So why do relationships succeed? If you read my post on relationship failure (if not, you can here), then the concepts in this post should be somewhat familiar. Again, the major themes are communication, trust, and empathy.
Before addressing the relationship themes, it may be worthwhile to stop and think about what success means to you in the context of a relationship. A successful relationship must have genuine communication, unconditional trust, and mutual empathy.
Communication. What is healthy communication? Most of you will say being open, honest, and sincere with your partner. All of that is true. Healthy communication involves each person being heard and respected. Being heard is more than someone looking at you when you are talking. It is the active participation of the other in attending to you. It includes both communicative (i.e., verbal acknowledgement, response) and non-communicative gestures (eye-contact, body language).
The more attentive you are to the other person, the more genuine the connection. So put down the smart phone and make eye contact (don't worry, your facebook page will still be there). If the other person does not have your undivided attention, then the other will be less invested in the conversation. For that moment, the other person will be less invested in you. How do you feel if you are talking to someone and they are multi-tasking? People in successful relationships emphasize the importance of genuine communication between partners.
Trusting your partner and the relationship. Trust is following through on what you say you are going to do. This includes major commitments (i.e., honesty, faithfulness, integrity) as well as the smaller details (i.e., daily responsibilities, punctuality, etc). It may seem silly to have your relationship impacted by forgetting to do the dishes. However, I've had many couple sessions where people express that the lack of commitment to the small things becomes a big issue over time. No one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes. You can either acknowledge your limitations and work to improve or make excuses. One builds the relationship, the other hurts it.
Trust is knowing that something is important to your partner without your partner having to tell you repeatedly. I’m not saying you should be a mind-reader. However, you should be attuned to what matters to your partner. By being proactive or even active, your partner will notice that you are trying to meet their needs. This goes a long way in the process of building trust.
Trust is strengthened by being honest with each other. Being honest does not mean you are an open diary all of the time; it can include saying, “I’d rather not talk about it now, maybe later?” This type of statement sends two messages: "I’m not in a good place right now, but I do want to talk about it with you at some point." At a deeper, relational level, this statement also says, "I can be vulnerable with you and I trust that you won't use my vulnerability against me." This is a subtle but very powerful component of a relationship (I'll write more about that in a future post titled "It's about the process"). When you feel weak and need support, a good partner will be there for you. These moments strengthen the relationship and builds trust.
Empathy. The concept of empathy is known by many, but the application can be a challenge. Empathy is the awareness of another person's feelings. The common metaphor is "put yourself in the other person's shoes." Training yourself to be empathic is a great skill to have for any relationship. A question to ask yourself is "How might the other person be feeling right now?" It's that simple. Empathizing with your partner does not mean you are wrong, or they are right. It means you are trying to understand and connect with your partner's emotional world and actions. Empathy involves setting aside your feelings (no, not dismissing them) for a moment and connecting with your partner's feelings. This may not solve the issue, but it can strengthen your relationship.
Reflect on your current relationship and even past relationships. What went wrong? What went right? What can I change? I imagine that the answers to these questions will involve one, two, or all three of the relational themes.
Healthy relationships are a combination of minimizing the unhealthy and maximizing the healthy. It's not an either-or scenario: you can't just avoid the negative or just emphasize the positive. If you want to be a physically healthy person, you have to minimize junk foods AND have a healthy diet. A relationship is work, but I can't help but reflect on something my dad says to me (all the time, I mean, all. the. time.): If something brings you happiness and success, is it really work?
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Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!