Building and maintaining satisfying relationships is one of the hardest things we do in life. Strong and healthy relationships require dedicated effort, a willingness to learn some essential skills and attitudes, and an ability to change and grow over time.
Too many relationships fall apart because people take them for granted and don’t pay attention to them. Once the initial courtship is over and the relationship is secured, it is too easy to fall into a routine with your partner and focus on other aspects of life. Many relationships fall apart because people simply do not understand what it takes to keep a relationship working for both partners. A relationship is a living thing and like any other living thing, it must be tended to, nurtured, and provided with the essential ingredients for survival.
Tending to a relationship means that you notice when there is a problem and then you do what you need to do to fix the problem. The health of a relationship can be measured in terms of the degree of connection between two people and the quality of that connection. To build a strong connection with your partner, you must learn how to talk to each other on an emotional level; you must endeavor to spend time together and to share interests; you must find ways to work with each other to achieve agreed upon goals; and you must attend to the wellbeing of each other. If you don’t make a concerted effort to do these things with your partner, the connection between you will weaken and eventually dissolve.
Most people are pretty good at building a connection with their partner. Once you have built this connection, your work is not done – it is vital that you nurture this connection. To nurture means to love, and love is in the doing. You may say that you love your partner, but do you translate that love into your behavior on a day-to-day basis? When you nurture your partner, your love is visible. You will do things for your partner even when you don’t feel like it, or when it is not easy or convenient. You will do these things because you are paying attention to your partner and you notice that this particular action is needed from you in the moment. It may be something as simple as reaching for your partner’s hand, or maybe it is just listening to their day, or going to their business function when you would rather stay home and read a book.
Nurturing is also expressed in the form of basic respect, courtesy and graciousness. Consciously incorporate these aspects into your relationship. Show your respect and appreciation by saying “please” and “thank you”. Be as kind to your partner as you would be to a co-worker or even a stranger. Speak highly of your partner’s attributes and focus on their strengths when you communicate with others. Say you are sorry when you are wrong and forgive your partner for being human. While these may all be seem to be little things, they are everyday things and your love needs to be visible every day. If you water a houseplant only when you feel like it, the plant will not survive. So too, if you only nurture your relationship when you feel like it, the connection between you will wither and die.
Another very important way of nurturing your relationship is to truly see your partner as a separate and unique person, not just as a reflection of you. Do you know what is essential to your partner? What are their deepest needs, desires, and beliefs? Are you paying close enough attention to see when those things evolve and change? And, are you willing to support your partner in their efforts to explore, develop, and grow as a human being?
A relationship is both strong and delicate. It is strong because two people can stay together even though they may have major arguments, experience a painful tragedy, or discover a fundamental betrayal. A relationship is also very delicate because the big and small hurts of every day, if not gently recognized, cared for and healed, will accumulate over time until the sheer weight of them will shatter the relationship. Your relationship needs the continual healing balm of acknowledgment, apology, and forgiveness for the small and big hurts. Ignoring them will not make them go away. You must make the effort to deal with the issues that arise every day to ensure that the delicate strands of your connection stay healthy and resilient.
If your relationship is going to thrive, you must also be willing to learn some basic skills and attitudes. Our ideas about what constitutes a marriage and family are formed by our experience within our family of origin. There are always different and better ways of doing things, and what worked for your parents is not necessarily going to work for you. You live in a different time and different things are required of you and your partner.
Most people today want a relationship to be a true partnership even though you may fulfill different roles during various times in the relationship. Don’t make assumptions and don’t slip into automatic behaviors. Read about relationships, talk to other people, and attend workshops to develop your communication skills, relationship skills, and problem-solving skills. Think about what is important to you and clarify your goals and values and then discover these things about your partner. Talk to each other about your deepest fears, needs, questions, and hopes.
Adults grow and change over time and if a relationship is going to withstand the test of time, it has to change too. Throughout the life-span, internal and external processes and events interact to shape and define a person. The joys, tragedies, and daily grind of life change us physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. The person you are today is different than the person you were a year ago. People experience psychological growth at different times and in response to different experiences. If you are not paying attention to what is going on in your relationship, this growth will result in you and your partner drifting apart.
How do you know when it is time for the relationship to change? The answer is when it stops working. You know it stops working when you encounter tension and conflict. A natural reaction at times of conflict is to dig your heels in, fight for your position, and try to get the other person to change. People in successful relationships have learned to do the opposite; they pool their strengths and try to find ways to meet the needs of both people in the relationship. There is an attitude of openness, cooperation, and negotiation. During times of conflict, talking and listening increases rather than decreases. Change is understood as being necessary rather than resisted, and is anticipated as a time of growth and learning. When a relationship is open along these dimensions, it is flexible and able to adapt to the changing needs of the individuals and the ongoing demands of the external environment.
Does all of this sound like a lot of work? It is. It takes time, effort, attention, and a life-long willingness to learn and change to keep a relationship vibrant and strong. Try doing some of these things and you will be surprised. Along with the work, there is also excitement, passion, and a full engagement in the process of life. In our most intimate relationships we have the opportunity to find ourselves, to fully express all that we are, and to discover the full meaning of love.
Shirley Vandersteen, Ph. D.