more you strengthen the positive, do things for your partner that foster connection and closeness, the better the relationship. At the same time learning how to deal with those things that cause conflict and reduce that connection will help just as much. And just like your bank account, the more positives you have in your love account the better equipped you will be to handle bumps in the road.
Research has shown that a good relationship calls for a 5:1 ratio. This means that for every negative in the relationship five positives are needed. Why? Our brains are conditioned for survival. Therefore, we react to, and pay attention to, negatives more than positives as they may pose a threat. So it is so much harder for those positives to ‘catch our eye’.
Connection tool – appreciation
One of the biggest tools you can use in this aspect is to learn to show appreciation, to make those positives stand out from the easier to notice – and dwell on – negatives. Make a daily habit of saying just one thing that you appreciate about your partner TO THEM. We often tell others something nice about our partners – she’s such a great Mom, he’s such a great Dad, they work so hard – and forget to tell the person that matters most!
There a certain way to show appreciation that really makes a difference, and here is how to do that:
1. Start by saying “I appreciate …”. Here you can share something that they do, even if it’s small, like “I appreciate that you made dinner last night”. Or you can share something about them – like “I appreciate your sense of humor” or “how you make friends easily”.
2. Then, and this is the important part, you add “Because …”. Here you explain why it is meaningful to you what they did or how they are. When you do that they get to feel how much impact they have on you, meaning what makes them special for you. For example – “I appreciate that you made dinner for me because I was so tired tonight, it made me feel that you care about me and are paying attention”.
Conflict is a natural part of relationship. Happy couples fight, but they know how to do it in a way that make them feel closer rather than distant. There’s one important secret about conflict that is really crucial and that is – the things that you argue about are not the real problem.
Think of conflict as an iceberg. 10% of an iceberg is above water, the remaining 90% lurks beneath. This means that most of the things we fight about are just the 10% above water, they are not the real issue. Since we don’t recognize the real issues we end up stuck feeling misunderstood and frustrated. Here’s a rule of thumb – if a conflict, a fight, takes more than a minute or two to resolve then the chances are that there is a deeper issue that is not being addressed.
While you can argue over everything, the real issues that lie underneath the surface for couples are things like ‘do you really care about me?’ ‘do you love me?’ ‘can I rely on you?’ Questions and needs that drive us in relationships and cause us to become so ’emotional’.
Here’s a possible example. A man is late to pick up his wife, and she is upset. She tells him “I can’t believe you’re late again. you’re always late” He responds “I had to get out of an important meeting at work. Why are you so upset?”. She says “because you are so disrespectful, it’s like you don’t care about me at all, just about your work”. He gets discouraged and says “nothing that I do is ok”. Looking at this example – can you identify what are the real issues? If this is not about being late, what is it about? (answers below)
1. Here’s a practical exercise. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Ignore your surroundings and focus on yourself. Do you feel tense or relaxed? Now, what does this phrase mean to you, if you were hearing it from your partner; “Your feelings are important to me”.
What would this, coming from your partner, evoke in you? You might have felt more relaxed or calm because this is something that you really wanted to hear from them. Or maybe, instead, you felt frustrated because this is something you have wanted to hear from them for a while. Both of those reactions point to the same thing, that we all want to feel understood and that are feelings matter to our partner. So next time you are in a conflict with your partner, ask yourself – what are they feeling? Not who is right or who is wrong, but can I understand and show them that I know what they are feeling.
2. If you want to be able to talk about the 90% below water and really resolve conflicts, here’s an important tool. Think about the last conflict you had with your partner. First, try to identify the trigger. What did they say or do that made you feel angry or hurt? Once you have figured that out ask yourself what was so hard for me about it? Ask that of yourself several times. Understanding these things will help you uncover just what is going on underwater, where the majority of your problems are hiding.
To illustrate that, let’s get back to the example of a couple fighting over being late. If we use this tool we can see that for the woman the trigger is that her husband is late, and it’s hard for her because it make her feel that she is not respected. This, in turn, is hard because she feels that he doesn’t care and that’s the root of the problem. For the man, when she criticizes him he feels that his efforts are not appreciated, and worse that whatever he does is not good enough. If this couple can share how they were really feeling directly their conversation will become much easier and they will understand each other on a deeper level. The man can reassure her that he does care a lot, and she can reassure him that his efforts are appreciated, it’s just that it’s hard for her when he is late.
Most people know that in business it’s important to have a vision and certain values that guide you. But when it comes to relationships we usually don’t ask ourselves the most fundamental questions.
Vision & Values Tools
Here are some important questions to ask yourself – Why are you in this relationship and what purpose does it serve for you? What is that you do for each other that no one else does, or can? What makes this a romantic relationship instead of just a friendship?
Taking the time to do this will help you create a ‘bigger vision’ that can help you build a better relationship for life. It can hold you and your partner to a higher standard, helping you grow together or overcome difficult times.
What most couple find out over time is that as a couple you are a team. That means that you either win together or lose together. If you “win” an argument and your partner “lose”, then both of you lose. A good relationship is based on mutuality. To help you understand that here’s a mantra to keep in mind. “It has to be good for me, and for you”. Everything in relationship has to work for both you and your partner. Usually when we are in disagreement and especially when we get triggered emotionally we think just about ourselves and then we lose sight of our partner’s needs. So in anything, any moment ask yourself is this good for me and for my partner?