Five Steps to Building and Maintaining a Healthy Relationship with a Significant Other.
By Laura Garrett M.A, M.Ed, LPC, CACIII
Remember when Cinderella and Snow White found their Prince Charming, fell in love in the forest, then got married and lived happily ever after? Well no one ever told us what happens after they live happily ever after. They don’t talk about the work that it takes to maintain the love and romance once the newness has worn off. In this article you will be introduced to five basic and useful steps that are necessary to build and maintain a healthy and long-lasting relationship with your significant other, after the happily ever after.
Step 1: Know thy self.
Oftentimes people get into a relationship before taking the time to figure out who they are and what they need. They may spend more time researching their perfect car, which they will have for a short time, than they will researching their needs, wants and goals for their perfect relationship, which they expect to have for a lifetime. Therefore, step 1 is about self-discovery.
First, you must ask yourself, “Why do I want to be in a relationship?” Am I running away from something, or myself? Am I running toward my desire to have a companion to share a life with, to start a family and grow old reminiscing over our lives together? Perhaps you want to want to be in a relationship because that is what is expected.
Once you discover your reasons for being in a relationship it is important to explore your goals and make sure your partner has a similar vision: for example, a long-term committed relationship versus friends with benefits. Next you should examine your beliefs about relationships that oftentimes are influenced by your family values. Your expectations and values are also important concepts to consider. You cannot expect your partner to be something that you yourself are not. For example, if you want your partner to be faithful, you might need to consider your own track record with fidelity.
Step 2: Identify a healthy relationship.
Once you have explored why you want a relationship and what you are looking for, you are ready to learn how to find a healthy one. A healthy relationship is considered interdependent, while an unhealthy relationship is considered codependent.
A codependent relationship is one in which both partners are dependent on each other for their identity and the fulfillment of their emotional needs. Imagine two people inside one hula hoop---they cannot function as two separate individuals. The boundaries become blurred and identities become lost. This type of relationship can create unhealthy family dynamics to include domestic violence and substance abuse.
An interdependent relationship is one in which each partner is whole and complete. They know who they are and have developed an independent lifestyle. Now they are ready to share their lives with another partner who has also created an independent life. Interdependency means each individual maintains their own individual identity while at the same time creating a shared life together.
Step 3: Understand the differences between the genders.
Now that you have found your healthy partner it is important to understand the inherent differences between your genders. There are three major differences that will be briefly covered, which include physiological, verbal and social, all which can have a significant impact on communication.
Physiological: Men and women respond differently to stress based on the chemicals that are released in the brain. When women are stressed they tend to become more nurturing and protective as they derive their self-worth from adequacy of relationships. Men, on the other hand, tend to experience the “fight or flight” response when stressed as their self-worth is built around adequacy of performance. This means that when a woman, in her best intentions, asks a man why he is doing something a certain way or going a certain direction, it may trigger the man’s stress response, causing him to yell or withdraw. A man who yells or withdraws may create a fear response in a woman causing her to continue to say things that reinforce a man’s feelings of incompetence. This can create a vicious cycle, where the man continues to withdraw even more and the woman continues to attack in attempts to preserve the relationship. If both partners are aware of this difference, this type of conflict can be avoided.
Verbal: When communicating, men tend to focus on the main points, while women tend to focus on the details. Also when it comes to communication, men are action oriented and tend to focus on a solution while women are discussion oriented and tend to focus on verbal processing. To overcome this difference it is helpful for the man to listen to his partner about a problem or situation and then validate her feelings. Ask her what she needs or what would be helpful before moving on to problem solving. You may find all she wanted to do was talk. Women might consider informing their partners what they need from them at the beginning of the conversation, so men can be prepared to either just listen or work on a solution.
Social: Men and women are socialized differently from childhood. Boys play in teams or groups, while girls typically play in dyads. Therefore if a conflict ensues and a boy leaves the group, there are others to play with; however, if a girl leaves the group, the other girl may find herself alone. This behavior indicates a tendency for men to feel more comfortable in parallel play where women are more comfortable with interactive play. This means when a husband and wife are sitting on the couch together watching T.V., the man may feel more connected with his wife, viewing this activity as good quality time. However, the woman may feel ignored as she needs more interaction to feel connected.
These are just brief highlights of three major gender differences and, it should be noted, generalizations. There will always be exceptions.
Step 4: Learn effective communication skills.
The number one complaint couples have is their inability to communicate effectively with each other. Communication is one of the key ingredients for building a strong foundation in a relationship. The weakest skill in communication is listening, where only about 10% of what is said is actually heard. This weakness is oftentimes due to environmental, verbal or non-verbal distractions. Therefore, before trying to have an important conversation with your significant other it is helpful to ask if this is a good time to talk. This way you can ensure his/her undivided attention. One rule of thumb, if either of you is hungry and/or tired, this is definitely not a good time to talk.
Once you have your partner’s attention, it is your responsibility to communicate your feelings using I-messages, which are blame-free statements that you use when you own the problem. Following the I-message, your partner needs to clarify your statement to ensure you are both on the same page. Once on the same page, your partner then validates your feelings. Keep in mind, your partner does not have to agree with how you feel, but you do have the right to be validated. Following the validation, you and your partner can proceed to problem solving if this step is warranted.
It is important to remember that communication is a skill, so be patient with your partner while you both learn to communicate more effectively. It is also important to note that communication is too large a topic to be addressed in the scope of this article, therefore if you would like more in-depth training please refer to my book What Happens After “Happily Ever After?”
Step 5: Become comfortable with conflict.
Many couples struggle with conflict; they either fear it or avoid it. This is usually due to their misunderstanding of it. A conflict is a disagreement in perspectives, beliefs, values and ideas that generally occurs when one’s needs are being infringed upon or not being met. What causes escalation in a conflict are the strong emotions that are attached to it.
The most effective way to broach a conflict is by using the communication skills that have been briefly addressed, in addition to sticking to the fair fighting rules, some of which are listed below (see the complete list of fair fighting rules as well as a complete discussion about communication for a healthy relationship in the book):
- Stay in the present and address only the current and immediate problem. Any issue older than 24 hours is “
- Deal with one issue at a time.
- Take responsibility for your part in the conflict by using I-messages.
- Be direct and honest about your feelings. Practice being assertive.
- Listen and hear what your partner’s perspective is without interruption. Use reflective listening as well as
clarifying skills (this is what I hear you saying).
- Give each other equal time to express feelings and point of view.
- Attack the issue, not the person. Avoid name-calling as this will be destructive to the relationship.
- Work toward negotiations by focusing on solving the problem, not venting or winning the argument.
- Limit your discussion to no more than 30 minutes, otherwise it starts to become unproductive and leads to
“kitchen sinking” (getting off topic).
In this article you have been briefly introduced to the five most important steps to building and maintaining a healthy relationship with your significant other. If you follow these steps you will be on your way to your “Happily Ever After.”
For more information and in-depth descriptions of these five steps please refer to the book What Happens After “Happily Ever After?” by Laura Garrett M.A, M.Ed, LPC, CACIII. A workbook is also available that allows you and your partner to work together on the skills that have been discussed.
Laura Garrett is a licensed professional counselor who graduated with a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver and a second master’s degree in Adult Education and Training from Colorado State University. She is currently in private practice with over 20 years’ experience in relationship, mental health and addiction issues. Laura has worked with hundreds of individuals and couples who struggle with relationship issues. She knows what it takes to have a happy and healthy relationship with a significant other and is eager to share this knowledge with her readers.