Relationships are hard, no doubt about it.
There’s no magic elixir or method to making them work. But there are certain skills and insights you can learn when it comes to communicating better, resolving conflict, building real intimacy and having an all-around healthy relationship.
For wisdom, we spoke with several couples specialists, who reveal the valuable lessons they’ve learned in their profession along with what makes happy, solid relationships.
1. Relationships are complex.
This seems like a no-brainer, but many of us don’t appreciate a relationship’s complexities. Think of it this way: Each person has their own multilayered thoughts and emotions, which bring a variety of intricacies to the table, said Robert Solley, Ph.D, a San Francisco clinical psychologist. In fact, “Some estimates place the number of possible interconnections in the brain at more than the number of particles in the universe.”
Then add to that social interactions, relationships with loved ones and your partner, other experiences and even language (which tends to be ambiguous), Solley said.
Plus, we’re even unaware of many of our own feelings and thoughts. According to Solley, “A surprising amount of what we think, feel and do is simply not available for our own self-observation.” Take the example of a son who acts just like his father — something others see clearly — but he’s oblivious to. These off-the-radar patterns of thinking, behaving and feeling originate from templates that “were established in us in infancy before we even had language.”
We also tend to create inaccurate or distorted explanations for our partner’s behavior. “We may think that our partners are doing something uncaring, or to punish us, when in fact they are just doing what is natural for them and it has very little to do with us.” We also might be collecting evidence to substantiate these distorted beliefs. “In relationships all of these things can serve to sustain negative cycles and keep us stuck in painful patterns.”
In other words, as wonderful as relationships are, difficulties are expected, Solley said.
2. “Mutual respect is the bedrock for long-term, happy, successful relationships.”
This is according to Michael Batshaw, LCSW, relationship expert, psychotherapist and author of Before Saying ‘I Do’: The Essential Guide to a Successful Marriage.
Mutual respect doesn’t only strengthen the relationship, but it also helps couples overcome conflict. Why? Because “Your partner respects your point of view and tries to work through the issues with you.”
3. “Empathy and being able to see things from your partner’s perspective” are indispensable, Solley said.
These two ingredients aren’t just essential for healthy relationships, but they’re the “keys to your children’s emotional health and lifelong well-being,” he said. “In the end these are what really make the difference in all relationships.”
Empathy is important in building a strong, resilient relationship.
Both empathy and perspective-taking provide “a fuller, more realistic, multidimensional view of our partners and their connectedness to us.”
Similarly, also important is the ability to hold down multiple conflicting perspectives at the same time, he said. For instance, say you want to go out with friends but your partner wants to read together at home. “Can you dampen your own desire to socialize, even if it feels really urgent to you, enough to explore and entertain what it would mean for your partner to be able to read together?” Solley said. Another simple example is being able to have a courteous conversation with someone who believes differently than you.
4. “Attachment may indeed be the linchpin of relationships,” Solley said.
The idea of attachment comes from John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s. Basically, a person’s experiences with their parents largely determines their attachment, which also contributes to “our basic ability to trust ourselves, the world and other people,” Solley said. If you weren’t that securely attached, you’re less trusting. And this affects your relationship. “Without a certain level of trust a balanced, reciprocal, interdependent relationship is impossible.”
5. Taking your partner for granted is “simple to understand but really hard not to do.”
Especially if you have kids, you can start to become business partners who solely manage your household, finances and family, she said. The solution? Healthy couples find ways to reconnect and have couples-only time regularly, Blum said. This doesn’t have to be a date night out; you can just as easily connect on your living room couch. Instead of vegging out in front of the TV, though, pick a special movie and order your favorite pizza.
Even just being present with each other for five minutes helps, Blum said. She gave the example of talking over coffee.