There is an abundance of relationship advice to be found in books and all over the internet. The truth is that each relationship will have its differences that can’t necessarily be captured in a few lines or chapters. That said, I would like to add some observations of what seems to be consistently brought into the counselling room – five areas that, when worked at, seem to bring the best ‘return on investment’. Although there is no particular order, I find that starting with the first one helps with the others:
- Pause. We all have a tendency to be reactive. Whether that reaction is to argue, become defensive or retreat into ourselves it is an almost instant reaction that we have unknowingly developed and held onto for years. An often deceivingly difficult task is to pause before we react, to think before we speak, to reflect before we do anything. With enough practice, and the right guidance, we can choose how we would like to respond. A response is far more helpful than a reaction, which tends to be instant and comes from a place of insecurity or defensiveness. Pausing before we give a reply allows us to respond truly to what has been said – to see it for what it really is – rather than how we interpret it.
- Perspective. Not only are we all different, but those differences are not always acknowledged or appreciated. If we are reacting rather than responding, we will interpret things how we see them rather than for what they are. Acknowledging our differences and our interpretations allows us to be more understanding of the other person’s experience and communication. It is also helpful if we can understand the context in which they are communicating – are they stressed? Did they not have a good night’s sleep? Are they hungry? Do they generally feel unheard by us? Knowing each other’s differences is key, and so is knowing their current state of mind and where they are coming from.
- Positives. I sometimes hear relationships described in terms of a bank account. That every argument makes a withdrawal from the ‘funds’. The more arguments and fall-outs that occur, the closer you are to zero. Or, in other instances, the further into debt you go. What allows an argument to be just an argument is not only putting it into context (and perhaps being forgiving – we’re both stressed right now…) but to also have a reserve of positive experiences to fall back onto. Or, to use the bank analogy, to be in credit so that when you make a withdrawal you’re not close to, or passed, zero. It seems straightforward in that sense – if we have five or ten positive experiences (however small) for every hurtful or ‘negative’ experience, we’re doing alright.
- Prevention. The military definition of a preemptive strike does not lend itself well to a relationship but there is much to be said for preemptive conversations as a way of laying the groundwork for future arguments or disagreements. If we can clearly and honestly share what works for us (needing space after an argument or needing to vent to a close friend) it prevents misinterpretations (avoidance, sharing private experiences). If practiced enough times we will be allowed that space to experience what helps us without judgement or feeling that we have to appease. It is then important to acknowledge what works for both parties, and to compromise a sort of ‘game plan’ for repairing and getting back on track.
- Presence. It is great to see the upward trend of mindfulness and meditation (apps, blogs, entire websites), and I would argue that such practices have a place in most aspects of our well-being. Specifically in a relationship it allows us to draw our attention to the other person, to put aside other stresses (as much as possible) and commit to the moment. Modern life is rife with distractions, and it is so easy to put a box-set on when the day has been stressful and tiring. Sometimes what we need is to switch off and unwind. But try to keep the ratio of quality one-to-one time in your favour, and be present for each other. Listen, take your time, focus on what they are saying. Give the relationship the time it needs during periods of stress or inadvertent distance.