The topic of relationship wellness was not at all on my list of things to blog about this week or any week. I’m not a relationship expert, I don’t read (or research) studies on relationships and I have zero background in psychology. But just in the past week, I’ve had more than one conversation that made me think about relationship stability, or more specifically, what I know (or don’t know) about fostering a healthy and happy relationship.
One night when my wife and I were at dinner with friends, we were poking fun about just how different we both are re: food, music, sports, cars, pets, etc. One of our friends seemed perplexed about how we got along so well with such disparity in interests. In the car later, Lo turned and said “that little stuff doesn’t really matter at the end of the day, right? We’re totally in sync on the things that are important to each other.” Within a day or so of that conversation, a twenty-something friend asked me how my wife and I made it to 14 years. I realize that it’s not as long as 60 years but I think we’ve been through quite a few major life changes and issues in those 14 years that we have some credibility when it comes to making it work.
It got me thinking about what I have discovered in the past 14 years. Then, somewhat unintentionally, I stumbled across this infographic about “happy relationships”. Now, I’m not sure who has sex 2-3 per week, especially after more than 3 years of marriage. I’m not even going to go there. I also think it’s maybe a little humorous that marital satisfaction seems to dip after the first 2 years (this may circle back to the frequency of sex issue).
What I do find most interesting is the “drop in marital satisfaction” when a couple has children. This is no shocker to anyone who has children. It’s not that kids make a couple unhappy, it’s just that having children takes some time, focus and attention away from the couple. No matter how much we absolutely love our children and would never regret having them, we also may not want to deny that the stress and attention may take some life from other areas – the parents’ relationship with each other. We all are very aware about how miserable parents can truly impact their children’s chances at a happy and healthy adult life – according to articles on the internet. So, while I embrace all of my (and my wife’s) imperfections as individuals and as a couple, we are very conscious about the health and well-being of our relationship as a couple and how it can help or hurt our boys.
Therefore, in my non-professional opinion and with my limited successful relationship experience (before Lo), here is my list of key elements of a successful long-term relationship:
The kid thing is huge. I think it’s very easy for parents to become so overwhelmed and sucked into the time commitment of their kids that they may totally neglect “spouse time”. I think spending QUALITY time and attention on each other is huge. Some individuals need more attention from their spouse than others. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We can love our children to the ends of the Earth but we also need to recognize that our respective spouses may need just a few focused moments of attention.
You all know I’m into mindfulness and finding your own inner peace, yadda yadda yadda. And everyone’s heard the saying 1,000 times that “you can’t truly love someone else if you don’t love yourself” or maybe it’s “you can’t be in love without loving yourself first”?? Whatever it is, I absolutely, positively believe that. As human beings, we may constantly be in a struggle with ourselves about confidence, self-doubt, etc. but if you cannot connect with yourself or cope with yourself, I truly, truly believe that you hinder your ability to love with a clear mind and with your whole heart.
I also believe that it may be human nature when you aren’t happy with yourself to want others to be unhappy. If Partner A is miserable and Partner B starts having wonderful, great successes happening, Partner A may quickly feel jealousy, competition, angst, etc. instead of the supportive, “let’s celebrate together” response. Individual unhappiness can really put a strain on a relationship. Everyone goes through ups and downs but long-term misery will cause significant strain on even the healthiest relationships.
My wife and I argue and fight from time to time. I actually don’t think we have too much conflict nor is it often, but it does happen and we don’t deny it. But we fight fair – meaning we stick to the point, arguing about the problem itself not starting irrelevant personal attacks just to get points or get digs in. We’ve never, ever been disrespectful, mean or hit below-the-belt when we disagree. I have witnessed some couples fight and say horrible, nasty, deeply wounding, personal things to each other out of anger and then make up later. Maybe it’s just me, but I find this hurtful fighting causing permanent damage. I’m not sure I could ever say something so hurtful to someone I love. I also am not sure I could feel intimately comfortable with someone who would say awful, hurtful things to me either.
This seems like it doesn’t even need to be said or talked about, right? But I can’t tell you how many relationships I’ve seen (or maybe even been in) where there is a huge imbalance of respect. I don’t believe that anyone should talk down to, disparage or just hold judgment over anyone, let alone a partner or spouse. It’s not just talking down to your spouse, it’s respecting what he/she has to say, how he/she feels, etc.
Attention friends, if you tell me a secret, there’s a 99.9% chance I’m going to share it with my wife. We talk. About everything. We talk about things, feelings, dreams, work crap, etc. But we don’t beat TALKING TO DEATH either. I work days and my wife works nights and weekends. I’m not 100% sure that we are spending 5+ hours per week talking or being together (during the waking hours) but we do get it in as much as possible.
I think trust, respect and talking all go together. Maybe it’s the openness we have or the comfort in knowing each other so well, but we have zero trust/jealousy issues. When I say zero, I really mean it. I think we are open and honest with each other and respect each other enough that we don’t bat an eye when one of us goes out for drinks with a friend, even an attractive one. Lois and I also spend time helping friends or putting time and energy into things outside of the home. If either one of us feels that this time is starting to encroach unhealthily on our time together or our family unit, we will talk about it and the issue will be resolved.
Doing things together:
I am not a big advocate of doing EVERYTHING together. I love golf, Lo hates it. I like an occasional beer, Lo doesn’t drink. I like certain adventures, she’s not into it. She wants to have a poker night with work friends, I don’t have to intrude. However, we do find things that we can do together, either with the kids or just the 2 of us. I think this time, while rare lately, really rejuvenates the soul of the relationship.
I guess I have to include this, even if I’m always sheepish to talk about it. Yes, I do believe that sex and intimacy really matter, but I’m not totally sure I buy into the “schedule time so you make sure it happens” thing. I find that to be a little rigid for my world. But I will say that finding time to make each other feel sexy is huge. I am still ridiculously attracted to my wife and still get stupid flutters, check her out in public when I can and make sure she knows that the attraction is still there in full force.
Have some common ground for the big things:
Despite having so many differences about the use of bleach, what kind of ice cream, flavor of coffee, type of Girl Scout cookies, favorite music, cars, etc. we find that stuff to be just trivial. But for the important stuff, we do have far more similarities and it really does make a difference. For example, we both like being social, going out with friends (when time, money and child care coverage allows) and having an open door policy in our home. We can invite friends over for dinner or lunch or just say “come on by” without much notice. Having that open door to other friends is a big deal to both of us. If one of us was an introvert or felt angst about having such openness to friends, it would probably create some frustration.
As I said before, I am no expert and probably have no business giving relationship advice or spouting off any relationship wisdom of any kind. Full disclosure: when I met my wife, I didn’t want to be in a committed relationship. In fact, I was horrible with relationships. I was very centered on self-protection and focused on my own life and future. I didn’t invest in relationships and didn’t care to learn how to have great relationships.
She did something for me from the beginning that including teaching me to love, raising my confidence, supporting me in my life goals and just always respecting who I was and what kind of person I’m trying to be. I think I do the same thing for her. We do get mad and frustrated at each other from time to time, we do not agree on everything, but we keep the respect and communication going regardless.
Back to that ride back from dinner the other night…we did talk through why we both think we are at a good place – I didn’t just make this all up. As we were wrapping up our little sappy-fest, I said “you have made me and continue to make me a better person.” She just smiled and said, “exactly, that’s exactly what you do and continue to do for me.”