Creating Healthy Relationships And Stronger Bonds Of Love
Six months before my husband and I walked down the aisle, we walked into therapy.
Together for more than five years with a home and a toddler already between us, we had weathered many a storm, but our relationship had lost its spark. Though we loved and were committed to each other, we needed to heal old hurts and move past recurring issues so we could fully enjoy and celebrate our wedding. Because we considered ourselves relationship-savvy people, no one was as shocked by our decision to go to counseling as we were. It turns out that asking for guidance was one of the most transformational decisions we’ve ever made.
If you’ve lived long enough on the planet, you’ve undoubtedly learned that falling in love is easy, but staying in love is hard. Uniting two lives from two families, two backgrounds, and two life experiences, as well as two sets of expectations, fears, desires, and dreams, is a tricky business, without a doubt. Yet, most of us still long for romantic partnership, even life partnership, despite all of its hurdles. And though we may know much about taking good care of our bodies and minds, many of us don’t know the best strategies and formulas for creating a healthy relationship.There are many profound reasons why fostering a healthy, conscious relationship should be a priority in our lives. For one, statistics show that married or otherwise partnered individuals live longer and remain healthier. Also, Kathlyn Hendricks, PhD, body-centered psychotherapist and co-author (with husband and professional partner Gay Hendricks, PhD) of Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment (Bantam, 2009), notes, “Relationships are one of the best places for human beings to find out who they really are.” In his book I Don’t Want to Talk About It (Scribner, 1998), therapist and author Terrance Real argues, “Relationships are the crucible in which we get to work on ourselves, in which we have the opportunity to stretch, grow, and if we are fortunate, thrive.”
So where do we begin? According to Hendricks, “Every new venture starts with a commitment. What I mean by commitment here is ‘stepping fully in.'” She adds, “Commitments are actions that people can actually do.They don’t have to be confining.” So rather than making a promise you aren’t certain you can keep, such as ‘I will love you forever,’ Hendricks encourages clients to create commitments like: “I commit to getting close. I commit to my own complete creative fulfillment. Or, I commit to creating harmony in our relationship.” Realize too, that your commitment may be different from your partner’s. For me, I needed to commit to communicating fully, while my husband’s commitment was to listen more compassionately.If, like us, you keep finding yourself in the same argument, are bogged down in power struggles, or have just hit a less than joyful plateau, committing to creating a healthy relationship can be the first step towards moving beyond and above these all too common pitfalls. Thanks to deeply ingrained social and cultural beliefs about long-term relationships, most of us take for granted several fallacies about them: that we must compromise, that we have to settle and that we’ll never be truly understood (especially by the opposite sex). Hendricks, however, maintains, “It’s possible for everyone to have what they want. You can be happy and continue to get happier in your relationship.”
Though there is no magic pill for creating healthy relationships, understanding the qualities that strong, conscious relationships exhibit is a great place to start. One of the simplest, yet most undervalued, components of relationship is appreciation. University of Washington psychology professor John Gottman’s work shows a phenomenal correlation between the expression of appreciations and a couple’s longevity. His study found that the key ratio is five appreciations to every one criticism. By looking at this one factor, Gottman found he could routinely predict the long-term success of the couple. Hendricks notes, “The appreciation doesn’t have to be profound. What’s important is that it is sincere and spoken out loud.” We discovered that feeling appreciated for simple but undesirable tasks like scrubbing the toilet or dealing with the compost goes a long way toward eliminating feelings of resentment. You don’t always want to have to be the one to make the coffee. Going out of your way to do the tasks that need to be done to make one another’s lives easier is a hallmark characteristic of all healthy relationships. Like Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks, Lana Holstein, PhD and David Taylor, MD, directors of Miraval Resort’s Sexuality and Vitality Programs, practice what they preach. The married couple leads three- and four-day workshops for other couples at the spa, and also meets privately with clients. Holstein and Taylor take the skill of appreciation one step further with a concept they call “active cherishing.” Taylor describes this as, “Actively making a point to light the other person up.” He adds, “It’s a conscious way of paying attention to someone – letting them know that their needs are important to you.”
Another skill, according to Hendricks, is authenticity. “In a healthy relationship,” she says, “People reveal rather than conceal. Both partners are in touch with and reveal their feelings to one another and are open listeners.” This practice, for many of us, is easier said than done. The concept of being completely transparent and open with someone, even our spouse, can be terrifying. Yet, in my experience, the unsaid truth holds more power and more potential for damaging hurt than the difficult truth expressed openly. Why? Because compassionately expressing ourselves fully allows our partner to really see us, support us, and get to know us. It also helps the issue move toward resolution, rather than stay beneath the surface to trip us up again and again. Being able to see all feedback as positive versus giving value assignment only to complimentary truths is a really big step towards honesty. As Real writes, “The way to keep the passion alive is by telling the truth – the truth about what we see, what we feel, what we really want.” Mature love requires us to acknowledge our full experience, our feelings and wants while making grown-up choices about them.”
Openly expressing your needs and at the same time, equally valuing and honoring those of your beloved is another quality healthy relationships truly require. We are programmed to look out for our own needs relentlessly, and too often view our partner’s needs as a burden. Instead, Holstein encourages clients to “See one another’s needs as opportunities to create excitement in the relationship rather than their needs being something that drags you down. Needs are opportunities for growth.” She adds, “It’s not that we have to fulfill those needs, but it is important to hold them equal to your own.”Finally, learn to take responsibility for yourself and your contribution to every conflict and misunderstanding. Hendricks advises, “Move from blaming yourself or the other to a place of being inquisitive. Ask ‘What did I do to create this situation? ‘ and ‘What can I learn from this?'”
Holstein and Taylor take a slightly different approach. “There is no objective reality in an intimate relationship,” says Taylor. So instead of going around in circles trying to establish, in his words “whose truth is The Truth,” couples are taught to understand that their interpretation is and will always be different from their partner. They encourage clients to begin by saying: “The little story I’m making up about what you did is not the only way of seeing the situation,” thereby first acknowledging some responsibility for their interpretation, and also allowing space to explain their reaction. Another tip, according to Hendricks, is to “See each other as allies. Remember that you are for each other rather than against each other. When conflict occurs, re-commit to that friendship.”
For us, taking responsibility and remembering that ‘we’re on the same team’ has really shifted the architecture of our conflicts. I get less emotional and take things less personally, and my husband is better about trying to see things from my point of view and listening without offering a quick fix. And though we are no longer in regular therapy, the skills we learned are practiced, revisited, and refined every day. We feel much more connected and aware of one another. It’s a lot more fun and much more relaxed. I didn’t realize how tense things felt all of the time until they just really didn’t anymore.By committing and then re-committing to these practices, our relationships can and will change. But like any new skills, they do take practice. You will falter. You will slip; you will inevitably stumble on the path. But, Hendricks advises, “Don’t judge yourself for your failures. Just re-commit to the steps and refocus on the outcomes. It doesn’t have to be perfect to work. Just maintain sincere intentions.”