I don’t often see couples when they are in the early stages of their relationship, full of hope, hormones and excitement. I see people when things have gone wrong, sometimes, very wrong. Sometimes, things have been wrong for a very long time. Hope is small, if it exists. Excitement has turned to fear, or exhaustion or dread, and there is often a load of pain, guilt and/or anger in place of the warmth and love that previously existed. This is not the inevitable path of all relationships. While there is sometimes a lot of effort warning couples that relationships are hard work and that love doesn’t always feel like ecstasy, there is often little advice given on how to ensure that it lasts.
After working with many, many couples in crisis, here are 10 things I wish I could tell couples early on in their relationships. You will see that these items will be useful to address at any point in your relationship, but earlier is definitely easier:
1. Define Infidelity
I start here because it is one of the more common reasons couples come to counselling.
Most people assume that everyone knows the rules when it comes to monogamy. “Don’t have sex with anyone else.” But there is so much more to it.
What is less often considered are the in between things, like, is it okay to go for coffee with a co-worker whose gender/age, or other characteristics, puts them in the category of ‘potential love interest.” How about texting with someone in this category? What kind of interaction are okay with your partner having with his or her ex’s? What type of physical interaction would make you uncomfortable in any of these previous examples?
In a healthy relationships, these things are discussed and can be reviewed depending on circumstances. Any changes made in your agreement should be made before the situation occurs, if at all possible. Aside from ‘rules,’ you will also need to check to see if your past has made you extra sensitive to situations that might not have otherwise caused you concern. You will need to take responsibility for sorting out your feelings regarding past situations before determining what limits are reasonable to request of your partner. Of course, consideration for sensitivities is, hopefully, something you are also each willing to do for each other with the other works through whatever it is they need to work through. Sometimes these sensitivities change over time, sometimes they don’t. See also After You’ve Cheated and Honouring Relationship Endings – A 5 Step Process)
2. Make a new plan together for each new life change and set dates to re-negotiate
You don’t need a life plan in place before you commit to a long term relationship, but if you have dreams, you’d be best to share them. If you are working towards something specific, you’ll need to talk about what role each of you play in helping make those goals/dreams a reality. That is the beauty of a supportive relationship, that you can help each other along to greater things.
Check to be sure that one person is not giving up their dreams entirely, or years of their life, to support the other. This rarely ends with both partners completely satisfied, even if it was initially agreed to.
Life circumstances, planned, or unplanned will bring new stresses and changes that you may not have anticipated. I would suggest doing a check in at least every 6 months about how the current situation is working for each of you, and a serious re-evaluation of the agreement, at least annually.
There are a myriad of factors that can influence how it feels to be in a position that you enthusiastically committed to 3 months ago. You cannot predict all of these and if unaddressed, it is easy for resentment to creep in. Make sure that if you are feeling strongly that things are not working for you, that you communicate them as quickly as possible so that you can both work toward finding a solution. Be ready to shift gears to support a partner when the situation is not working for them, even if it is working for you, until you can both come to a better set up. (See 8 Steps to Communicating with your Partner about Big Life Issues).
3. Find time to be alone together regularly
NOTE this is the job of both partners. Do not shirk your responsibility in making this happen, or take on all responsibility for it. You will need to work together on this.
You will need almost daily time committed to checking and and re-connecting, especially in the most intense times of life, i.e. when you have a new baby, after a loss, when work pressures are increasing, when there is an unexpected illness, when there’s nothing new. This might be 1/2 hour before bed, or before the day starts, or in 15 minute snippets throughout the day.
Connection happens best, face to face, preferably while touching each other, i.e. holding hands, giving a foot rub, snuggling in on the couch. If you can’t make this happen every day, FaceTime might be next best, phone calls after this, and texting only if necessary and hopefully only for emergency tasks. I strongly urge you to avoid having any serious discussions or arguments via text. There is FAR too much room for misinterpretation.
Fight Nights – If it is not happening during your daily check in times, you will need to plan a weekly fight. I’m only 1/2 joking. It doesn’t have to be a fight, it can actually be a discussion. (Conflict- Approach or Avoid? 6 Things to Consider and How to Start a Good Fight). Situations that weigh on you will start to turn ugly after a week if not resolved. You may find at the end of each day, you don’t have the energy to get into whatever issue needs to be discussed. So you will need to plan a time that makes space for these discussions. This is not a date. You will need to plan another time for a date. If you plan the date without the fight night, your date is more likely to become a fight. Whatever has been simmering will just come out and take over your romantic evening.
Date nights – This is difficult to do weekly when you have kids. It is almost impossible when your kids are little. If you can’t get to it for a month or two during some parts of your life, that is probably not going to make or break your relationship. However, shoot for slightly more often than you think you have time for and then, if it doesn’t work out some of the time, you still have some other options.
Dates can at times, be a plan to stay up an hour later than usual after the kids go to bed to watch a movie that is not suitable for children, drink some wine or take a bath together. It can, of course, be a night out or just a walk together with the dogs. Making room for this involves being strategic about getting child care.
No matter how attachment focused you are in your child raising approach, you should know that caring for your romantic relationship will increase your child’s sense of secure attachment to you more than the time away from you can possibly damage.
If your child can only sleep with you in the room, that might hinder date nights for a while, but then you might need to look into child care for other times. This might sound like a lot for people working full time, but relationships are important and worth considering the big picture for ways to have a lifestyle that leaves room for connecting (see The Rat Race Ain’t Made for Humans – Get out in 4 easy 😉 steps and Drowning in School-Work).
Again, depending on the age of your kids and your child care options, an annual weekend alone can do wonders for the wear and tear of daily life on a relationship. Make it a priority to figure out the logistics, sooner, rather than later.
This might also be the time to do your annual re-evaluation of your long term goals/plans. (Check out What’s Worth Digging For? Finding your Values).
4. Develop your emotional intelligence
If you find yourself frustrated, angry or sad and don’t know why, it is your job to figure out what is going on. You are also responsible for what you do with the feelings you have. You do not have permission to attack others for your feelings. You can describe your feelings you can point out how you reacted to things another person said or did, and what you wish they’d done differently, but ultimately. You are responsible for your feelings. Finding ways to express them without causing harm to others is your task. (Check out An Emotionally Conscious Resolution for more on knowing your own emotions).
At the same time, no one else is responsible to read your mind or to respond to your subtle cues (see Passive Aggressiveness) Also, if you decide to ignore your feelings for some noble cause, be sure that you are not playing the long-suffering martyr.
Feelings do not go away if you bury them, they cause damage internally which sometimes leaks into destructive behaviour, the kind which can put couples in crisis.
They can explode into blame and resentment and seemingly sudden relationships endings. No one wants a partner who is with them out of some noble duty. Everyone wants someone who wants to be with them. This is most likely to happen if you are each aware of your own feelings and desires and able to take responsibility for them and communicate them clearly. This is also more likely to happen if you are able to respond honestly to your partners needs and desires, being fair and clear when you cannot or are not willing to meet them. (See emotional resolution)
Make sure you are listening when your partner says there is a problem and not assuming that it is not a problem, simply because everything is working for you. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard one person say that the crisis in their relationship blind sided them, only to have the other person say that they’d brought up their concerns multiple times, sometimes over years, and was ignored. (See 9 Steps to Making Sense of Other People and When You’ve Been Accused).
5. Make/keep other friends
No matter how closely connected you are with your partner, even if you believe that you have found your soul mate and best friend, as well as lover and helpmate, you will need more than one friend. Your partner will never, no matter who they are, be able to be everything you need, at all times. All relationships come to an end. Even if this happens very late in life, if you have not put any investment into other relationships you risk being without support when you most need it. Throughout the relationship, having other friends means that you will be able to come back to be together with unique experiences and influences which enhance the interest you might have in each other.
If you rely completely on your partner for all of your needs it may be difficult for your partner to come to you with any concerns they have about the relationship. They may fear that if you have no other supports, besides them, you and may be negatively impacted by their feedback. (See Not Finding ‘The One” and What do Adults do for Fun? and Lonely? Let’s Move Closer)
6. Check your conflict history and refine your skills as needed
Many people grow up in families where conflict is either non-existent or explosive. There is a medium ground, and you have the opportunity to find it. Conflict is inevitable. Conflict that remains unacknowledged will fester and bear bad fruit and, almost always, explode in one way or another at some point.
Look at your history with conflict, in your family, in previous relationships, and consider how successful you’ve been at finding resolutions that work for all parties.
Think about whether you’ve felt closer, or further away from those you’ve been in conflict with, in the past. These are some clues to tell you of whether your style might need some refining. For more on conflict skills see Conflict- Approach or Avoid? 6 Things to Consider. See also How to Start a Good Fight and “I’m Sorry” 8 Steps to a Good Apology and 5 Things Your Anger Can Help you pay Attention to.
7. Check your assumptions about gender roles
This might seem a bit dated, but even in young couples, there are still assumptions about who is going to do what, in the house, in the relationship, with the in-laws, etc. Like infidelity, this one warrants some discussion and re-evaluation on a regular basis. Nothing, apart from pregnancy and breast feeding (and even that is questionable, depending on what connections you have with breakthrough science) needs to be the job of one person based solely on their gender.
There is no rule that the woman has to remember all the birthdays on both sides of the family.
There is no rule that the guy is responsible for all vehicle repairs. You get to figure that out for yourselves. There will always be tasks that neither enjoys but I suggest taking turns with them instead of each picking one that you hate and doing it forever (a change is as good as a rest). See also Staying Together, after Kids.
8. The only relationship ‘win’ is ‘win/win.’
People in couples counselling often ask things like, “isn’t this _____ (fill in with specific behaviour, attitude or idea) bad for marriage?” My answer is usually something along the lines of, “how is it working for you, specifically?”
A marriage, or relationship, is not a thing all by it’s self. It is made up of two individuals who have committed to each other, and whose needs, desires and goals sometimes match, and sometimes don’t.
If only one person wins, the relationship has lost. You each get to say what works and doesn’t work for you and ask for what you want. You don’t get to decide that your way is the way that everyone does things (or should do things) and therefore has to be the way it is. For more about filling in gaps in your relationship, when you have a need or want that your partner cannot, or is not willing to meet, see Not Finding ‘The One”
9. Define your boundaries/ red flags & deal breakers
Each person will have their own limits and deal breakers. Some suggestions I’d like to add as red flags to be addressed if they exist are: Physical violence; chronic infidelity (based on agreements made between the two of you); addictions; emotional abuse (such as name calling, humiliation, gas lighting, threatening to leave regularly); chronic dishonesty; unpredictable anger. These don’t have to be deal breakers but they might be for you. (See Where Do I Draw the Line? and 7 Ways to Love a Volcano). These things will, at the very least, need to be addressed. This is urgent if there are children involved.
Don’t hesitate to get additional help in order to address these issues adequately. If you are unsure about things that you see in your relationship that are concerning you, don’t hesitate to talk to a counsellor about them. If you are experiencing physical violencego to Stop the Violence.
10. Deal with sexual problems
Last but not least. I put this one at the end in hopes that it will stick with the reader as an important one. It is rare that lack of sex is the only thing that ends a relationship, in my experience, however, it can play a very big role.
I do not advocate forcing yourself to have sex with your partner when there are unresolved issues that make it difficult to be close, or when there are physical concerns that make sex painful. I do, advocate for prioritizing the issues that are getting in the way of intimacy.
Many men I’ve talked to have related that they do not have physical connection with any of their friends, and some don’t talk to anyone except their partner, about their thoughts, feelings or concerns. When sex stops, if it is the woman who is not interested, other physical interactions also stop. Sometimes it is not intentional, other times, the woman may fear that a touch, a hug or a kiss will be misconstrued as her wanting sex. In these cases, the man has lost his only form of physical, and sometimes, emotional connection. This can be catastrophic for a man’s mental health. And sometimes, in a genuine crisis, a man will look for another sexual partner in order to fill this very real and very human need, simply because he has not learned to find connections anywhere else. If this is your situation, you have a responsibility to take charge of your own mental health and work to deepen your connections with others to make emotional connections with others, if not non-sexual physical connections. (See also Men, also see Mating in Captivity, and Sex – How Much is Enough? and After You’ve Cheated.).
In some relationships, circumstances have made sexual intercourse difficult, but intimacy is not only about intercourse. Finding ways to connect physically in both affectionate and sexual ways is important. When conflict is in the way, affection can help with re-connection even when sex feels too vulnerable. Sometimes lack of sex has been a part of a relationship for a long time and starts to feel normal. If this is true for both of you that’s fine, but if one person has brought it up repeatedly and then eventually stops bringing it up, it may have actually become a more serious issue. Listen to your partner’s concerns, take action even if they don’t feel urgent to you.