I received thumbs up on Post #10 from readers (male and female alike) who are currently in happy relationships — thanks for letting me know! It seems that they view creating and maintaining their relationships an active, improvisational art, and they reap the rewards in overwhelmingly positive perceptions about and feelings for their partners, and a secure sense of self from feeling truly loved.
In the last post, I pointed out that researcher John Gottman, et al., found that couples expressing nonverbal cues and narratives about each other of at least 5 positives for each negative ended up staying happily together; and self-described happiest couples had a ratio of up to 20:1.
So scientific observations aside, how do two people who are just getting to know each other arrive at this magical 5:1 ratio?
One way is to follow some olden rules: be kind to and appreciative of each other, avoid being critical, and be quick to forgive. However, I find this set of advice simplistic and faulty because it allows a couple to ignore certain fundamental issues.
For an example, if my partner is immature, selfish, and ignores my needs regularly, my being consistently kind, non-critical, forgiving, and appreciative of her good qualities will make her very happy. However, she may never learn why ignoring my needs will lead me to become unfulfilled or resentful. She may even believe that everything is fine and that I’m perfectly content because I express only positivity to her.
For another example, if my partner and I both hold these rules of behavior as sacred, there is nothing to prevent us from falling into the trap of conflict- and risk-avoidance. Over time, settling for what wouldn’t rock the boat of our relationship can make individual happiness seem beside the point. We may automatically suppress any difference of opinion, dissatisfaction with the relationship, or need for personal growth beyond what the relationship currently provide.
Without incorporating in-depth knowledge of each other’s thinking, wishes and dreams, behaviors, and values, there is no way to truly appreciate each other. Without that knowledge, you can’t challenge each other to stretch and grow to become more than you currently are, or to live out that vision of your ideal future. And without that striving and growth, how dreary and dull the rest of life will be!
While every relationship has its proverbial honeymoon period, it should not hold you back from figuring out who each other is as early as possible. As an alternative to the old set of rules, I suggest the following communication habits to explore, stimulate, and stretch each other:
- Learn what your date is looking for in life by regularly asking how he/she envisions the ideal future, and share your own vision. This will give you an idea of whether you are enthusiastic for a future together, or whether a few dates will suffice.
- Tell your date what you enjoy and value about him/her, his/her behavior, and why. This will get you used to thinking about and appreciating what matters to you, while letting your date know you feel and what matters to you.
- If your date behaves in a way that you feel devalues you or is incompatible with building your relationship, point this out in a timely manner, ask for the reason, and tell why it struck you as negative. This will get you used to tackling difficult issues, while allowing your date to reveal his/her level of self-awareness, how he/she handles conflict, and how he/she responds to challenges. If you learn through this conversation and subsequent behavior that your date is flawed but willing to be more considerate, then you have found an excellent reason to value and praise your date. On the other hand, if he/she ignores, dismisses, or responds aggressively to your concerns, then you have found evidence that he/she’s not the right partner for you.
- If your date brings up an issue about your behavior, be prepared to listen openly, ask why it’s perceived negatively (especially if you don’t know!) and seriously consider whether a change to your behavior would serve you in the long run. This will get you used to being open to the good influences of another person.
- Lastly, encourage your date to do the same with you so that the benefits won’t be one-sided.