If your relationship has gone through its ups and downs, but is now on a good path to prosper, you’ll probably want to keep it that way.
Here are ten steps you can take to make sure your relationship stays healthy and continues to blossom. For more of an in-depth look at each step, listen to the episode attached to this post.
(after you read this article, be sure to tune into the Love and Abuse podcast for avoid toxic behavior in relationships)
1. Never bury the emotionally challenging stuff
If there’s a sensitive topic in your relationship’s history, never sweep it under the rug. This build resentment and the problem never gets resolved. Unresolved relationship issues become the foundation for anger, frustrations and irritations throughout the lifetime of the relationship so it’s vital that even the most challenging issues get addressed. If you don’t, “everything else is great” won’t matter when there’s an underlying upset that hasn’t been addressed.
2. Try not to process emotions for more than a day or two
My girlfriend used to hold on to upset for days and sometimes weeks. She would withhold affection from me, avoid talking to me, and would barely give me eye contact when I’d walk in the door. Her reluctance to talk about something that happened inside of her because of something I said or did was causing me to feel left out of the relationship completely. It got to the point where I told her I don’t want a relationship at all if it’s going to be “like this” from now on. She never felt comfortable to share those emotionally challenging issues with me so she just stonewalled me instead.
Our relationship grew out of that phase because of my refusal to be ignored for days or weeks at a time. I told her to express to me even if she knew it would upset me. She didn’t want to because she’d never felt safe enough to do that with anyone. She eventually tried it once, then tried it again, then realized that she could share the hard stuff with me and we could make it through. Relationships that ‘make it through’ the hard stuff last longer and grow stronger.
3. Don’t expect your partner to change
When you see behavior you don’t like in your partner, don’t focus on them changing because it will only delay your own personal healing and growth. You can certainly express your concern to them about behavior they do, but don’t spend too much time or energy focused on how they need to change to suit your needs. Instead, invest your time and energy on what you need to do to become accepting, nurturing, supportive loving, and especially self-caring.
It’s not up to them to change their behavior for you, it’s up to you to support their happiness even if you don’t agree with their behavior. That doesn’t mean you compromise your own boundaries or values, letting them do anything they want. But it does mean if they know their behavior is a problem for you, they have a choice to continue doing it or not. Trying to control them and change how they show up will take away that choice and, once again, build resentment.
Don’t waste time trying to control them because it always leads to hurt feelings and loss of love.
You can still have a conversation about the problems with your partner because sometimes people do behavior that they don’t even know they’re doing. But let them be who they are so they don’t feel as if you are trying to control them. Let them express themselves authentically with you because when you do, they may choose to change on their own – or not – but at least it’s their choice.
When you want to control someone else, it takes away their choices. No one likes having no choice.
I spent the majority of my marriage trying to change my wife. I truly believed, “If she changed her behavior, we’d be happy!”. But after years of making her feel bad about herself and blaming her for not being the person I wanted her to be, she fell out of love and became depressed. It took a divorce for me to realize that continuous judging and controlling of your loved ones is the fastest path to unhappiness and being alone.
Invest your time supporting your partner instead of obsessing about their behavior. If you really can’t stand how they show up in the relationship, and they don’t seem to care about how you feel, it might be time to leave.
4. Get over their past
The only person that matters is the one you see in front of you today and from this point on. If you look at your partner and you can’t stand that they had sex with so and so, or took too many drugs, or got arrested for robbing a store, or whatever, you will have an even harder time accepting any of their positive attributes today.
You don’t have to accept any behavior that is against your values, of course. For example, if your partner robbed a bank and hurt people ten years ago, you may not be able to get past that. It’s possible you can be so appalled by someone’s past behavior that you can’t look beyond it. If that’s the case, you may need to get out of the relationship because you will never be able to get beyond that.
My point is people should be judged on who they’ve become and what they do today. If a former felon still wants to rob banks, you have every right to judge them and get yourself away from them if you don’t like their choices. You can tell them that the lifestyle they want to live is not compatible with what you want, and they can choose to change or not, but you can’t stay with them if this is what they choose.
Focusing on your partner’s past takes away all the time and energy you should be investing into the relationship, and honoring who they are today. If something they did truly bothers you, talk about it with them. Get to understand where they were at the time. But if you turn that talk into an opportunity to judge something they can’t change, you’ll find the relationship go downhill fast.
5. Get over your past
If you hurt your partner and you are still plagued with guilt by it, apologize once and mean it. That’s it.
If you honestly know that you will never hurt them like that again, one meaningful, heartfelt apology is all that’s needed. However if you find yourself apologizing over and over again for the same thing, then you couldn’t possibly have meant all of those other apologies. A true apology is only needed once.
If your partner expects you to apologize over and over again, it’s possible they are either trying to punish you or can’t come to closure in themselves with what you did. Either way, they need to heal and grow through that. They may want to talk about it with you repeatedly, but don’t apologize anymore because if you really meant it, you don’t have to apologize again.
The only exception to this is when you’ve committed an act of betrayal. If you’ve cheated or lied in a big way, you may have to apologize repeatedly for sometimes months. This is because you’re partner may want to see you suffer a bit (and you may have earned some suffering anyway because of your behavior). Apologizing repeatedly will show your partner that you are still remorseful and feel bad for what you did. It will help them feel a little better knowing you are still thinking about it.
I worked with a client that I had to get off the repeated apology thing so that their relationship could move forward. They were stuck in him continuously apologizing for his infidelity years ago and her continuing to be triggered by it. The first questions I asked were, “Do you regret doing it?” and “Will you ever do it again?”. I also asked both of the, “Do you want to save this marriage?”. Since he regretted doing it, committed to never doing it again, and they both wanted to save the marriage, I told him to apologize one last time and mean it. After that, if she ever brings it up, tell her, “I’ve apologized and I meant it. If you still have a problem with it, I’m happy to listen and talk about it, but I have already apologized and I’m ready to move beyond this if you are.”
They both knew he’d never cheat again but his apologies kept him in a guilty place and her in a wounded place. Stop apologizing repeatedly for anything you’ve done. Come into alignment with what you did. Own it. Apologize for it once, then move on. If your partner wants to continue hearing it, tell them you meant it when you said it and are ready to move forward now and won’t be apologizing again.
There’s more that can be said about this but the goal is to stop the cycle of repeated guilt and wounding by coming to a new place of acceptance of what happened and moving on. Some relationships can survive betrayal, some can’t.
6. Pay attention to what’s important to your partner and encourage and support the journey they are on
This goes along the lines of a recent episode I did called, Valuing Your Partner’s Values. If they love dancing ballet and you hate it, don’t put them down and talk badly about it, give them a ride to the studio and watch them dance every now and then. This brings in huge brownie points. If you really can’t stand ballet and don’t want to be around it at all, at least be happy about their happiness about it and do whatever you can to support it.
You don’t have to give up your entire life to support them to the point where you are unhappy (creating your own emotional deficit to make someone else happy is called people pleasing), you just want to show them that you value what they value. And if you can’t value it, turn on your empathy and put yourself in their shoes. Really feel what it’s like to be supported. Also feel what it’s like to be unsupported and even dismissed or ignored.
In my home, I often ask myself, “What would my girlfriend want me to do?” and then make a decision from there. It’s not that I do everything that way, it’s just a process for me to stay aware of what she finds important so that I never lose sight of supporting what makes her happy.
7. Follow your own healing path – especially after a breakup and reconciliation
Acknowledge the role you played in your relationship’s issues and follow a path to healing and growth. This is all about self-care and self-nurturing.
Whenever there’s a huge fight or breakup, you can of course reconnect and talk about, if you’re on speaking terms, and you can even heal and grow together, but you both must have your “me time”.
It’s vital you are able to have time and space to reflect, inflect, and gain enlightenment on your own so that it is never under the control or influence of someone else. In other words, you need to know who you are and how you think without someone else influencing your thoughts. When you spend time apart and do this for yourself, you work on bringing the best version of yourself into this or any future relationship. After all, you never want to bring the unhealed you or unresolved personal issues back into the relationship because that will recreate what you had (which fell apart).
There are often subtle ways we influence our partners to conform to a way of being that we find acceptable. Often when you are trying to mend and repair the relationship together as a couple, it can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help. This isn’t always true but it’s good to keep in mind that sometimes the strongest reconciliations are formed when both people work on themselves first, then bring those new people back into the relationship. It’s like starting fresh with new ideas and a clean slate.
8. Don’t make sex all about sex
If your partner wants sex one night and you don’t, so you lay there hoping they don’t ask, you may feel pressured. You may become anxious thinking they’ll ask for it but you don’t bring it up hoping they’ll get the subtle clues you are giving. You never speak about it – you just hope it goes away.
The pressure that can build up when you are unable to talk about sex can lead to much resentment and underlying upset. It’s so important to talk about it and make it a part of your conversations, even when you know they want it and you don’t (or vice versa). Otherwise an unspoken upset can build and create problems elsewhere in the relationship.
I believe it’s important to consider sex as a normal activity, just like the other activities you do together. In other words, don’t make it so sacred that it becomes a series of subtle clues. Get to know when your partner wants sex and when they don’t. If you have a partner that wants sex a lot, then it’s time to improvise a little bit and rewire both of you to enjoy your connection either way. Sex should be about an emotional and physical connection, but it shouldn’t be only sex that creates that kind of connection.
There is a technique you can use to get through those nights one of you wants sex and the other doesn’t. Hopefully you can talk about it openly, but regardless, if you get the signal for sex and you’re not in the mood, rub their feet or their back instead. Or tell them you want to watch a movie or you just want to snuggle, just to let them know that you still want to connect at a deeper level, even if it doesn’t involve sex.
You still want to acknowledge their desire for sex however. But you also want to share with them that just because you’re not in the mood, you still want to do something else to connect. That may not satisfy them completely, but at least it’s an opportunity to move toward something positive instead of being interpreted as a complete rejection.
Creating an alternate physical and emotional connection every now can break the old pattern of “Uh oh, it’s sex time and I don’t want it” so that you can create a new pattern of “Sometimes I give them a back rub and sometimes we have sex and sometimes we snuggle and sometimes we watch a movie and sometimes…” This new pattern will reinforce positive components of a sexless day or night instead of making it about a struggle.
This technique doesn’t necessarily work for the person who always wants sex. That’s a different type of situation and may be a bit more challenging. However offering these alternatives every now and then can show that you care and that you are aware of their needs even if you can’t meet them 100% of the time.
9. Drop the commentary on minutia
When a partner is so focused on every little detail, conversations become all about who’s to blame and who needs to change. Every little behavior becomes a point of contention and something to talk about, and there is no conversation that takes place without putting their partner down for something big or small.
My girlfriend can sometimes be very picky about certain things, especially when she’s tired and hungry. She can find everything wrong with what I’m doing even when I have the best intentions. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, I can see she’s mired in minutia and that no matter what I do or say, she’s going to find something to criticize me about.
This can be frustrating at times because she will point out every single problem she has with me instead of just letting it all go, realizing that what I’m doing doesn’t really make a difference in the grand scheme of things. When she’s in this state, the bigger picture no longer matters. Only the details.
The bigger picture is what you have together as a whole. It’s what keeps you returning to the relationship day after day. It’s viewing the relationship from far away, as if you were looking down at it from 1000 feet in the air. There are no details to focus on from that height, just the two of you together – enjoying being with each other and getting through life sharing experiences. The details reveal themselves when you focus on them.
A good example of seeing your relationship from a bigger picture perspective is to imagine that your partner had only days to live. I realize this is a difficult thought to imagine, but when you know your time is limited with someone, you tend to disregard the fact they forgot to wash that one last dish or put the toilet seat down when they were done using it. Knowing the end is near changes your perspective and makes you focus on what’s most important.
There are details in relationships that need to be addressed for sure. But don’t continually dwell on them and bring them up, otherwise your partner will grow tired of the minutia and want something (or someone) a lot easier to be with.
The details can often cloud the big picture. It’s a good idea to remember what you appreciate about the relationship every now and then so that you don’t get stuck in every detail that doesn’t work.
10. Always give your partner room to vent about you
Give your partner a “safe zone” to express him or herself all they want. Give them the judgment-free space they need to feel completely free to vent about you. They may say horrible, hard to hear, and even hateful things about you that you don’t want to hear and may not even agree with. But give them the space to do it.
This is the hardest step to take toward a fully functional relationship but try to think of it this way:
Negative emotions in the body are trapped until they are released through some sort of expression
When you give your partner the space and freedom to do this, take yourself out of the equation. Don’t make it about you (even though it is), make it about them needed to release the built up pressure. Let them vent for as long as they need to. Then thank them for sharing all of it with you.
You may not like what you hear, but after they exhaust all that energy, they’ll feel better. And if they feel better, they’ll be easier to get along with and they’ll be more available to talk to you in a way that may not be so hard to handle.
The body holds on to the negative pressure that builds up when you feel like you can’t feel safe enough to express yourself. All of that pressure needs to go somewhere otherwise it becomes the fuel that ignites arguments and other battles between you. When you release the pressure, you are in a better space to communicate.
Only the strongest relationships can get through this. It takes a lot of love and resilience to let someone vent about you, but if you want your relationship to become as healthy as it could be, give your partner that safe place to express themselves. It is the ultimate in unconditional love.
You deserve the best relationship possible. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to comment below.
Tune into Love and Abuse, the podcast about poisonous communication and toxic behavior for more information on working through difficult relationships.