There are multiple layers to how a couple interacts. The observable layers are what they say and do, yet underpinning what they say and do is what they think and feel.
A relationship’s success depends on the pair’s interactions. As we have seen a relationship has many layers. However, most relationship trainings and interventions are focused on developing relationship skills.
I believe the skills are the icing on the cake. Without a secure emotional base, there is a limited capacity and ability to love. The relationship climate is dependent on how the couple feel about each other.
Yet even with these elements, without the skills to create positive interactions we demand too great a capacity from our emotional reserves to be successful. Therefore our skill at relating is a critical determinant in creating a successful and rewarding relationship.
A skill is the ability to do something well. Skills are learned. They do not come naturally. They are the outcome of effort and application. Learning to walk is a skill. Learning to talk is a skill. In the same way we don’t come out fully developed in our ability to relate to others. They are skills we develop. … or in some cases don’t develop.
The process of learning a skill means going through four stages;
Unconscious incompetence – where we are unaware of our incompetence at a skill
Conscious incompetence – where we are aware of our incompetence
Conscious competence – where we develop the ability to monitor ourselves and with conscious effort perform the skills competently
Unconscious competence where we are able to do the skill automatically and so it seems natural.
Like learning to walk, these skills may seem awkward and unnatural initially, but practiced again and again they will become more comfortable and automatic in time.
These four stages are a process of developing the neural pathways that develop our habits. Think of them like a car journey. Initially when we start a new job or live somewhere new we have to make an effort to find our way. Perhaps we use something like google maps and a lot of our attention to find our way.
Soon though, after making the journey day after day, it becomes an automatic response. So much so, that when we’re not thinking we may start out on that route, but intend be heading somewhere else, but from habit take the route we’re so used to.
These skills develop in much the same way. Initially they are awkward and feel unnatural, but in time they become automatic. Here’s the 9 skills to develop to have a loving, successful and fulfilling relationship…
Commit to the relationship
If you’re in a relationship you have to be 100% in it. If you can’t give it that, then your work is to get to that place where you can or work on getting out of the relationship.
All relationships face problems and have ups and downs. Looking for the relationship without any problems is much like how some people seem to always be looking for the easy button in life.
Where when they’re sick they reach for the magic pill to make them better without wanting to put in the time and effort to understand how they got sick and how they can prevent it from happening again.
You can see the same thing when people diet by reaching for the replacement meal or replacing their food for a ‘lite’ version without thinking through what got them to where they are.
It is wanting a quick solution without any effort. Everything we want in life is pulling towards a bigger goal. We are drawn to things, but these things are symbols for what the deepest part of us wants… a better us.
That happens when we grow. We grow when we give our attention and effort to mastering a skill. Mastering the skill develops our capacity and so we become capable of more. When we are capable of more, we have access to more things and opportunities and so we can have more.
Yet too often people want the trappings of riches and things without wanting to put in the effort to develop their skills. This is the underlying promise of winning the lottery which is why it is the wishful dream of so many because it is the promise of everything you want without any effort.
It is also the reason why every day people lose their life savings or are scammed out of thousands of pounds because they believed the promise of making fortunes without any effort.
Yet the reality is that though we hate having to work so hard for it and we hate having to change, because growing brings pain with it, actually it is the process of growing that brings the actual growth and fulfillment that we are really craving.
In the same way, the idea of meeting ‘the one’ who fits you perfectly and you live happily ever after is the equivalent of winning the lottery or getting rich quick.
The relationship you crave doesn’t happen because you happened to stumble into the perfect person. It happens when you have the emotional readiness to open to love and you develop the skills and qualities to enable love to thrive.
Until you understand that your relationship is a reflection of the emotional capacity, qualities and skills of you and your partner, you are operating on the same level as the person who thinks by giving a Nigerian Scammer his bank details, he’s about to gain a fortune.
A relationship can only work when you’re 100% committed to it. There will always be someone prettier, richer, more fun, more exciting and so on. Yet they also come with their own problems. If you look outside of the relationship the grass will always look greener and you’re poisoning the relationship.
When you keep your attention within the relationship and ‘dance with the one who brought you’, assuming all the elements are in place for the relationship to thrive, you can grow past the problems.
There’s always caveats to any advice and this is no exception. Sometimes people get lost in relationships. This is easy to happen in an abusive relationship where someone tells you that the problem is you and you begin to doubt if I did X then maybe he wouldn’t hit me. In such a case people do look out of the relationship to find ‘normal’.
If you have a partner that loves you, not just when times are good and when you do what they want, but actually cares for your well-being and you are both looking for the truth as opposed to wanting their own way then you keep your attention within the relationship.
Create A Secure Bond
There’s no bond that can beat that of a parent and child. Parents love their child because creating a new life is the most amazing thing we can ever do. We love to paint, to garden, to make things because we create or bring to life something from nothing.
The greatest act of creation we can ever perform is to create a child from love. In an ideal situation, the pure love of two people creates a third.
And so this helpless baby emerges from the safety of the womb into a scary new world. And every action and reaction is greeted with coos and awe from her parents. And this scared baby totally unequipped for the world she is born into learns to trust her parents completely.
Her parents love her unconditionally and cheer every tiny development and tell her constantly how beautiful, amazing and wonderful she is and how much they love her.
Feeling this unconditional love and knowing you can trust your parents to love, protect and care for your every need whether you’re tired and grumpy or beaming with joy is the basis for having the confidence to thrive and grow out in the wider world.
Each person you meet as an adult is out there looking for the same bond that they can recreate with their lover that they felt from their parents. Of course not everyone gets pure unconditional love from their parents. People are born in all kinds of circumstances and parents may be tired, desperate etc and not in a place where they can love unconditionally, but that is the love we all seek.
It’s the motivation behind ever humble brag you hear from someone. It’s the cry from every dating profile, every Instagram selfie and the reason every joke is told. It’s the basis for the value of a Prada and Louis Vuitton bag or a Ferrari because we think if we wear this badge or drive this car or do this thing that people will see our value and love us.
Emotional maturity is the process of coming to terms with the disappointment of realising you’re not any more special than anyone else. It is going past the desperate wish to be loved to understand that we’re not the as yet undiscovered ‘special one’ and that the world is filled with people like us who want to be special.
The baby that has every gurgle and movement met with adoration and awe grows to feel rejection and disappointment in every subsequent reaction.
When the hulking great man you live with and sometimes love sulks or growls at you and acts like a child it’s because emotionally he is a child and feels rejected. He wants to feel love and adoration, whether deserved or not and anything less feels like rejection.
The whole basis and craving for a relationship is the desire to replicate this cocoon of love, acceptance and adoration that we felt from our parents.
That sense of safety enables people to go out into an otherwise fairly hostile world and take risks trusting that if it becomes dangerous they can flee back into their lover’s safe embrace.
This is why the old saying that there is a great woman behind every great man. A secure and loving relationship gives both partners the safe springboard to explore the world in safety.
The basic thread that holds a solid and secure relationship together can’t be something as volatile as lust. It has to be friendship. Then everything else builds from that basis.
Life always brings challenges. And so as a relationship develops over time it will face many challenges. These challenges serve to test the strength of the couple’s bond.
If the couple can stand together and never let anything between them they strengthen the bond. Over time your partner then becomes the person you most love, trust and want to be with.
If the couple don’t stand together and let themselves be divided on any issue the bond is weakened and the gap appears for a wedge to come between them. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have conflict, as we’ll see conflict is natural and healthy. What it means is that nothing external whether that how they deal with children or family or anyone else is as one unit.
John Gottman, the source of much of the relationship research over the last 40 years, says that the final straw that breaks a relationship is a betrayal.
Gottman talks about three big types of betrayal.
Emotional cheating where we choose someone else over our partner. Obviously the big one is infidelity, but it can be more subtle. Essentially, the subtle difference is where we choose someone else as an outlet over our partner. Where we choose to flirt with someone to feel more attractive, rather than look to our partner for attention. Where we side with our family over our lover.
Conditional love where we are not fully invested in the relationship and are keeping one foot outside of the relationship. Here the essence is that we’re looking out for our best interests as opposed to the best interests of us both. This may lead us to, subtly or not so subtly, use the relationship to take financial or other advantage of our partner.
Emotional withdrawal where our partner can no longer rely on us. This can be as much as neglecting our partner’s feelings or choosing to miss something important to our partner in favour of work we feel is important. The basis is that Gottman says the motto is ‘When you hurt, the world stops’.
Understand Each Other
Every person is unique and complex. However there is always a logic guiding how and why they act as they do. It might not be the logic that you would follow, but there is their own form. The more that you can understand of why your partner does what they do, the more you’ll appreciate them and the better you can relate to them.
The book The 5 Love Languages gives a nod towards this idea, but there’s so much more depth and nuances to understanding someone. You have to resist the urge to judge and instead listen to their words and also their actions to understand what they tell you. The deeper we can understand someone, the deeper our love for them will be. If you have children think of how much they fascinate us and how we love them.
Our natural inclination is to put everything including people into boxes of good and bad. The reality is that people just are. We all have a dark side and we all have positive attributes.
Sometimes people have the view that loving someone means thinking they’re wonderful and not seeing any bad in them.
I believe we can only truly love someone when we can accept their faults and love them in spite of them. True love is not denying our partner can be an annoying shit or a whining entitled bitch, but accepting they are human and capable of being good and bad.
What determines which we display is our emotional state. When we’re happy, we show our light side. When we’re sad and fearful we show our dark side.
In a relationship you need to understand what they do and why. When they display their dark side it’s not dismissing it or judging it, but understanding. Obviously this assumes the dark side isn’t them slapping you silly or something that destroys you. But when they’re sulking or slamming doors it’s understanding they are hostile to you because they feel untrusted, disrespected, unloved or unaccepted. There’s always a reason why someone is lazy, angry or whatever. Your job as their rock is to be the one person in the world that understands and accepts them. Obviously assuming that isn’t at the expense of your own wellbeing.
Do – Destructive vs constructive
Say – Hostile vs Loving
Intend – Fear vs happy
When you understand and accept them, they feel secure, loved and trust you and then they feel happier and so you see more of their light side.
When they feel judged, misunderstood and rejected they feel unhappy and so you see more of their dark side.
Build Self and Relationship Esteem
As I’ve said previously, the biggest source of problems in relationships is the confusion between the soft and hard landscapes. In life we always have the facts of the situation and we have the narrative that we make of the situation. The facts we have are the basic ingredients that we have to work with and the narrative is what we create from those basic facts.
Life is about the narrative. That is what we work from. In a large part, our happiness derives not from the truth of our situation, but from the narrative we make from the facts of our situation. In cooking the same ingredients can make a delicious dinner or a disgusting mush. In a relationship the way we tell our story can make for feeling admiration and fondness or disgust and contempt.
You have to choices. Take the ingredients you have and make a story of your lover as the hero and grow in love for them. Or take the same facts and make a story of your lover as the shmuck and build contempt. Ultimately this makes you the victim and the loser.
Of course, there is a disclaimer to this as in all relationship issues. Many sufferers of domestic abuse do this in a way that keeps them investing in a relationship that isn’t worthy of them. They build a story far more romantic than it deserves, where their brutal lover is the victim and needs their love and understanding.
I’m talking about a normal healthy relationship here there is mutual love and respect. One where there are minor, niggly things that could cause you to talk negatively about your partner, not abuse or destructive aspects.
When you use this in your personal life you create self-esteem. When you use in a normal healthy and respectful relationship, you create relationship esteem and develop a more positive view of your partner.
Be Sensitive and Receptive
There are so many layers in life that communication becomes complex. Communication is the process of sharing ideas and feelings. In this there is a process.
So an idea from person A is encoded and expressed in the words that seem most suitable from her experiences and understanding of language. Then person B tries to decode those words into his experience and understanding of the words in a way that seems consistent with the context of the situation.
Yet the way we understand words is based on our individual experience. We learn by matching the words with our experiences. So as a Baby we soon learn that the word Mum is attached to that kind woman that brings us food and hugs us and Dad is that man who jumps around with us. Later we find out that Mum and Dad are roles rather than names.
This means that sometimes words are idiosyncratic in the family or community we learn them from and may be slightly differently understood by others. Because of this we may have slightly different understanding of words that we use than our partner. And so words can confuse situations at times because feelings aren’t always perfectly matched to the words we use.
When you overlay that fact with the knowledge that we’re often so concerned what other people are thinking that we don’t fully and honestly express ourselves clearly you can see that communication is difficult. Because it’s not just about expressing an idea, but layers of fear. Fear of judgement, fear of rejection, fear of a loss of love and other negative reactions.
An idea being expressed is a piece of a jigsaw that makes up the other person’s picture of their world. The other person has to have an equivalent jigsaw piece or be able and willing to reconfigure their picture to assimilate the same idea.
What this means is that there are many layers and levels to what we do. So often there will be an action like for example an affair. This will involve many levels. There is the action, the observable behaviour in having the affair. Then there is the verbal rationale “My wife doesn’t understand me.” Then there is the intention underpinning the behaviour, ‘I’m angry and will hurt her by sleeping with x’.
The dream of a relationship is in being able to be yourself and being loved and respected while being yourself.
We all need love, respect and admiration. Without that coming from ourselves we will seek validation from others.
When we have it from ourselves and others we feel invincible.
It is uncomfortable to be vulnerable and so we will throw people a trail of breadcrumbs that lead them towards what we are really trying to say. For example, someone will rarely say, “I’m feeling insecure, can you reassure me I’m attractive to you”. Instead they’ll say something like “Uh! I’ve got so fat” and want you to understand the real message they’re expressing.
Our success in relationships is dependent on how well we can express ourselves in sharing our vulnerabilities and in how sensitively we can pick up on the clues of others.
When we do pick up and respond to the clues of others they feel safe, loved and understood which creates a positive relationship climate.
When we fail to pick up on the subtleties of our Lover’s clues they feel insecure, unloved and misunderstood. This can create a more hostile relationship climate.
Express Love, Admiration and Vulnerabilities
As we have seen, a relationship is really asking our Partner to have the detective qualities of Sherlock Holmes. And quite clearly few of us are as perceptive. So the more that we can express our fears and vulnerabilities, the more our Partner can understand us. And of course understanding leads to love.
The fear of being vulnerable is the fear of what our partner may think of us.
The reality is that whatever we feel vulnerable about is there anyway. They’re picking up on it subconsciously if not consciously. They misread the signs for a while, but eventually given enough time and examples in enough contexts they will pick up on it.
What ultimately determines an outcome is the truth. How your make-up matches with that of your partners.
Yes, of course the make-up could match, but things you do could destroy the relationship anyway. If the match in make-up isn’t there, you can with lots of effort cover over the gaps to make it seem like it’s going to work, but sooner or later the effort will become too much for the reward and the relationship will break.
Hiding your vulnerabilities just means staying in a doomed relationship as opposed to facing the truth and finding relationship happiness.
People are a hairy bag of water desperate to be admired, respected and loved. When they receive it they are like a cat purring when being stroked.
Yet while dogs and cats will just come up and ask for affection people rarely will be as honest. Their appeals for affection come in the form of Instagram selfies or brags or stories implying their wonderful nature.
So why is dog man’s best friend?
Because they give love and affection unconditionally. A dog never asks what you were doing or who with since you’ve left them or why you’ve left the dishes and maxed out the credit cards. Nor do they sulk when you rejected them the last time it wanted stroking.
A dog just loves. From the moment their tail starts wagging when they hear your car on the drive to the moment you leave them again.
The fantasy of a relationship is to get the same from a partner.
Manage Inner and Outer Relationship Conflict
All relationships create conflict. There are no two individuals that have the same vision.
Even the very institutions, religions, that purport to tell us about conflict and how to deal with it struggled given that Christianity and Buddhism each have over 30,000 separate denominations that have broken from each other in different aspects of belief.
The fact is that each of us has a unique path and vision for how we see things. So however much you think you and your partner have in common and are similar, there are always differences. And those differences create conflict.
If you aren’t at conflict over something, it’s either due to not spending enough time together or not being honest with each other. Disagreement is inevitable and healthy. What matters is how we deal with that conflict.
What we want – Based on what we think – frustration
What we really want – based on upgraded thinking – success
When you can manage conflict positively you have a chance to grow. And life is really about growth, it’s the journey of becoming more and more you.
What makes us happy is feeling like we’re a good person and achieving something. What makes us feel secure is trusting more in yourself and so growing in confidence. Life is about three things. Overcoming the battle to survive to thriving. Overcoming the fear of rejection to being loved. And overcoming the fear of failure to leaving a legacy of something meaningful.
How well we do in this quest is down to our operating system. Just as computers operate from an operating system such as Windows, we work from an operating system that is made up of our beliefs. We start with a limited version and upgrade it as we learn in response to failure and conflict. When we use failure and conflict as opportunities to expand our operating system we grow and become capable of more. Both in terms of achieving in the external world and also in our relationships and inner happiness.
Part of the value in a relationship is in bringing more diversity to your thinking. Psychologists have studied catastrophic decisions such as The Bay of Pigs invasion and developed a concept they called Groupthink. This is where the group suffers from too little diversity and too many yes men. Without any friction in the decision making process, the group failed to forsee problems with their plans with disastrous consequences.
When we have different ideas and hold true to our truth, we challenge the assumptions underpinning the ideas. In this way the friction works like a sculptor carving out all that doesn’t pass the challenge from both ideas. When both parties work together and stay focused on finding the truth rather than being right, the outcome is usually a better truth than either could have achieved alone.
Conflict occurs within us before it occurs in the relationship. The better we can deal with our internal conflict, the better we can manage the conflict within the relationship.
When we approach conflict in a negative way we fight for our own way regardless of the truth of the situation. Or we aim to appease our partner. Or we use passive-aggressive tactics.
The outcome is that no one wins. Either A gets their way and B feels like she’s lost or vice versa. Even the winner may think they have ‘won’, but actually they got less than they could. Because winning is really about getting a better outcome and that happens from the friction of conflict creating a more refined understanding rather than being stuck within the existing paradigm.
The relationship is weakened and B isn’t going to be happy because she doesn’t feel heard or respected and when it happens, it weakens the relationship.
Be Your Lover’s Cornerman and Cheerleader
In a relationship 1+1=3
You have two individuals each with their own life. Then you have the couple’s life.
Your job as a partner is to provide an oasis of safety within the relationship and to be the cornerman and cheerleader to your partner in their individual life. We all have individual dreams whether it’s leaving our 9 – 5 to follow our passion, travelling or doing a parachute jump. Being part of a couple doesn’t mean we forget about these. It means the relationship should wherever possible help us to achieve these goals.
Life is tough and when you boil it down to its essence, the reason we get into a relationship is to have someone there for us. It can be the source of arguments when we feel our partner isn’t ‘there for us’ because we feel the unspoken promise of the relationship has been broken.
Knowing your partner cares enough about you to pick you up when you’re down can make all the difference. On the days when nothing goes right, when your Boss is picking on you, when everyone seems to misunderstand you, feeling you have someone always there for you, gives you the confidence to go out and do what you have to in the outside world.
When you provide this kind of support for each other, you and your partner are able to go out into the world and fight the necessary battles you have to and take the risks you need to achieve what you want to. Then every battle that each of you fights becomes something that bonds you together.
Of course, there are times when you’ll disagree with the course of action that your partner insists on taking. In these times of course you have to challenger her. Any cornerman worth having is going to question and help you gain a clearer sense of the way forward. Once they decide, you have to accept it’s their life to pursue as they choose, you have to support them in their choice.
Maybe you were right all along, time will prove it to you, but at least they’ll feel like they had the chance to go or it.
The alternative is that they’ll do it, but feeling like they’re carrying your doubt on them as an extra weight and will blame you for it not working. Or they’ll go along with your view, but they’ll resent you for it and hold onto their resentment. This then drives a chasm between you going forward.
Create Shared Meaning
Our first goal is physical survival. Once we achieve that our emotional health becomes more important. Once we have enough to eat and a comfortable home, we start to pay more attention to how we feel. We buy things to make us feel a certain way.
There’s a scale. When we don’t have enough to ensure our survival we want more things to bring us more comfort. So we want more food and more space. Then we want better food and a better quality environment. Once we start to achieve these, a lot of the things we buy are for how we look to other people. This is where we start to need to keep up with our Instagram feed.
The point is that once we’ve achieved a certain level in our standard of living what guides us is our sense of purpose and meaning. If we as a couple have differing meanings that guide us we grow in different directions. This doesn’t mean that we have to have exactly the same beliefs and purpose, but that as a couple we create a shared culture and sense of meaning. This culture and shared meaning is what will guide the family if the couple have children.
One of the big problems for a couple on their second relationship can be the merging of a blended family with differing cultures. A culture is not something you can easily see, but it drives a lot of someone’s behaviour.
Couples that live happily together have over years developed certain rituals. They do certain things at Birthdays, Christmases and other days that are significant to them. They agree on certain values that make decisions easier to make.
This sense of shared meaning and culture helps the couple build a new identity as a family and bonds them in a shared sense of purpose.