There is a plethora of published relationship advice to help long-term partners do to stay in love, especially during hard times. Many of my patients come to me in a time of critical decision making. They share how overwhelmed and confused they are, searching for a simple set of workable rules that would be easy for them to practice during, and between, these struggles.
Over the last four decades, I’ve created a simple set of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that not only work beautifully during times of stress but are good guidelines for committed partners to follow every day.
I call them The Ten “Do’s” and “Don’ts” that great relationship partners practice as a crucial part of way they live their lives together. The two sets of behaviors form the bookends that protect intimacy from its most common enemies. Though each could be an elongated article in itself, the essence of each is what’s important to grasp.
The Ten “Do’s”
Accurately “tuning” into another person means that you “get” them. When an intimate partner intuitively resonates with his or her partner’s heart, mind, and soul experiences, he or she understands how any thoughts and behaviors will affect them. That knowledge drives what the “attuner” does and says to help the other partner feel truly seen and heard.
All people are continuously affected by their past experiences and unconsciously weave them into their present and future behaviors. Successful partners make it a point to remember those thoughts and experiences and act tract them. They mark, note, and weave everything they know about each other and communicate that understanding to each other on a regular basis.
Intimate partners share their internal experiences with each other when they feel safe to share them. Successful partners do not hold back any thoughts, feelings, or intended behaviors that might affect the other partner in the present or in the future. Both partners agree that they would rather know their truth no matter what the outcome would be.
4) Prime Time
I often ask a couple in the first hour of therapy where each feels they currently are at their best in their lives. Much of the time, sadly, they do not respond with “in my committed relationship.” There is a predictable correlation between how long people have been together and the quality and quantity of time, energy, and fresh love they reserve for each other. Great partners make certain their relationship stays a place to rejuvenate rather than simply regenerate.
No one escapes traumatic experiences in life, but some people have been more damaged by them than others. Those emotional, intellectual, and bodily experiences result in exceptional vulnerability when they are triggered by current events. People who love each other always keep in mind where those heartbreaks lie, and take pains to protect each other when they emerge.
There are two crucial aspects to communication. The first is the verbal content that is being shared. The second is the non-verbal way the communicators feel about each other as they are sharing. Partners who communicate effectively never forget that the way they are feeling during communication is far more important that what they are talking about.
Every human being needs to know that he or she is significantly important to the person he or she loves. They need to feel they are automatically included, welcome to speak their upsets, and t share their concerns. They feel safe in that space, able to be understood and forgiven, even when they falter. Loving partners give one another that sense that how they feel and what they do are important and worthy of recognition and response.
8) Focusing on the Positives
Every relationship has its assets and liabilities. It is far too easy for many partners to take the positives of the relationship for granted and focus on what is missing or irritating. When intimate partners feel their relationship is being threatened in any way, they consciously focus on what they love about each other and keep their criticisms of what they don’t limited and resolvable.
9) The Gift of Sanity
Whenever one partner speaks his or truth, the other validates and supports that point of view, even if he or she sees it differently. Successful partners do not undermine or invalidate the other’s reality. They are more interested in what may be driving that experience, how that partner feels about it, and what he or she may be wanting when sharing it.
10)Faith in Each Other and in the Relationship
Great relationships partners believe that they are blessed to have one another, and that their relationship is truly special and unique. They know that their faith is based on continued commitment to do whatever they need to keep it that way.
The Twelve “Don’ts”
1) The Breaking of Confidentiality
As they spend more time together, intimate partners are more likely to share vulnerable and sacred thoughts, feelings, and memories with each other. Those intimate experiences can run the gamut to telling someone about a painful trauma from childhood to feelings of hostility towards a family member. Some of those shared experiences are never meant to leave the sacred emotional environment between the two partners and permission must be given if that is to happen.
Partners who treasure honesty, authenticity, and each other’s resilience do not hold back on thoughts or feelings that can unexpectedly explode at some future time with unintended painful consequences.
A routinely-withholding partner may be having thoughts, feelings, or intended behaviors that could eventually hurt the other, without ever giving the other partner the opportunity to vote. That policy will eventually destroy trust.
3) Hitting Below the Belt
Over time, most partners know enough about the other to know which behaviors they could say or do that could be crucially hurtful to the other. Expressing any of those, especially during an argument, can leave deep scars and erode trust. Successful partners know exactly what they must never bring up, especially during times of animosity or stress.
4) Loading the Emotional Bases
When either partner feels powerless during a conflict, he or she may try to strengthen the platform by citing other sources. “Everyone agrees with me that….,” “I read in this article that…,” “My whole family thinks that you….,” “Even out therapist agrees with me about…,” are some of the many varieties.
Successful partners make it a point to simply tell one another when they feel cornered or powerless during an argument, hoping for the other to listen and respond supportively. Very rarely is the content of an argument worth the loss of intimacy that a citing of external validation causes.
Volumes have been written about the negative effect that blame can have on an intimate relationship. One of the most confusing and destructive varieties of blame is when either partner attacks the other for something that he or she is also doing. Whether conscious or unconscious, projecting one’s own faults onto the other is especially destructive.
Another poor blame behavior is blaming the other for not doing what the blamer wants. Gaps between what any partner can or cannot give exists in all relationships. It is neither partner’s fault when either cannot give what the other needs, and blame only makes the situation worse.
6) Chronic Nagging
Unsolicited advice is rarely welcome, especially if it is negative. Nagging is the continuous repetition of preaching, instructions, or directions that the other partner has not asked for nor usually wants.
The partner being given constant “cattle-prods” to live his or her life as the nagger wants will eventually rebel, disconnect, or sink into a passive/aggressive reaction.
7) Broken Promises
When either partner expresses the desire for something important, it is crucial that the other be honest in his or her ability or willingness to grant it.
If one partner believes that the desired behavior will occur, but it never does, he or she may eventually stop asking. The pain of waiting while a promise becomes an excuse, and then no longer believable, will stop that partner from asking in the future.
8) Character Assassinations
All intimate partners fight at times. They become frustrated with the other’s behaviors, feel disappointed when they can’t get what they want, or are upset by the way their partner is behaving.
Successful partners fight fair. If they don’t, disappointment, disillusionment, and frustration increase with each conflict and attacks become more ruthless.
Character assassinations are heart-breaking examples. The partners angry expressions eventually go from challenges to unwanted behaviors to mean attacks on the core of character, often expressed in wipe-out statements. “You always go for the gut, don’t you?” “Let’s just face it; you’re an a***hole, and always have been one.” “You hate men; why don’t you just admit it?” “You’re a really insensitive lover.”
Caring partners know of each other’s vulnerable personality characteristics and are careful not to take advantage of them.
Some of those characteristics are common. For instance, some people are just natural givers. Others feel immediately guilty if they disappoint their partners in any way. People who have social anxiety can’t handle groups of people or social surprises. Absent-minded people sometimes lose themselves in private thoughts without meaning to exclude others.
People who care for each other accept that these behaviors are part of their partner’s personalities and do not take advantage of them.
10) Boundary Violations
Boundary violations include any physical or emotional behavior towards another that makes the other partner feel uncomfortable or threatened. Many would think this “don’t” would be so obvious as to be unnecessary to mention, but many unsuccessful relationship partners do not remember, or do not care, to respect and honor their partner’s physical or emotional boundaries.
When intimate partners feel on the other end of a boundary violation, they are likely to feel like symbolic “prey” to seeming “hunters.” Their natural responses will be to fight, to flee, or become immobilized. All three of those responses are counter to trust and will eventually destroy intimacy.
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Intimate partners who value and respect each other willingly and continuously embrace these “Do’s” and avoid these “Don’ts.” They know that they cannot achieve absolute perfection in following them nor do they expect to, but they realize how important it is to commit to these behaviors as part of the sacred commitment they have made to each other.