How to build the one you want
We’re all busy working (or looking for work), parenting and/or teaching at home, stressing about bills and worldwide uncertainty. But despite the pressures of today, it’s the quality of the relationship you have with your significant other that has the most impact on your quality of life.
There’s extensive research to prove that happy and stable relationships have positive mental and physical benefits. So it goes without saying that unhappy, unstable relationships can be destructive to your mental and physical well-being.
Not only is the relationship you have with your significant other important, but it has also likely been under a pressure cooker thanks to the unpredictable world we found ourselves thrown into a year ago, where a pandemic-induced lockdown forced us to exist in close quarters with the one we love (or at least, thought we loved), with little to no means of escape. The last thing most people want to consider is whether their relationship is a problem. But let’s not think about it as a problem to solve, in as much as it’s a situation to understand.
The problem with 21st-century relationships: how we’re set up for failure.
In the modern world, we aren’t taught how relationships work, how to interpret what we need or want from a partnership, or how to get the most out of them. There is no mandatory training, guidebooks or schools. We don’t get “L” stickers to warn that we’re just learning and might need some patience and guidance. Instead, we go along for the ride and hope for the best – that we’ll find someone more appealing than ourselves who will agree to go out with us on more than five dates and then someone leaves their toothbrush overnight and boom… you’re in a relationship.
“Assumptions are the termites of relationships.” — Henry Winkler
The problem we have with relationships is that most of us learned about them from two sources, neither of whom were necessarily experts in the field: our family unit and pop culture:
- Whatever family unit you grew up in – a parent or two, grandparents, foster care – if that household exhibited love that was vulnerable, tender and kind, then you’re ahead of the game. However, it wasn’t all like that for everyone, and you might have experienced love as being distracted, abusive, transactional (something to be earned), or something else. If you grew up with less-than-ideal role models, you do have the chance to relearn how love and relationships are supposed to work and what their true purposes are.
- Meanwhile, pop culture – music, porn, TV, video games, social media, books – was designed with the intent to get an entertaining message across in as short a period as possible, so it relies on stereotypes: unrealistic assumptions that the right love will “complete you,” or that romantic love is the complete perfect merger of two lives where you share and believe in the same things. Or that love equals sex, and it’s as simple as meeting someone hot, having amazing hot sex, and spending the rest of your life in bliss somewhere tropically hot having even more hot sex. Popular culture does not have time to get into selecting the right partner for you, what to give and receive, or how to deal with the more mundane aspects of love, like sharing a bathroom.
“…young men’s love then lies Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.” William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
What is a healthy relationship?
Relationships aren’t about finding the perfect person, conforming to meet someone else’s needs, or being on your best behaviour all the time. Relationships exist on a spectrum (not a binary of good or bad) with the understanding that both parties involved want to work together to improve the quality of their relationship and are actively willing to do so without sacrificing their individuality. What this looks like:
- You’re a team. You both are willing to work towards actively building a life together.
- Stress (eventually) brings you closer together.
- Your values align or complement one another (emotional, physical, qualities, finance, kids).
- You set goals together. To build a good relationship, both people need to know what they want, how to get it and that their partner supports it.
- It’s intentional. You both need to want to be there.
How do I get a healthy relationship?:
“We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.” — John Lennon
- Be purposeful: relationships don’t appear from the ether, as rom-coms might bring us to believe. If you want the relationship that’s best for you, it needs to be built, and you have to be an active participant. It’s not going to just come to you, and no amount of complacent wishing is going to change that.
- Emotional intelligence (the ability to understand and manage emotions): it’s how relationships of all kinds progress, whether with a partner, your kids, family, coworkers, or otherwise.
- Mental agility: you’re going to need it to steer the ship, help your partner succeed, and respond to their needs and your own.
- Self-awareness: if you aren’t aware of what you need/want or why, your partner won’t be, either.
- Patience: you’re not always going to be 100% on the same wavelength. You’ll need patience to reconnect the dots and make sure both sides are understood.
- Explore: we don’t all nail it on the first try. Sometimes it takes time and experience to decide what we want. In existing relationships, this can mean trying new things together, diving into what each other needs, and helping each other better understand themselves.
- Ask hard questions: Where does our relationship break down? What triggers the fights we do have? What can I do differently?
- Plan: the best relationships plan their way forward.
- Understand non-verbal cues: we’re not innately talented with understanding our own non-verbal cues, whether it’s our volume, facial expressions, tone, or otherwise. This is something that can be taught and practiced.
- We’re constantly told that peak relationships are something you fall into, that just magically appears before us as a reward for our hard work, manliness, charm, or skill. In reality, the best relationships are purposeful, take time, and require work, planning, and a lot of thought. No relationship is ever perfect. It’s not one where no-one ever disagrees, but it is one where both people can discuss, trust, and come to solutions together.
- “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
- Instead of falling into relationships of convenience, being perpetually unhappy or lacking excitement, or just delaying the inevitable, professional help can demystify what you need in a relationship and how to be a better partner. What’s exciting is that when you approach relationships thoughtfully, you can have happier, more fulfilling relationships with far more longevity.