All full of renewed enthusiasm for strengthening a relationship, I sit down with my partner and I say: “I would like to talk about our relationship.”
As somebody that has read Teen Magazine we may think these are the most dreaded words to hear in a relationship.
As a mature adult looking to improve their lot in life, I hear this and I jump in headfirst. I’m in! Let’s talk!
It is your choice.
So, we sit down and rip a piece of paper in half and on the front side we each write in bold capital letters: THINGS I LOVE ABOUT YOU, and on the back side, we write in bold capital letters: THINGS I ACCEPT BUT DO NOT IDEAL. We start on the front, spending five minutes in silence talking to ourselves and in point form outlining the things we most adore about each other. Then we flip the paper and write down all the things that come to us as critique for our relationship and that we’d like – or even need – to work on.
All goes well encouraging each other with what we love about each other. Then I go first, sharing one thing that I’d like to work on in our relationship, pausing to give my partner some time to reflect on this, who responds:
“I feel like I’d like to work on how you’d like to work on this item. I like the way I am and I don’t want to change and if you don’t like it then you HAVE to because you have to accept me for who I am, and that is what love is.”
In moments like this I always think of a record screeching off it’s groove, making that classic side swipe noise.
So, obviously we have a problem here. On one hand, this is a very positive and constructive way to approach problems in relationships – and these relationships can be either professional, familial, or romantic relationships. The problem is maturity, or dare I say wisdom.
The mature partner knows that relationships take work, and both parties (which includes the ‘me’ and the ‘you’) have to give tremendously. Relationships take work! This is no secret.
The first few weeks or months the work is primarily taking light steps in the getting to know you phase. Then it shifts into more familiar territory where a little bit more commitment is desired and solidity is felt a relationship. This also coincides with comfort or settling in and it is at this stage where many relationships break because it begins to require relational work.
By relational work I mean how we interact with each other. That means how I interact with you, what actions and habits form the basis of our establishing relationship, and how you interact with me in the same sphere.
These habits carry forward from our past relationships, childhood, parents… basically all experiences of our past. These habits are where comfort sits.
Think of a simple habit of what you do when you walk in the front door of your home after work. Do you take off your shoes and put them in a similar spot? Hang your hat in a similar spot? Then walk your way over to the fridge to see what’s to eat? Maybe you flop down on the couch? Perhaps you walk to your computer to check for any new emails?
These habits help us get out of bed in the morning and feed ourselves because we have learned what works and what makes us feel comfortable with life, and these same types of things of course also occur in our relationships. For instance, when we see our partner, do we first shake hands? Kiss on the lips? Hug? High five?
Then what do we do? Do I ask how your day went? Do I ask what’s for dinner? Do I ask what’s to drink? Do I say something catchy like: “What’s goin on?”
Each of these things are habits; easy to learn, a little harder to forget or change.
This is where relational work exists. Identifying which habits help the relationship, and which habits actually make the relationship harder. This is why that piece of paper that your partner has written on both sides of isn’t meant to hurt you, it is meant to help you from henceforth in becoming a stronger human and having an easier time of life.
Do I Want To Change?
In order for this to work, there are two things that need to exist:
- I need to absolutely trust my partner and I need to believe that they are not manipulating me into a worse person.
- I need to understand that I can change, that I am not a static human that never changes.
For the former, it is important to have some sort of barometer to judge whether or not the advice or sticky habit bothering my partner should indeed be a habit I work on modifying. This is where ethics and morals come into play.
For example, if my partner is saying they really hate how I always increase the price of a product I’m trying to sell based on how the customer is dressed, I can ask myself does this conflict with any of my ethics I have as a human and salesman? Perhaps I believe that I should treat others as I wish to be treated? If this were the case, I would clearly see that I should offer always a fair and reasonable price and not try to milk every customer for all that I think they can afford.
Another example would be the exact opposite: my partner is saying how they think that I should jack up the price of a product if I see a customer walk into the office that they think can afford to pay a higher price. Does this conflict with my ethics? I believe everybody should be treated with respect and fairly, so this would conflict with my ethics.
At this point, we have an opportunity to reflect on whether this relationship is strengthening our character in a direction we want it to, or taking it in the other direction.
The answer to this question will tell us if we do or don’t want to stay in that relationship.
Having our moral and ethical compass in life truly helps in these instances for we can quickly reflect on these ethics and see if it aligns with them all. In an ideal relationship, our partner exudes the ideal character we want to become.
side note: another exercise to strengthening character or a relationship is to sit down and (collectively) come up with ethics and morals that align. This can then be used in the future to reference to make sure that the suggestion of character building and habit changing still aligns with the code of ethics.
If we do want to stay in the relationship, we need to listen, take notes, reflect, identify AND change our own habits that effect this relationship that our partner has so nicely identified for us.
If we don’t want to stay in the relationship, well, then we need to say goodbye.