Last month’s article (A New Year Relationship Check-Up) was a call to enter 2013 with an eye toward proactive reflection on the state of your relationships, and particularly for those primary, “significant other” relationships on the home front. Critical self-assessment and the decision to make necessary changes naturally fit with the turn of a new year, but applying that self-reflection to how we are treating, interacting with, and caring for the people who sustain us emotionally might not be so natural. Relationships sometimes stagnate – we become too comfortable, or fail to see where we are shortchanging our partners, or take the stability and routine for granted – while we strive to improve other, less important parts of our lives.
As part of that relationship check-up, we pointed out some of the most common and concerning indicators of trouble, as determined by Doctors John and Julie Schwartz Gottman, of The Gottman Institute, who have studied relationships for over thirty years. The indicators of trouble were necessarily focused on the negative – what am I (or we) doing wrong and how might it hurt the relationship - in order to highlight areas of concern; to root out disease you have to assess the symptoms, after all. But after completing a relationship check-up and finding where you fall short, it’s necessary to make changes. Establishing the means to make effective change is what this article is about.
The concept of WE vs. I
The most obvious and simple course of corrective action would be to just find those points the Gottmans make where you fall short and then do the opposite. This is certainly doable, but the indicators of trouble become solidified through habit and changing out a bad habit with a good one is not a simple or easily accomplished course. Repetition of the good behavior is necessary; some researchers will tell you each consciously chosen good behavior, in each unique circumstance where you would normally and habitually default to the negative behavior, must be consciously repeated a minimum of seven times in order to establish it as a positive habit. By all means, begin rooting out bad habits and replacing them with good. That’s why we wrote the first article.
What we offer here, however, is a framework to put in place first. It is a philosophy to support the establishment of good habits and strengthened relationships. It is what we call our concept of WE vs. I.
Being more than just partners – BECOMING ONE
We think of a committed relationship as something beyond a mere partnership; partnerships can be fleeting, businesslike affairs, motivated by a “what’s in it for me” mentality and easily dissolved. Instead, we think of truly committed relationships as becoming one with your partner. They are selfless rather than selfish, and the emotional health and happiness of one half depends on ensuring the emotional health and happiness of the other.
The first step to becoming one is to committing to being not simply partners, and not simply lovers, but truly each others’ best friend. Any decision that affects the couple is made by the couple, not an individual acting on behalf of what he or she happens to think is the best course of action without consulting the other. You publicly have each others’ back and in conflict and stand united. And knowing – really knowing – what makes each other tick is an ongoing personal commitment you make; knowing your partners needs and desires – and then acting to fulfill them – becomes a drive.
Forsaking all others
To “forsake all others” is a ubiquitous part of nearly all wedding ceremonies, it seems, but how many of you really know what it means?
To “forsake all others” is to put the relationship first. It means putting the relationship – the single most important human bond you have – ahead of anyone or anything that might usurp its importance. It means putting it ahead of family and friends, hobbies and interests, the Job, and, if you have them, even the kids!
Now, it doesn’t mean you must give up family and friends, personal hobbies and interests, or your profession. You probably shouldn’t cast the kids off into the wilderness to fend for themselves against the elements and fanged predators. It simply means you put the relationship first. When the relationship demands attention or repair, everything else becomes secondary for that season of time. Of course, family and friends, hobbies and interests, the Job, and your kids are important and deserve attention, too, but the relationship is first. But, should any of those things imperil the relationship, you may have to cut it loose if its proper role cannot be established in a way that supports you and your partner.
Denial of the self
Being in a successful relationship requires a certain subjugation of the self. Throughout our childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood most of us who are emotionally healthy become very good at learning what I want, what I need, what I like, etc… Nothing wrong with that because becoming and defining our own self is important but then we meet someone, start dating, fall in love, marry or otherwise commit to what we hope will be a lifelong partnership, and must be able to easily set aside all of our selfish motivations in favor of what’s best for the couple.
Uh huh, right… Setting aside twenty or thirty years or so of successfully learning “what I want, what I need, what I like, etc…” is not so easy. Add the natural assertiveness and confidence most of you carry as cops, which often translates into a belief that “my way is the only way,” and is it any wonder so many committed relationships – and especially committed LE relationships – suffer and fail? The trick to relational success, then, is knowing how and when to focus on WE instead of I (What do WE need, what do WE want, what do WE like, etc…). Please understand this does not mean you lose your individuality or sacrifice yourself totally. It does mean, however, that you start learning to consciously override your natural focus on your own desires when the health of the relationship is at stake. You learn to think and act as a couple, with the emphasis on mutual satisfaction and happiness.
If you are in a relationship, you are sometimes going to disagree. How you handle the inevitable fights dictates how likely you are to enjoy a lifelong commitment. Successful couples do not shy away from conflict; they know how to fight fair and in a way that improves their relationship and strengthens their love for each other.
Successful couples remain solution-focused (there is an answer to this problem we can both get behind, we just have to find it) instead of self-motivated (I’m going to vomit my frustrations and disappointment all over you, see how you like that!). They know the power and impact of words and how they are delivered, and take pains to do no harm to each other through their words. They know there are more right answers than wrong, and keep an open mind to different beliefs, ideas, and solutions. And they take ownership of what they contribute to problems instead of laying blame.
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Learning to think in terms of “WE” rather than simply “I” is one of the essential skills successful couples possess. To do so means overcoming our natural self-motivation, but it also means a lifetime of rewards if you can. Focusing on the four skills essential to thinking in terms of WE vs. I increases your chances of success.