Let’s face it. Being in a committed relationship takes work. Lots of work. Here are just a few lessons I and others have learned over the years (after all, there is something to be learned from being in the same relationship for over 23 years). Here’s what we’ve discovered.
Negative words hold negative power. As they exit one’s mouth like a dagger, they pierce the mind of the other, burrow holes into his or her heart, and often, hold the heart hostage. Recovery from an emotionally verbal war takes moments for some, years for others. In some cases, there is no recovery.
Make a deal at peacetime to share respectful words with one another when in a conflict. That promise will come back to you when tempers flare and frustration and anger arise. If the gravity of your emotion or pride is heavy, agree to disagree. Show respect, honor and love for yourself through this action, and it will teach your love to try for the same.
There’s a saying: “Don’t make permanent decisions on temporary emotions.” As each conflict appears, be thoughtful to recognize that it shouldn’t inherit the need to sling bad words at your teammate. Nor should it be added cumulatively to the arguments had in the past. Be the bearer of peace, turning a conflict into a positive challenge to work through, happily together after.
Be Committed To Always Making Each Other #1
It’s easy to make your mate #1 in your life when you experience always being #1 in theirs. I love the saying, “What you put out into the universe, comes back to you tenfold.” The same is true of your partnership. Start every morning with the intention of giving and think about how you can put your sweetheart first. If you haven’t been doing this; start today, right now. Start making THEM your most important relationship over your kids, boss, friends, or family.
Make the decision to be the one to start and give it some time. Once they’ve noticed, you can approach them about reciprocating for the rest of your lives. Make new wedding vows over dinner or have a whole new ceremony and reception to celebrate! The key is to be committed to making each other #1 and then enjoying the follow through.
Follow The Platinum Rule
You know the Golden Rule about doing to others as you would like done to yourself? It works great with new dates, customers, sales people, and anyone you don’t know well or are getting to know; so why not with your mate? Because Platinum Rules! Do for your mate what THEY want, not what you want. This goes hand in hand with making your mate #1. And best of all, think of the joy that comes from being in a relationship where you are the top priority in your mate’s life and they are your top priority.
Think about the things that make your sweetheart FEEL loved. They may be different from those things that make you feel good. You might not care about cards, hugs, or compliments but they might think it’s just the best thing you’ve done all year if you haven’t been paying attention. Think about the last time you received a really thoughtful gift that was perfect just for you. Now go do that little something they would want and watch their face light up with love. I promise, you’ll receive so much more from them than you have given.
Respond, rather than React
When you are feeling hurt or misunderstood, stop and breathe before you say or do anything. Words and actions, once said and done, cannot be taken back. If your feelings, no matter how valid, get to control how you behave, then the love between you two will eventually be strangled by those ever-increasing negative feelings.
For example, resentment takes on a life of its own, and persists even if your spouse apologizes and corrects his/her ways. The feeling of resentment will not be your friend, but will be your ever-present poisonous companion because it keeps getting fed.
Feelings can be soothed, examined and addressed, without being acted out. Instead of blaming your partner, yelling, putting up a wall, or withholding affection or sex, all of which will cause more damage than the issue itself, learn how to mutually resolve the complaint early on, while refusing to hold onto the victim nature of the hurt feeling. Respond rather than react.
Start Talking or Start Walking
Relationships require good communication and working thru issues as they arise instead of ignoring them. When issues arise you need to talk to your partner about it sooner rather than later. Never, ever, ever, let an issue fester. It will just begin to grow out of proportion to the actual hurt.
Before you have that conversation you need to set up some guidelines: where to have the conversation, who will talk first, avoid interrupting each other and listen without being defensive. Hear each other out and try not to let emotion get in the way; remember you are both on the same team. Another trick is to state back what each of you hear from the other. You’ll be surprised at how often an issue is just a case of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Don’t assume that your partner knows what they did wrong in your eyes.
Designate a day and time each week where you and your partner have a “check in” with each other, so you are constantly addressing issues which makes little room for any misunderstandings. Have fun with this and don’t look at this as a chore, you are partners for a reason — talking things out will only make your relationship stronger! Now get talking!
Better Laughing Than Crying
Every relationship has their issues, but how you deal with them is the difference between a long lasting relationship and heading to divorce court. So what do you do? At the end of the day you need to find your sense of humor.
Just as you feel an argument is about to begin and you are about to start slinging some good old fashioned insults, take a moment, breathe, and think where is the good in this? Imagine that there is a referee throwing the flag down to cease fire! Remember you love this person and think about how ridiculous you are both acting. Chances are there is some misunderstanding between you and your partner and he/she is not intentionally trying to upset you. Laugh at yourself, laugh at your partner and ask yourself is this argument really worth it – probably not!
The Path to Relationship Happiness
I recently realized that as a coach, therapist, friend, I have never been able to help anyone who wasn’t committed to what they wanted.
Having a strong rescuer/hero complex, for many years I tried for a 100% success rate helping couples save their marriages, individuals find happiness, clients achieve success, and so on, taking personal responsibility for the outcome. Whenever the desired results didn’t happen, I blamed my skills and methods and sought more training and techniques, and never achieved more than a 50% success rate. I felt relieved when I discovered that other helping professionals did no better.
Thinking of all the people I tried to help, the biggest difference between those that succeeded and those that didn’t, appeared to be — Commitment.
Discovering the pivotal role of commitment, I now seek to address level of commitment first and foremost with my clients, going so far as to say that I can’t help them unless they are committed. So far, I have not had any luck helping people become more committed than they already are. I’ll let you know if I figure out the secrets of “Commitment Coaching.” Until then, I will assume your level of commitment determines your outcome.
We seem to live in a society that values immediate gratification and happiness, and devalues commitment and sacrifice. Co-habiting couples want to be happy first, then they’ll commit. No wonder the failure rate of co-habiting couples is so much higher than committed couples.
What is Commitment?
Commitment is both a FACT demonstrated by behavior, and an ATTITUDE consisting of thoughts and beliefs. Saying vows and exchanging rings in front of witnesses establishes the fact of commitment, as does the behavior of staying in an unhappy relationship no matter what. A committed attitude involves thoughts and beliefs to stay in the relationship under all circumstances.
What people say and do is typically preceded by their attitude, but not always. It is common to have a difference between fact and attitude, for example, the married person who wonders “Is this relationship right for me? Do I want to stay?” As long as they stay in the relationship, they are committed in fact, if not attitude. Behavioral choices can be interpreted to reflect the true, underlying commitment, regardless of what people say.
While both are important, if there is a difference, it is probably more effective to focus on what someone does more than their attitude and what they say. You can change actions and behavior much more easily than beliefs and thoughts, and “acting as-if” is a well-established technique for changing attitudes.
In my view, making a commitment to a relationship is a serious and irreversible choice, not to be taken lightly or entered into quickly, because you can never go back to the way your life was before. When you are single and dating is your opportunity to explore possibilities. When you enter a pre-committed relationship is your chance to fully compare your requirements with the reality. Ideally, you make a commitment with full consciousness and clarity that this is what you want, accepting all challenges and obstacles as part of the package.
Path to Happiness Paved with Commitment?
I have found compelling evidence that the path to long-term relationship happiness requires commitment in the results of a study by Linda Waite, author of “The Case for Marriage,” who found that two-thirds of unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported that their marriages were happy five years later. She coined the term “Marital Endurance Ethic;” stating that “marriages got happier not because partners resolved problems, but because they stubbornly outlasted them.”
This is astounding. All by itself, the act of commitment appears to be more effective than counseling, therapy, workshops, self-help books, and even relationship coaching, in overcoming problems and creating a happy long-term relationship.
Attitude, Behavior and Responsibility
Couples come to counseling and coaching wanting to be happy together. Chances are, they’ll be happy if they just stick it out long enough, they don’t need me for that. If they wish to proactively co-create their happiness together, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’ve discovered they both must be committed and be willing to accept personal responsibility.
Commitment is a fact simply demonstrated by the act of staying in a relationship. While “attitude precedes outcome” is true, it is also true that “all behavior is purposeful,” meaning that what someone does is a better measure of the future than what they say. We can clear up a lot of confusion and “what ifs” (“What if there is an affair?” “What if they won’t go to counseling?” “What if my needs aren’t met?”) by focusing on the “fact” of commitment as demonstrated by both partners staying in the relationship no matter what, since now, thanks to Linda Waite’s research, we know that if they do so, the odds are that it will work out.
Should Commitment Be Unbreakable?
When entering a committed relationship, the great majority of us do so with the full intention of being together for life. Ideally, breaking that commitment shouldn’t be easy or quick. In my opinion, unhappiness is not a valid reason to break a commitment; it is simply an indication that there is work to be done.
If, most of the time but not all the time, commitment is the path to relationship happiness, how do we decide whether to stick it out or not? How do we know that our misery will eventually lead to happiness or not? We can’t really know.
Since we can’t really know the prognosis of an unhappy relationship, perhaps the following questions might help:
1. Since unhappiness is usually related to unmet requirements and needs, can you find ways to get them met outside of the relationship while honoring your commitment? Sometimes we unrealistically expect our relationship to be everything we need, when happiness is really an “inside job.”
2. Are the children better off in or out of the situation? Often, while you might be unhappy, your children are better off with you together.
3. What is the position of your family and friends? It is uncanny how they knew all along what we discover much later.
4. Are you REALLY taking full responsibility? You are not if you are resentful or blaming your partner in any way. Are you giving your power away by being reactive to what your partner says and does? What about YOUR commitment? If you know that the odds are that it will work out if you stick it out long enough, can you hang in there and take personal responsibility for your outcomes? Can you focus on YOUR attitude an d what YOU can and are doing? “Life is not what happens to us. Life is what we DO with what happens to us.”
5. Are you getting the support you need? Are you really using that support? Find a therapist, counselor, relationship coach, minister, etc, that you both trust and put yourself in their hands. Find wise and understanding friends and mentor couples that you both can relate to.
6. Are you and the children physically and emotionally safe? Commitment is not a reason to stay in an abusive and/or unsafe situation, but this is surprisingly rare (see statistics below).
7. What is your true, underlying commitment? If you would leave because you’re unhappy, your commitment is to your own happiness, not the relationship. Be honest with yourself about any differences between your commitment and your attitude, what you are saying and what you are doing.
Research Results on Commitment and Happiness
Excerpted from “Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages” By Linda J. Waite, Don Browning, William J. Doherty, Maggie Gallagher, Ye Luo, and Scott M. Stanley:
1. Two-thirds of unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported that their marriages were happy five years later. In addition, the most unhappy marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds: among those who rated their marriages as very unhappy, almost eight out of 10 who avoided divorce were happily married five years later
2. Unhappily married adults who divorced were no happier than unhappily married adults who stayed married
3. Unhappily married adults who divorced were no happier than unhappily married adults who stayed married
4. Unhappy spouses who had divorced and remarried were no happier on average than those who stayed married
5. Many happily married spouses have extended periods of marital unhappiness, often for quite serious reasons, including alcoholism, infidelity, verbal abuse, emotional neglect, depression, illness, and work reversals
6. Unhappily married adults who divorced were no more likely to report emotional an d psychological improvements than those who stayed married.
7. Unhappy marriages are less common than unhappy spouses; three out of four unhappily married adults are married to someone who is happy with the marriage.
8. Staying married did not typically trap unhappy spouses in violent relationships. Eighty-six percent of unhappily married adults reported no violence in their relationship (including 77 percent of unhappy spouses who later divorced or separated). Ninety-three percent of unhappy spouses who avoided divorce reported no violence in their marriage five years later.
9. “A strong commitment to marriage as an institution, and a powerful reluctance to divorce, do not merely keep unhappily married people locked in misery together. They also help couples form happier bonds. To avoid divorce, many assume, marriages must become happier. But it is at least equally true that in order to get happier, unhappy couples or spouses must first avoid divorce. In most cases, a strong commitment to staying married not only helps couples avoid divorce, it helps more couples achieve a happier marriage.”
10. In “The Case for Marriage” Waite reports that committed couples are physically healthier, mentally and emotionally happier, have more and better sex, and are more financially successful than singles or cohabiting couples.