“We met, fell in love, and lived happily ever after.”
“She/he is my soul mate.”
“We were made for each other.“
“My partner is the perfect lover, friend and parent, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Most people don’t hold very tightly to the belief that there is ‘one perfect match’ or that ‘living happily ever after,’ is entirely realistic, but we continue to, in large part, act as if these are to be expected in a relationship. When a chosen partner fails to be sexy, romantic, considerate, helpful, understanding and conscientious, all at the same time, we battle with our own disappointment.
For much of history, marriages and partnerships had little to do with romance, relationship and attraction. There were many con’s to these arrangements. Happiness was not something people looked for in their relationships. Collective social structures meant that people looked elsewhere for their close emotional connections to others.
I believe that most of us can do better in learning to be good partners. There are miles to go in terms of learning the emotional literacy that can create rich and meaningful relationships. Good communication skills can make living together easier and learning to be more conscientious of each other will only improve our connections. I seek to build those skills in my own life and teach them to those who come to me for relational issues. These skills are useful in any relationship. I do feel that if we expect our partners to meet EVERY one of our emotional, practical and sexual needs, we set ourselves up for failure.
When we rely completely on our partner for all of our relational needs, we risk overburdening our partners and asking for things that they may not possess. No one other person will be able to meet every one of those needs and if we are unwilling to look elsewhere to have them filled than we risk malnourishment in whatever area is lacking. The results of this, at an emotional level, varies from bitterness to depression, from anxiety to anger.
I think we’ve taken individualism too far. I talk to people on a daily basis whose fear of dependency means that they have rarely, if ever, shared a worry, a trouble or a problem with anyone but their partner.
This isolation serves to weaken primary relationships which becomes like two trees, on an island, in a storm. We need the forest.
Here are some ways to strengthen your relationship:
Start by Finding the gaps
In any relationship, it is important to establish our expectations clearly. What are non-negotiable in the relationship, for you? What happens in a partner is unable or unwilling to meet those expectations? Which things are not deal breakers, but are things you would hope for, from your partner? When those are unable to be met, what are your alternatives?
Once your partner has communicated, and hopefully, acted on meeting whatever needs they’ve agreed to meet, what is left over? After growing your community and being creative about getting your needs are there still gaps? What do you duo about those gaps? For some, those gaps will be unacceptable and they may need to move out of the relationship in order to get their needs met. For others, even more creativity will be needed to fill those gaps.
If there are areas of the relationships that your partner has asked you to ‘step up’ in, for example, helping with chores, childcare, spending time together or initiating romantic or sexual connection, be sure to address these before assuming that these needs can be met elsewhere. What can you offer to the relationship? What has been asked of you already. What requests or demands can you not meet. Be sure to address these honestly.
In the following areas, check in with yourself to ensure that you are not using these suggestions to avoid connection with your partner or to avoid addressing issues that need to be addressed. They are designed to support your relationship.
Get Outside Input into Relationship Problems
Getting feedback on relationship issues is a hot topic among couples. Some people demand that all issues between them be kept secret. Others find that relationships drift apart when one person, or both, are supported by friends and family who are in opposition to the other partner. Seeking social support can actually be an valuable asset to the relationship. However, not all support or feedback is created equal. We need to find people that can give us fair, honest feedback when we are having struggle, not just criticize, and not just agree with us. Be cautious of feedback which tells you what to do or what decision to make, or makes character judgements about you or your partner. The best feedback helps you to see aspects of the problem that you are biased towards in a more objective way and helps you to see when you are acting in a way that does not serve your relationship goals. (See Advice about Giving Advice – 8 tips).
Toxic masculinity has had a big influence on many men who find that they either never talk about their relationship with other men, or only talk about it in negative terms, as a way of joking with their friends “i.e. I’m so whipped, etc.” Men have some work to do to learn what healthy emotional vulnerability with other men can look like. (See Men).
If your partner fears you discussing your issues with others, talk together about who they might feel comfortable with you talk to. You need to decide if the potential emotional support you might experience for yourself and your relationship, by talking to seeking outside support, outweighs the damage that might be done to the relationship if this happens without your partners’ support.
Spend Time Developing Friendships Outside of the Relationship
Imagine that your partner had to go away for a couple of months. What would you miss? Are there people that you can do fun activities with, chat with over tea or drinks, call when you need a hand with something? If not, you have some work to do, to build your friendship circle. (See What do Adults do for Fun?).
Make sure you are both clear on the boundaries of fidelity when it comes to friends who fit the demographic of potentially romantic partners. Check in with each other about these friendships to see if everyone is okay with the relationship. (See Jealousy in Relationships).
Explore Your Own Interests
Do you have one thing that interests you that your partner is not actively involved in? Having a separate interest gives you something that you can engage in without having to wait for your partner to be available to engage in that activity.
Build Relationships Together
Find couples, families, or individuals that you both enjoy spending time with. This can be a way to grow your community and reduce the sense of isolation that so many of us are struggling with these days (See Lonely? Let’s Move Closer). People often site not having enough time to build relationships due to work schedules, kids activities, etc. These things need to be put in their place. What you think it takes to survive financially, depends, in part, on your own values (Check out Drowning in School-Work). What you need to have in your schedule also opens on your priorities. What if you didn’t sign your kids up for dance, swimming, or music lessons, this next term and, instead, invited different people over for potluck or a bike ride or on a trip to the beach each week, instead? You would be growing your community and quality of life and potentially learning some of the same skills you planned to learn in a class.
In our individualistic and task/goal oriented society, it can feel awkward to reach out to others for support. Vulnerability is not always something we are good at. Prioritizing friendships in your schedule, above work, education or skill development might feel like irresponsibility for those of us who are independent ‘go getters.’ As a whole, We have swung to an extreme when it comes to believing that we can do this all by ourselves. Humans are social beings and you are no exception.