“Remember, we all stumble, every one of us. That’s why it’s a comfort to go hand in hand.” – Emily KimbroughWhile I not going to claim to be the world’s foremost expert on relationships, I do have some training in what makes relationships work, and I know that my wife and I have worked hard (and continue to work) to make our relationship great.
Every marriage has its difficulties, and every marriage has its joys. But when you learn the deadly sins of relationships, you are more likely going to recognize them and then avoid them.
There are many people interested in tips and ideas on how to make marriage work. I wish I had a magic formula (if I did, I’d already be retired living as a gazillionare on my own island in the tropics – and of course you could come visit).
While there is no magic formula, it helps to keep in mind that marriage is designed to help you grow up into a better person. Here are a couple of other things to do as well:
- spend time alone together
- be kind and respectful to each other
- be intimate often
- love, give, and share with one another.
If you can avoid these seven things, and focus instead on doing the four things above, you should have a strong relationship. I’m not going to guarantee anything, but I’d give you good odds.
- Resentment. This is a poison that starts as something small (“He didn’t get a new roll of toilet paper” or “She doesn’t wash her dishes after she eats”) and builds up into something big. Resentment is dangerous because it often flies under our radar, so that you don’t even notice you have the resentment, and your partner doesn’t realize that there’s anything wrong. If you ever notice yourself having resentment, you need to address this immediately, before it gets worse, because resentment turns into contempt. Marriage researcher John Gottman considers contempt as one of the deadliest things in a marriage. In order to have a great marriage you must have contempt for contempt within the relationship. Cut it off while it’s small. There are two good ways to deal with resentment before it evolves into contempt: 1) breathe, and just let it go — accept your partner for who she/he is, faults and all; none of us is perfect; or 2) talk to your partner about it if you cannot accept it, and try to come up with a solution that works for both of you (not just for you); try to talk to them in a non-confrontational way, but in a way that expresses how you feel without being accusatory.
- Jealousy. It’s hard to control jealousy if you feel it. It seems to happen by itself, out of our control, unbidden and unwanted. However, jealousy, like resentment, is relationship poison. A little jealousy is fine, but when it gets to a certain level it turns into a need to control your partner, leads to unnecessary fights, and makes both parties unhappy. If you have problems with jealousy, instead of trying to control them it’s important that you examine and deal with the root issue, which is usually insecurity. That insecurity might be tied to your childhood (abandonment by a parent, for example), in a past relationship where you got hurt, or in something else that happened before your current relationship.
- Unrealistic expectations. Often you have an idea of what your partner should be like. You might expect them to clean up after themselves, to be considerate, to always think of you first, to surprise you, to support you, to always have a smile, to work hard and not be lazy. Not necessarily these expectations, but almost always you have expectations of your partner. Sometimes, without realizing it, you have expectations that are too high to meet. Your partner isn’t perfect — neither are you. You can’t expect them to be cheerful and loving every minute of the day — everyone is entitled to their moods. You can’t expect them to always think of you, as they will obviously think of themselves or others sometimes too. You can’t expect them to be exactly as you are, as everyone is different. Plus, you wouldn’t want to be married to a clone of yourself. Expectations lead to disappointment and frustration, especially when not communicated. How can you expect your partner to meet your expectations if they don’t know about them? The remedy is to lower your expectations, if not eliminate them entirely (expectations are really just planned disappointments) — allow your partner to be himself/herself, and accept and love them for that.
- Not making time. This is a problem with couples who have kids, but also with other couples who get caught up in work or hobbies or friends and family or other passions. Couples who don’t spend time alone together will drift apart. And while spending time together when you’re with the kids or other friends and family is a good thing, it’s important that you have time alone together. Can’t find time with all the things you have going on — work and kids and all the other stuff? Make time. Seriously — make the time. It can be done. I do it — I just make sure that this time with my wife is a priority, and I’ll drop just about anything else to make the time. Get a babysitter, drop a couple commitments, put off work for a day, and go on a date. It doesn’t have to be an expensive date — some time in nature, or exercising together, or watching a DVD and having a home-cooked dinner, are all good options. And when you’re together, make an effort to connect, not just be together.
- Lack of communication. This sin affects all the others on this list — it’s been said many times before, but it’s true: good communication is the cornerstone of a good relationship (and in a relationship, you cannot not communicate, so handle what goes on between you). If you have resentment, talk it out rather than letting it grow. If you are jealous, communicate in an open and honest manner to address your insecurities. Speak up about your wants and desires. If there are any problems whatsoever, communicate them and work them out. Communication doesn’t just mean talking or arguing — good communication is honest without being attacking or blaming. Communicate your feelings — being hurt, frustrated, sorry, scared, sad, happy — rather than criticizing. Communicate a desire to work out a solution that works for you both, rather than a need for the other person to change. And communicate more than just problems — communicate the good things too (see below).
- Not showing gratitude. Sometimes there are no real problems in a relationship, such as resentment or jealousy or unrealistic expectations — but there is also little to no expression of the good things about your partner either. This lack of gratitude and appreciation is just as bad as the problems, because without it your partner will feel like he or she is being taken for granted. Every person wants to be appreciated for all they do. And while you might have some problems with what your partner does (see above), you should also realize that your partner does good things as well. Does she wash your dishes or cook you something you like? Does he clean up after you or support you in your job? Take the time to say thank you – give a hug and kiss. This little expression can go a long way.
- Lack of affection. Similarly, everything else can be going right, including the expression of gratitude, but if there is no affection among partners then there is serious trouble. In effect, the relationship is drifting towards roommate status. That might be better than many relationships that have serious problems, but it’s not a good thing. Affection is important –everyone desires it, especially from the ones we love. Take the time, every single day, to give affection to your partner. Greet her when she comes home from work with a tight hug. Wake him up with a passionate kiss (who cares about morning breath!). Sneak up behind her and kiss her on the neck. Make out in the movie theater like teen-agers. Caress his back and neck while watching TV. Smile at her often. Make eye contact throughout the day.
- Bonus sin: Stubbornness. This wasn’t on my original list but deserves to be added. Every relationship will have problems and arguments — in fact these conflicts are part of the growing up process. Unfortunately, many of us are too stubborn to even talk about things. Perhaps we always want to be right. Perhaps we never want to admit that we made a mistake. Perhaps we don’t like to say we’re sorry. I’ve done all of these things — but I’ve learned over the years that this is just childish. When I find myself being stubborn these days, I try to get over this childishness and suck it up, put away my ego and say I’m sorry. Talk about the problem and work it out. Don’t be afraid to be the first one to apologize. Then move past it to better things.