The topic of love comes heavy with societal norms and expectations; sometimes it’s difficult to unpick the truth of how to navigate our relationships. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing Hollywood movies showing love as this rosy, perpetually happy feeling, and that relationships always end in happily ever after.
I’ve had my fair share of experiences with relationships to know that this narrative is far from the truth. Managing a successful relationship is one of life’s most elusive riddles. If relationships were the key to our happiness (Harvard’s Research Study on Happiness), then how has our education failed to teach us the basics of how to effectively navigate them?
I’ve met men I discarded because I was in the wrong mindset to receive goodness in my life. I thought love was grand gestures and spectacles of affection. I thought love was supposed to be “passionate”. I look back on them now and realise they were the ones who got away. I was too concerned with how they looked on the outside and didn’t realise how insignificant a detail this was.
I have also entered into relationships with men who were not necessarily healthy for me either. “Passionate” relationships that were marred with unhealthy conflict and contempt. Life needed to send me the lessons in many forms for me to properly learn them.
Many heartbreaks later, I realised that love carries a vastly different definition to what it once did. Getting into a relationship requires a level of maturity and empathy to push through the challenges it brings. And while everyone is looking for love, this fleeting feeling of euphoria, nobody told us that love is not a feeling, that love is an action, it’s a decision, it’s the conscious choice we make every day to be the best version of ourselves for our partner.
Assuming you’ve met someone who doesn’t have major toxic red flags and you’ve decided to pursue a relationship with them, these are important reminders to consider.
1. Love is not enough
If you ever thought that the mere fact that you love each other is enough, think again. Love is an important ingredient, but successful relationships require many more elements to make them work. Love alone will not help you weather the storms that will come in your interactions and in life. When you’re in the middle of an argument needing to be heard and understood, hearing “But I love you!” is not going to resolve the issue. Relationships require many other important skills such as effective communication, trust, respect and empathy.
2. Having shared interests is not important, having shared values is
Having a common goal to reach together and agreeing on how you will get there is huge. Whether you like playing video games or they enjoy going shopping with you is not a determinant of relationship success. The more important element of connecting with someone and building a life together is having shared values. Determining how you will live your joint lives, how you spend your money, how you spend your free time and how you will raise your kids (if you choose to have them).
You will have serious challenges if you value spending money and they prefer to save it, if they value having a family and you don’t, if you value leading a healthy lifestyle and they prefer to vegetate on the sofa. Values are the building blocks of how you live your lives, the goals you have as people and as a shared unit. These translate in the daily habits and daily interactions that will grate on you if they are not aligned.
3. Do not take on a project
Do not date their “potential”. Potential doesn’t happen. Going into a relationship with someone hoping they would change to become someone you want is futile. Date who they currently are. Do not trick yourself to believe you will ever change someone. If you happen to notice that there are things you don’t like about them, either change your perspective and accept them, or walk away.
4. Intimacy is not sex
Intimacy is often synonymous with sex, but it’s not. It’s much more than just physical contact. Intimacy stands for “into-me-see”. It’s the ability to create a safe space to share your vulnerabilities, your fears and your dreams. True intimacy is when you’re sharing parts of your spirit with your partner, and where you feel seen, understood and acknowledged. Sex is the consequence of sharing your vulnerabilities. Successful relationships are built on emotional intimacy and a safe exchange.
5. Developing empathy is essential
Sustaining a long term relationship requires exercising continuous empathy. Relationships have a knack at exposing our wounds and triggering our trauma in very familiar ways, we often recreate with our partners the interactions we learnt at home. Navigating those will require compassion and empathy. Conflict will trigger deep pain. We get into relationships to feel seen and heard, and we must do absolutely that when we are in conflict. Understanding the pain that our partner is going though is the most loving way to resolve conflict.
6. Communicate to understand
Communication is important, yes. But what’s more important is communicating with the intent to understand. Understand you partner’s perspective, understand where they’re coming from, they triggers, their wounds and their pain. And once they trust you with their deepest secrets, never ever use them against them. Understanding is important to build trust and to nurture emotional intimacy.
When they explain something, repeat what you heard back to them to show them you really get it and to give them an opportunity to clarify their perspective. It goes something like: “Just so I really understand what you mean, let me tell you what I heard you say, when I yell during an argument, it makes you want to retreat and no longer engage in the conversation. You prefer for us to take a break and come back to it when we are calm.”
7. Learn to fight fair
It is inevitable that you’ll get into arguments and conflict with your partner. Conflict is often thought of as a bad feature of a relationship, but it’s not. Conflict is healthy, it is a sign that you are exploring yourselves about the relationship. Resolving conflict brings a deeper understanding of each other’s perspectives, it deepens emotional intimacy and it brings people closer together.
The key to using conflict to your advantage is to bring forth your own experience and your perspective. Do not blame, do not use the words “never” and “always” and always structure your thoughts to narrate your side of how you feel. Seek to understand. Also know that how you feel is a product of your experiences. If someone else was in your shoes, they may experience the argument or the actions differently, so always start by saying “my experience is…” and talk about how you feel.
8. Be prepared to forgive
Long lasting relationships require a lot of forgiveness. We must develop the muscle to forgive our partner for their mistakes and move on from them. Forgiveness comes with the understanding that all humans are flawed, that we all make mistakes, that we act inadvertently and mostly with no malicious agenda. Moving past the hurt and keeping it in the past is vital. Don’t dig up old issues that have now been resolved, there’s no value in it but to add bitterness to the interaction that you’re only trying to resolve.
9. A relationship is a mirror
When you decide to enter into a relationship with another person, be prepared to be shown aspects of yourself you hadn’t seen before. The purpose of your partner is to hold up a mirror and show you parts of you that you like, and other parts that you don’t. If you’re not prepared to face yourself and work on what this mirror shows you, then you’re not ready for the relationship, you’re not ready for intimacy. This is one of the fastest ways for you to grow and evolve as a human and as the relationship progresses.
10. It’s the little things that matter
Love is generous. Successful relationships thrive on partners always aiming to please one another. Thoughtful gestures like making your favourite coffee on a Sunday morning or picking up your house chores when you’re overwhelmed are small details that go a very long way. Remember you are dating the every day. You are in this for the long haul. The daily will dictate your happy.
Building a successful relationship takes skill, don’t let anybody fool you that falling in love is enough to live happily every after. Relationships are hard work, but they bring great joy and growth all in equal measure. While this list is not exhaustive, it’s a good set of real truths that I wish I had learnt in school.
For more on how we can become better humans, see The Human Experience category.
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