Saturday, September 12, 2009

So You Want a Great Relationship

Iris and I have had amazing opportunities to see many relationships up close and personal; we're constantly amazed at how strangely and wonderfully friends relate to their significant others. So, I thought I'd write down some of the things that I would consider keys to establishing and maintaining a great relationship.

False Advertising
From the time we're children, we're taught to "put our best foot forward" when meeting new people, essentially, to misrepresent ourselves. There is no place where this is more prominently in play than in dating. We hype ourselves. We stretch truths here and there. We take extra time with our hair and makeup. We feign interest in topics that aren't so interesting and we feign disinterest in those that are.

The problem is that dating sometimes leads to a long term relationship. In many cases, neither person is who they represented themselves to be.
Rule #1: If you're looking for a really great long term relationship, then be who you are in every way possible. If there's something that you want to change, then really change it, don't just patch it up to get through a date.
Trading the Porsche for a Minivan
So many relationships start in idyllic situations, or at least in situations that are away from many of our day-to-day challenges. People meet in vacation spots. People meet at conferences. People meet at parties. People meet at work.

In any case, as we start dating, we tend to leave behind many of our daily challenges. If we have kids, we don't bring them along. If we have debt, we dont' talk about it. If we have a hard time getting up in the morning or are grouchy late at night, it doesn't come up. We're operating in a nicely tuned environment.

I have many friends who have done well financially and have spent much of their dating time traveling to exotic places and spending time in high end hotels. Under those circumstances, almost everyone is happy and easy going.

When we start living together, all this changes. Even if we weren't intentionally hiding who we are, we all tend to behave differently in some situations than others.
Rule #2: Spend time together in ordinary, day-to-day living situations before deciding anything about being together for a really long time.
It's the Little Things
One of the really amazing things that I've discovered is that the big challenges (e.g., difference in political opinions or religious observances) pale when compared to differences in the so-called "little things". For example, let's say that...
...you're someone who really loves snuggle at night and you're with someone who really wants their space.

...you're someone who pops out of bed in the morning, ready to run out the door and start your new day, and you're with someone who wakes up slowly and takes an hour to get themselves together.

...you're someone who loves to spend time with other people hosting dinners and parties, and you're with someone who'd rather just be with you.

...you're someone who makes decisions quickly and intuitively, and you're with someone who makes decisions slowly and deliberately, someone who won't abdicate decisions to you.
Over the years, these kinds of differences can really add up.
Rule #3: Talk about the little things in life that you like or dislike. Make a list of them, seeing where you're aligned and where you're not. Consider the implications of the places where you lack alignment.
More or Less of What You Love
One of things that I love about being with Iris is that I end up doing more of the things that I love to do than I did before I met her. I love to play music, but I also love to write software, and I love to workout and exercise, and I love to be with other people, and on and on.

I used to limit myself to just a few of these activities. But since being with Iris, I'm doing all of them. When we first heard our friend Peter playing guitar at Club Helsinki, Iris went up to him and invited him to come over to our house to jam with me. It's been really amazing.

On the other hand, I have many friends who, after getting involved in their current relationships, stopped doing the things they loved most. They operate under the belief that this is a necessary trade-off for being in the relationship; their new responsibilities preclude their pursuit of their loves and passions. In some cases, it's not so much that their significant other insists on them dropping their pursuits, it's more of a passive resistance kind of thing.
Rule #4: If you find yourself giving up activities you love as a result of being in your relationship, stop and talk about it. If you're going to give up something you love to do, really think it through.
Passively Yours
To me, the biggest relationship killer is passive resistance. It's saying "nothing's wrong", when clearly something is. It's encouraging your partner to take time to pursue something they love, and then constantly interrupting them with things that are "important". It's agreeing to go somewhere, and then taking forever to get ready.

Passive resistance ebbs away at relationships in ways that are frequently difficult to put your finger on. Oftentimes, by the time you see it, it's a bit late.
Rule #5: If you want a great relationship, agree that you'll absolutely avoid passive resistance. If you catch yourself or you partner employing passive resistance, stop whatever you're doing and call it out.
Break Up Early, Break Up Often
Lately, I've started asking everyone who's just left a relationship when they actually "knew" it wasn't going to work out. You'd be amazed at how many people say that they new quite early in the relationship (e.g., in the first few weeks), even people who'd been in relationships for years.

Even though they knew it wasn't going to work out, they pursued the relationships because they "hoped something would change" or they simply found their partner to be "so attractive" that they wanted the relationship any way or the relationship had gotten so far along that they felt they should pursue it.

Of course, in each of these cases, the relationship ended up breaking up.
Rule #6: As soon as you know that it's not working, do something about it. Talk about it. Explore it. Perhaps, even end it. Don't abdicate to a vague sense of hope or obligation.
Where is Your Relationship?
Although you'll hear over and over that great relationships take hard work, I don't buy it. I believe great relationships come easily as long as you're open and honest with each other, and you take time to ensure alignment in your wants.

The following is a little quiz to help evaluate your level of relationship alignment. It's not at all scientific, but might be fun to take as partners. To do this, print out the questions below and answer them individually, writing them down without looking at each other's answers as you do so.

After you finish, score yourselves and then talk together about what you've each written.
  1. Are there people in your life with whom you share things that you don't share with your partner? Give yourself a five (5) if you answered "no" and a minus five (-5) if you answered "yes".

  2. List fifteen (15) everyday wants in your life (e.g. waking up early or sleeping in, cooking or being cooked for, snuggling or sleeping with space, time outside or time inside, how much sex, how much kissing, working out, etc.) For each of these, give yourself a one (1) if your partner is totally on board and supportive, a zero (0) if they don't care one way or another, and a negative one (-1) if they are resistant to or antagonistic of it.

  3. List up to five things that you love to do that you now do or do more of since you met your partner. Give yourself a two (2) for each of these.

  4. List up to five things that you love to do that you now do less of or no longer do since joining your partner. Give yourself a minus two (-2) for each of these.

  5. Do you or your partner ever employ obfuscation or passive resistance? Give yourself five (5) for never, a zero (0) for sometimes, and a minus five (-5) for frequently.

  6. How much time do you and your partner spend in everyday living situations? Give yourself a five (5) for nearly all the time, a zero (0) for some of the time, and a minus five (-5) for nearly none of the time.
Enjoy your discussions and have a great relationship weekend!

Teflon

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