Combining healthy expectations with relationship building behaviors will give you a satisfying relationship.
I have worked with thousands of men, women, and couples over the last 30 years. Today, I want to share with you some core skills for relationship success. You can then start to put these skills to use right away. To benefit, you must follow the formula of listen, learn, and do.
Many people listen, fewer people learn, and very few people do. Guess which group goes on to have great relationships?
Don’t do what most people do if you want to have more success than they do
Although the divorce rate and rate of unhappy marriages is very high, people never believe their marriages will end until they are on the brink of collapse. Then, they scramble like mad to try to save them.
If their relationships do fail, they stop learning how to repair their relationship. They assume it will never happen again with a new partner. Then they get into new relationships and have the same problems. If you want to be like most people, you can do exactly the same thing.
You need both general skills and particular skills for your relationship to go well
To a certain extent, relationship success does depend on choosing the right partner. But it also depends on how well we maintain the relationship, regardless of how our partner is.
To do this you need to know how to make a relationship work with the kind of partner you have. People will often know more about how to raise a particular breed of dog than they do about how to nurture a relationship with a spouse who has a particular relationship type. You are going to need different skills for different personality types, your friends, children, and spouse included.
One of my favorite books is called, Avoiding Mr. Wrong, and What to Do If You Didn’t. The authors, Arterburn and Rinck, teach women how to identify certain relationship types (e.g. The Control Freak, Mama’s Boy, etc.), why they are that way, how to avoid them, and how to make a marriage work with them if you didn’t notice the signs before you got married.
The different relationship types of men and women are the main reason there is no one-size-fits-all for solutions to relationship problems and why one person’s solution may not work for you. That being said, there are basic relationship skills that we must use with all people, our spouses included.
To have relationship success, you must: 1) have the skills for a particular relationship type and, 2) you must use a core set of relationship skills. Relationship failures are going to result from problems in one or both of these areas.
The single best predictor of relationship success
Love is not a good predictor of relationship success. If it were, the divorce rate would be very low since most people are in love when they decide to marry. Also, being in love today is not a good predictor of being in love with the same person five years from now. When I provided marriage counseling many years ago, I would recommend an excellent book to couples called Love is Never Enough, written by cognitive psychiatrist Aaron Beck, whose work has influenced much of my thinking.
The best predictor of success in anything is match. For business success, match your product or service to people’s needs. For success as an author, match your writing to your reader’s interests. For success in gardening, match the right growing conditions to your plants, and so forth. A mismatch in any of these areas will assure failure unless matching skills are acquired in time.
The same is true for relationships. You can take any two people who are lonely and put them together and they will have an enjoyable relationship for a while. The intensity of their initial love will often equal the intensity of their initial loneliness. But, once they are together for some time, their loneliness ends. It is at that point their similarities will either keep them together or their differences will drive them apart.
We always connect on similarities; we always disconnect on differences. Differences are unavoidable, but we must have enough similarities to overwhelm the differences if we want to keep our relationship going.
If someone asked your spouse how similar the two of you are, would your spouse say that you two are very different, very similar, or somewhere in between? This is the question that I use to determine whether someone needs to work on connection skills or not. Similarity is connection. There are some key areas in which similarities and differences have more impact on a marriage.
For my clients, key differences are often in the following areas:
- introversion and extroversion
- planning and spontaneity
- ways of managing money
- interest in sex
- parenting styles
- preferred marriage style (e.g., romantic vs. business)
- amount of involvement with other family members
A long engagement before marriage often will help to identify significant differences and provide time for the marriage to be called off. Unfortunately, engagements tend to be short and people believe that differences will be resolved after marriage. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Marriage enlarges pre-marital differences rather than shrinks them.
Before getting married, our connection needs to be strong enough to withstand the toll that marriage will place on the relationship. Living together, sharing expenses and chores, having children, and being exposed to our spouses at their worst as well as their best tests patience, security, and practical life skills.
I often help separated people to reconcile with their spouses. The same issues are at play. A good match must be re-created and the relationship must already be at its best before ending the separation and living together again. Otherwise, the strain of living together drives the couple to divorce. Whether single or separated, living together should not be seen as a way to strengthen the relationship or fix problems. That has to be done before living together.
Differences attract, loneliness attracts, neediness attracts. But only couples who are strongly connected by similarities will have enjoyable relationships.
Core skills for maintaining relationships
The key skills for lasting marriages are not openness, honesty, and just being yourself. Those things are great when you are in a good mood, feeling good, and behaving lovingly toward your spouse. But, when you are grumpy and tired, stressed by life, and irritated with your spouse’s behavior, openness, honesty, and just being yourself will set you back. It will also trigger your spouse who may be open and honest with you in way that you don’t like, setting you back even further.
While honesty is valuable, openness is highly overrated as a social skill. Openness is related to intimacy and must be done with the right people, at the right time, and in the right frame of mind.
The same skills we have to maintain our friendships are the ones we need to use with our spouses. Consider how you behave if you encounter a friend. How is your facial expression, your demeanor, and your tone of voice? Do you show interest in your friend even when they are not particularly fascinating? How would you talk about a problem with a friend? Wouldn’t you say lots of nice things about your friend before bringing up any problems?
Now, does your spouse get that relaxed and friendly behavior from you every time you two interact? Is your voice friendly? Do your eyes say, I am glad to see you? Do you listen with interest? Do you show appreciation and give compliments like you would with your friends? If not, you need to get back to doing these things before you try to motivate your spouse to make changes for your benefit.
Many people say they would be satisfied if only their spouse would treat them the same way they treat their friends.
Here is list of core relationship skills:
- Being consistently relaxed (not appearing upset)
- Being consistently friendly (even when you don’t feel like it)
- Continuing to behave in desirable ways as a man or woman
- Looking your best
- Validating with agreement and empathy
- Giving sincere compliments, appreciation, and admiration to help your spouse feel important
- Prioritizing your spouse over your children, work, family, and friends,
- Making one on one time enjoyable and a daily event
- Dating your spouse as if you were single and at least once a week
- Resolving problems without conflict
- Having activities and friends of your own, apart from your spouse
- Using good boundaries to maintain respect and love
- Being on your spouse’s side in front of all others
You might like to include other things in this list, but most things fall under one of these items. For example, honesty is part of behaving in a desirable way, as is being a good sexual partner. There are actually many facets to each of these items. If you find any that you know how to do, but don’t do, then start doing them and your relationship will improve. If there are any you don’t know how to do or don’t do well, then learn the skills involved and practice until you do them well.
The more and better you do the core relationship skills, the better your relationships will be.
How the impossible becomes possible
A lot of people will agree with the list of core relationship skills, but say they are not actually possible for them to do. They can’t be friendly because of their stresses. They can’t date because of their kids. They can’t have friends or activities of their own because of their jobs, and so forth. But amazingly, when their spouse is divorcing them or having an affair, they suddenly become able to do all of those things!
At that point, you can imagine their spouses become angry with them. After all, if they could do all of those things when the marriage is ending, why couldn’t they do them before? If you wait until your marriage is ending to do these things, you are likely to be disqualified by your spouse as being either fake or too late.
Are there any of those core skills you could do if you had to? If you had no choice? Could you find a way? Have you ever asked yourself why other people can do it but you can’t? If you can’t date because you have children, then how can other people with children date? If you can’t spend daily time with your spouse because you are busy with your work, how can other people with busy jobs do it? If you can’t exercise because you have a bad knee, then how can other people who use a wheel chair stay in shape? People who are motivated find a way. They learn what others do and they do it too.
Having a reason not to do something is not an excuse to neglect it. People always have a reason for everything they do, no matter how good or bad it is. Stop using reasons to justify your behavior and work on doing what is necessary to have a good marriage.
Many people try to make up for their neglect in one area by doing extra in others. But you can’t compensate for quality time together by bringing home a bigger paycheck or by going on an occasional vacation. And, family time (with the kids) does not count as dating time with your spouse. And, being extra nice sometimes will not make up for treating your spouse worse than your friends.
Is it too late if your spouse is already disengaged, disinterested, or rejecting?
Well, this is where coaches like me come in. We have to start our clients at the emotional place where their spouse is and build from there. If there is still some communication going on, then it is usually possible to gradually rebuild the relationship. I have helped a lot of people to do that. If your spouse is leaving you, you will want to do all of those core skills in your desperation, but you can’t if your spouse is not emotionally there.
Getting ahead of your spouse emotionally brings resistance, then distance, and then rejection if you persist. Learning how to build a relationship from the point where your spouse is requires many of the same skills you would need to use as a single person to help a person uninterested in you to become interested in you and to enjoy your company. That may sound impossible until you realize that every relationship starts with two people who were previously uninterested in each other.
Of course you can build your relationship even if your spouse is no longer interested in you.
This is the coaching approach. It does not involve working with your spouse to talk about problems as that will just make your relationship more distant. If you would like to learn more about the coaching approach to reconciling and improving your relationship, I invite you to look at my special coaching packages at coachjackito.com.