In puzzling through a professional situation some time back, my goal was to establish a long-term, open, and pleasant meeting of the minds with a colleague. We had experienced occasional conflict. Regular communication helped.
It was then that I realized that a similar approach was relevant to achieving the healthiest possible personal relationship.
By that I mean the romantic realm.
While I may find the quick list of tips too facile at times, I do recognize its usefulness. Keeping things simple can help us focus. And that focus may be expressed via a collection of abbreviated reminders or, as in this case, tips by way of a set of questions.
Here is an exercise in relationship building that I have found invaluable.
What Puts the “Good” in Good Relationship?
What helps a couple stay close – and grow closer?
Naturally, we know that spending time together, shared values, good communication and good sex are fundamental.
But that “good sex” item?
For most women – yes, a generalization – the communication had better be good or we won’t get to the good sex part. Certainly, not in long-term relationships when it’s all too easy to be done in by daily domesticity, not to mention routine.
Moreover, communication isn’t enough. We need to feel supported, understood, and see promises acted on – and we could anticipate that our partners want the same. So how do we drill down from these generalizations into specifics?
Emotional Support is Foundational
Not long ago, when pondering my married years during which I struggled to lose weight, I noted that my (then) husband did nothing to sabotage my efforts. However, he also did nothing explicitly to support them. What is one extremely basic and simple action he could have taken?
It’s this: asking how he could help. And then following through.
Support for those we love is simple to talk about, but harder to act on. And support is so much more than coming up with the dollars to pay the bills or even showing up at an event – at least, if you spend the whole time texting rather than paying attention.
I’ve been thinking about what support entails. That led me to realize that five questions I sometimes use with clients are equally valid between spouses or partners. So my tips are questions for you and the significant person in your life. Hopefully, they will help you arrive at greater clarity and ease in supporting one another – as I find they do for me.
1. How can I help?
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it isn’t. When you pose this question you need to be ready for tough answers – and ambiguous answers. You may hear things about yourself that you’d rather not face. You need to be prepared to re-prioritize in light of what you hear, and then execute.
This is a useful opening for general problem-solving, logistics in terms of chauffeuring kids, pitching in with an elder parent, suggestions in terms of a job search, or simply being patient when a spouse or partner is going through a difficult time.
2. What do you need from me?
Tougher than the first question, this one is narrower in scope. You may qualify it to deal with specific issues, that is if you dare. For example:
- What do you need from me in bed?
- What do you need from me around the house?
- What do you need from me that you aren’t getting now?
I suggest this question takes daring because the answers may challenge you to think about why you aren’t giving your partner what he or she needs, and articulating those reasons can be difficult. But do keep in mind that just as in a professional realm, the person you ask may be aware of dysfunction, but not specifically what he or she needs. So be prepared to probe, observe, or possibly ask again in the future.
3. Is there anything missing in our relationship that you would like?
Less specific than the issue of needs, this focuses on wants. Whether or not you choose to say “missing” is of course up to you; it is implied even if not expressly stated. The answer may be as simple as “don’t interrupt when I speak” or “we need to have date night more often.”
This is also an opening to dreams as well as dilemmas. And be sure to include discussion of your role in this big picture. If that isn’t immediately clear, consider asking how you fit in.
4. What do you see as your priorities in our lives together? As mine? As “ours?”
This alone can be an illuminating exercise. These are questions I asked of my husband in the tenth year of our marriage. I only wish I had asked long before.
Now you may say they sound too business-like. Indeed, I’m very comfortable asking about priorities in a professional setting, and it can feel a little uncomfortable when applied to your romantic partner. But don’t you want to know if he or she is carrying the torch for career while you’re preoccupied with children? Or you’re concerned with money enough to retire but he’s fixated on material things?
5. How can we better support each other?
Transitioning from one partner offering to help the other, this puts you both squarely in the same boat. This is no longer a “you-me” dialog, but a movement toward whatever “we” need to be a team. That means reviewing those priorities, talking about compromising, and being realistic about timing and processes that will help you feel as if you’re on the same track.
And while there is typically one who gives more and the other who takes, aren’t you together because you want to be a team? And if you both don’t want the same thing, it’s time to look again at those priorities, and possibly a good deal more.
Is Straight Talk in Relationships Easy?
Listen. We all know that talking comes more easily to some than others, and we may fall into habits that feel “safe” when it comes to avoiding discussion that might hurt or make us uncomfortable.
I may be, in my own way, in the business of communication, but I hesitate just like anyone else when I need to broach more delicate subjects.
There are times that I feel more comfortable writing what I’m thinking; there’s no reason that two people can’t exchange responses to these questions or even put them in a letter which they then sit, read, and discuss.
However you manage it, for some of us at least, knowing where we stand with our partners while we can still do something about it is a far better approach than letting everything slide and turning the other way. For me, this is a lesson that comes more easily in business, but one I learned on the personal front – the hard way.
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