“If one wishes to know love, one must live love, in action.” – Leo Buscaglia
At the dinner table this week, my family had a conversation about satisfying relationships. My teenage daughter wanted to know some things that my husband and I do to help us to keep our love on track. In the moment, I was pretty excited that she was interested in learning from us. As a parent, it is very cool and sometimes rare when teenagers perk up and listen.
So we jumped in and shared an idea: Relationships take daily attention and work from both parties. Not exactly the most romantic notion. But, what kind of work?
I often use a garden analogy when I work with couples. But when I started off with this metaphor, my daughter laughed because she knows that I kill plants. She gave her dad a worried look.
Since our conversation, I read Kate Walker’s recent article, “Make it to Your 50th Wedding Anniversary… Together!” She takes the illustration way beyond gardening:
“To help partners understand this particular kind of work, I ask them to picture a relationship with a plant, a goldfish, a dog, and a human. Plant relationships only need your attention a couple of days a week (and if that’s too much you buy a cactus). Goldfish relationships require a bit more work because you must feed it a couple of times a week and clean the bowl. Dog relationships are more intense because they require daily work: food, training, and entertaining. If you decide to marry (or create) a human relationship, this person is going to need time, attention, physical touch, and words of affirmation every day. This doesn’t make them ‘needy,’ this makes them normal. If that feels like too much work, get a goldfish instead.”
How Do I Work on My Relationship?
In my last blog post, I talked about four ways to build trust in your relationship:
- Learn to listen
- Practice gratitude
- Turn toward each other
- Create boundaries around the relationship
The following practices explore four more ways you can grow love in your relationship:
- Daily Commitment: With Kate Walker’s dog analogy in mind, one important aspect of loving relationships is consistency. The work you put into your relationship should not be based on how you feel at any given moment. If you have a pet, you care for your pet daily, regardless of your own illness, fatigue, stress, or boredom. Likewise, you and your partner need daily reminders that you matter. We all go through challenging times and sometimes do not feel like working on the relationship. But daily commitment is essential for health. We need to keep showing up for each other. As the years pass, moment-by-moment, trial and error, good times and bad, this is how we grow love.
- Limit Criticism. Many of us have a couple of things that irritate us about our partner. Seriously, if you are a human being, you will irritate your partner at some point! But a focus on the negative erodes the health of the relationship. Marriage researcher, John Gottman, found that satisfying relationships have five times as many positive interactions as negative interactions. When something needs to be addressed, make sure your partner knows you care about them first and make every effort to let your partner know the ways they matter.
- Have Fun: Find things to do together that make you both happy. We hear this all the time, but we are often just too busy to get away. I get it. Through the years, my husband and I have found it difficult to break away for date nights or quick weekend getaways. But time together is essential to stay connected. The most challenging time for marriages is the time directly following the exit or launching of the last child. Careers and children often take center stage and life can become too serious. It is common for couples to wake up after the kids leave home and realize, “We really do not know each other any more.” Make time to have fun together and stay connected. To inspire your next date night, check out these “Fun Dating Ideas.“
- Seek Help: Do not be afraid to ask for help when you get stuck. Life transitions, such as navigating in-laws, childrearing, geographic moves, etc., are normal and disruptive to any relationship. When you find yourself stuck, marriage seminars can provide a beneficial marriage tune-up. For more challenging issues, a couples counselor is an excellent source of professional support and safety that allows couples to explore and heal wounds in their relationship. A word of caution: be careful whom you choose to confide in. If you receive emotional support from someone outside you relationship make sure the person is a “friend of the marriage.” If you confide in someone who does not support your relationship, you risk building an emotional attachment that threatens the bond between you and your partner.
I am so glad my husband and I had an opportunity to share some of our experience with our daughter. The most important thing I hope she learns is that she does not have to do relationships perfectly. She just needs a commitment to start over and over again every day. There is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Satisfying relationships are a learning process. When things get challenging… and they will… keep trying. Compassion for yourself and your spouse goes a long way.