How to Grow Your Relationship

holding_new_plant_o4i8I have to admit that I am no green thumb. Plants under my care tend not to thrive. The truth is that whenever I have had a young plant, I usually begin with loads of enthusiasm which tends to peter off as time goes by. If we think about it, many of us treat our significant relationships or marriages like this; we begin with enthusiasm only to allow them to languish in neglect.

And a relationship is like plant. It’s a living, breathing thing which requires loads of attention if it is to grow and thrive. If, however, we pursue our relationships on automatic pilot instead of with thought or intention, then we run the risk of missing valuable “growth-moments”. When that plant becomes dry and withered because of a lack of water, sunlight or nourishing soil, then it will take some pruning, watering and overall care to get it back to a healthy state.

If our relationship is suffering with neglect and needs an injection of life and renewal, then the following  pointers should help us maximize growth.

  • Utilize confrontation wisely: If we are constantly unhappy with the up-turned toilet seat, or with our partner’s propensity to be a workaholic; if we are bored stiff with sex or hate the fact that we have virtually no romantic couple time; then now is the time to open our mouths wide and speak. Suffering in silence or being a relationship martyr is dis-empowering and self-destructive. Practicing the fine art of loving confrontation with disarming ‘I feel’ statements, as opposed to harsh accusations, can go a long way towards improving relational quality.
  • Take responsibility for your own happiness:  Ensuring relationship growth is a two-sided deal because both partners share equal responsibility. While one may be responsible for outright change, the other is equally responsible for facilitating that change. Admittedly, it is very easy to blame someone else for our own misery. It is, however, equally important to look within to see where we have let ourselves down. Very often we can internalize our life-disappointments and project this unhappiness unto our spouse. Taking responsibility for our own peace of mind may mean deliberately letting go of past hurts in our relationship or previous ones.
  • Practice self-love: As women we want to be loved and told that we are beautiful, sexy and desirable. Amazingly, some of us can’t stand the best bone in our own bodies. We are filled with self-loathing and self-rejection every time we stare at ourselves in the mirror. If we are unable to say to ourselves “girl you look fine”, then why on earth would we expect our man to tell us this. Low self-esteem and self-recrimination are tangible states of being which affect the way we carry ourselves. This negativity can be reversed through daily declarations which affirm that we are indeed beautiful.  If there is anything we do need to change, then we can actively pursue this while understanding that our worth is not tied to our looks.
  • Pursue dreams: Some of us have been taught that it is vain or even self-serving, to focus too much on ourselves. As a consequence, we usually place the needs of others before our own; ALL THE TIME. Of course I wholeheartedly believe that there is a juncture in our lives when this is entirely necessary. When we have babies and small children we learn about this all too well and this is perhaps as it should be. But there is nothing wrong with also pursuing what makes us happy or fulfilled; as long as it’s legal and no one is being hurt. Women, who constantly sacrifice their dreams and goals and never share such with their partners or children, run the risk of becoming angry and resentful. On the other hand, when we feel happy and fulfilled, we bring a positive energy to the relationship which is infectious.
  • Shed unrealistic expectations: Falling in love does not mean finding a perfect soul-mate who will meet our every emotional and sexual need; this is a myth. There can be a sense of purpose or even destiny in partnering with someone who does share our vision and values. No one, however, is perfect. We should therefore shed unrealistic expectations. These can include beliefs that our partner should anticipate our every need, read our minds even before we speak, know exactly what we mean when we do speak, be the perfect lover, kisser, gourmet chef, provider, leader, handyman, disciplinarian, planner and the list can go on. While there may be such men somewhere out there on Mars, I haven’t met many of them. Accept that neither one of you is perfect and determine to improve together.

Beyond Relationship Pain to Personal Power

Okay; so that man or that woman did you wrong. Well maybe that’s not so okay, but the reality is that as long as we are in a relationship, we are going to experience some pain. Things definitely do not always go smoothly in love-land. So what exactly should we do when we find ourselves deep in the throes of relationship pain or anguish? We have a choice among several responses which will more or less determine how well we are able to cope with the seeming injustices of relationships. Of course I’m in no way suggesting that all relationship infractions are equal; breaking a date, constantly leaving the toilet seat up and being unfaithful are all distinct issues with varying levels of gravity. When an action or behavior by our spouse causes us to experience feelings of rejection, low self-esteem, extreme irritation or bitter disappointment, it’s within our power to determine where we will allow these experiences to take us.

The Pity Party

When we are hurt or angry, feeling sorry for ourselves can be fairly valuable; for about two minutes. We need that much time to hunch our shoulders, bite our lips and concentrate on our pain; before we decide what we’re going to do about it. This pseudo-comfort which a pity party allows is actually quite short-lived. There is perhaps nothing as dis-empowering as wallowing in a place of self-pity for too long. When we do this we are seeing ourselves as victims, as weak, as powerless and even sometimes as deserving of the “punishment” we are enduring. In a pity-party we don’t only own our pain (as we should) but we hold on to it for dear life. We come to identify ourselves by it and see ourselves only through the lens of our relationship pain or dissatisfaction. Ultimately, this is counter-productive and inhibits us from moving into action.

Revenge Mode

There is a very common human emotion which encourages us to want that “eye for an eye”. When we have been hurt and we are in the throes of pain sometimes we can be motivated to retaliate by causing similar hurt to our partners. It is not always literally feasible to perhaps do the same thing that was done to us but the objective of dwelling in this mode, is to try to damage our partner’s psyche as much as ours has been. Usually this is an extreme response to deep pain caused by infidelity or some other really serious infraction. Some actually do cheat or at least flirt in return for their experience of infidelity. For other infractions, there may be angry, insensitive words hurled at the offending partner, the withholding of sex or affectionate gestures, the withdrawal of financial support or even an act of secretive, wild spending, where the family funds, personal account or credit cards are splurged. These responses are of course surface responses to deeper issues and may only bring momentary satisfaction. They are incapable of addressing the real problem of relationship pain and what caused it.

Stonewalling

Somehow, some of us believe that remaining silent, while fuming and seething on the inside, is self-empowering. Because we are not crying, ranting, raving or throwing things, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we have a handle on our difficult emotions and that we are somehow large and in charge. Actually, we couldn’t be farther from the truth. Refusing to talk about the things which our partner or spouse does that irritate us, only serves to give those things more power over us. When an issue remains un-discussed and unsettled, it retains the power to shape our thinking, feelings and emotions. This is why individuals who refuse to vent, tend to suffer from raised blood pressure. Just imagine, poor relationship habits can actually affect our health. While there may be critical times in our lives when silence may indeed be golden, a relationship confrontation or problem is not one of those times. Stonewalling represents a certain character weakness and a tacit refusal to confront issues.

Claiming Personal Power

Seizing personal power out of relationship difficulties sounds wonderful and resonates with a certain political correctness; it is, however, no mean feat. This preferred response often involves admitting personal weakness and exposing our own vulnerability. We have to be willing first to admit that what our partner has done or neglected to do caused us pain. Sometimes we even have to admit our own part in the problem. Whether we communicate this calmly or with loads of emotion, we must be willing to share our real feelings. This is the beginning of our own healing. While we cannot control what someone else does to us, we can control our responses to it. This brings us to the need to assume personal responsibility for our relationship well-being.

Assuming responsibility does not mean that we can manipulate our partner into doing whatever we what him/her to do. Nor does it signify that there is any secret behavior which we can do, which guarantees that our partner will never hurt us again (how I abhor those articles and books which make these false promises).  Rather, it means that we are responsible for communicating honestly our feelings and our expectations. Even though I promote relationship education and believe that we should “clear the air” on certain issues even before getting together, the truth is that relationships are on-going and developmental. There will always be the need to grow, change and make adjustments; no matter how many relationship seminars we attend!

Seizing personal power also involves being willing to share our challenges and our ineptitudes with others. Admitting to friends and family that our relationship is far from perfect can be a cry for a help or a source of encouragement to others who may also feel that they are going through difficulties alone. It means admitting being wrong. It means being willing to acknowledge that we don’t know everything. More so, it involves using our relationship challenges as a learning curve to catapult us into better relationship practices.

If we truly want a healthier relationship, these best-practices should involve:

  • Practicing greater openness with our partner; this means making communication sessions a regular feature of the relationship
  • Communicating expectations in a non-threatening way; for example “Having a date with you once a week will help me to feel closer to you” instead of the anger filled sentence: “You never carry me anywhere.”
  • Owning our pain without accusation by utilizing “I” statements, for example,: “When you . . .  I feel undervalued” instead of “You don’t appreciate me.”
  • Reading great books or articles on relationships together or if only one partner is a reader, using the subject matter as the basis for couple discussions
  • Complimenting each other or showing appreciation when something is done right in the relationship
  • Practicing random acts of kindness; for example, delivering flowers outside of special dates like Valentine’s or birthdays, paying for a spa-day for our spouse, making breakfast, rubbing tired feet at night, doing a body massage with no “sexpectation” (if you get lucky well so be it), buying a special item for our spouse which we know he/she has had an eye on for a while
  • Spending valuable time together just connecting and having fun
  • Setting up clear boundaries for the things we will absolutely not tolerate in the relationship, like infidelity, abuse or any form of dishonesty
  • Accessing help from a counselor, pastor, mentor or friend when we think that things are way over the top and that we are clearly not coping

Getting to this point of positive relationship practices, is however not automatic. We must be proactive and willing to do whatever is necessary to breed a healthy relationship, even before the challenges come. This means knowing the pulse beat of our relationship by living in the moments and not avoiding them. Ultimately, when we are open about our pain, and seek help, we begin the cycle of relationship renewal.

Your Relationship Health-Check

It's important to know how healthy or unhealthy your relationship is.

Whether you’ve been with that guy for a long or short time, whether you’ve been thinking about marriage or have already tied the knot, now is perhaps a great time to give your relationship a health check. Just as there are known indicators of physical health, relationships carry their own set of indicators, which let us know whether or not they are functioning as they should. Healthy relationships by their very definition are likely to fill us with a sense of peace and well-being; they build our self-esteem and affirm that we are worthy of being loved. They easily confirm that we have made a correct relationship choice or that our hard work on the union, has paid off.

Conversely, a negative relationship scenario breeds unhappiness, depression, instability and uncertainty. While we can spot such a relationship a mile off, we can yet become hooked on it. The truth is that many of us experience our relationships in automatic pilot, giving little thought to what the “state of our union” is telling us. We live and let live because we cannot imagine being on our own. We are so desperate to be connected or are so “in love with love”, that we are willing to tolerate almost anything, in the name of a “love relationship”.

The following checklist, while not exhaustive and definitely not scientific, can provide a fairly good gauge for where our relationships are health wise. Each measure represents a specific “relationship ideal”. While we may each have peculiar or individual relationship ideals, there are several commonly shared ones, which we know intuitively, define a healthy relationship. Please feel free to also add your own ideals which I may not have mentioned.

On a scale of 1 to 10, 0-4 represents “unsatisfactory” on a particular measure; this behaviour never happens, is virtually non-existent or happens only occasionally; 5-7 is “moderate” or “average”; this means the measure is sometimes true but not dominant enough to be a defining characteristic and 8-10 represents a high level of satisfaction or of “relational health” since the particular measure always or almost always defines the relationship. The higher the score is on a greater number of measures on our checklist, then, presumably, the healthier that relationship is. Where any behaviour identified is practiced more by one partner than the other, then the score there can only be moderate at best. We admit however, that many of our relationships are in active progress and have not or will never likely “arrive” with a perfect 10. By the same token, health can also indicate having an awareness of what is critical, knowing what needs to be worked on and having an active plan to do so.

This information should hopefully encourage us to make some critical decisions to enhance or improve our relationships. It may even indicate where we need to make critical changes in our own behaviour or where in extreme situations, we may need to move on.

In order to assess your relationship’s health, please score each of the following items from 1-10, to indicate how healthy your relationship might be. Another interesting spin on this, would be to have your partner independently score the checklist and then compare notes. It would be instructive to note whether your perceptions of your relationship are the same.

HEALTH CHECKLIST

  1. Couple time: You each enjoy spending quality time together and this is a priority in your relationship. You therefore make deliberate plans like date-nights, shared recreation and the like, to strengthen your couple-time together.
  2. Emotional and sexual boundaries: You are each aware of the need to establish emotional and sexual boundaries with members of the opposite sex.  This means that you deliberately avoid volatile situations like late night dinners with work colleagues, secret Facebook accounts, internet chat room friends, sharing intimate relationship details, sexually flirtatious behaviour and the like.
  3. Demonstrations of love and affection: You each find tangible ways to demonstrate love and affections which include (but are not limited to) hugging, kissing, gifts (in and out of season), favours, caring for the other during illness, helping with chores, sharing home and parenting responsibilities, and vocalising love
  4. Partner priority: Your partner and his or her happiness is your priority. You demonstrate loyalty to each other and your friends and family know how important you are to each other.
  5. Shared goals: While you each may have diverse or individual goals which may be career oriented, academic or some other type, there are common couple/family goals which you share and can work towards together; for example owning your own home, securing investments, planning a trip etc. Even where goals are individual, there is mutual support given.
  6. Shared values: Basically you share the same fundamental beliefs about God, life, morality, politics, rearing children etc. Even where cultural/social differences may see some distinctions in beliefs, these are “liveable” and are not critical enough to cause a serious divide in the relationship.
  7. Clear expectations: You have each communicated what your expectations are in the relationship or the communication about expectations is on-going. These may include issues like marriage, gender-roles, children, financial responsibility, plans for retirement, savings, family worship, sexual experimentation, and emotional and sexual fidelity.
  8. Individual identity & completeness: You each know who you are; you have come to terms with certain issues from your past and are whole or complete individuals. Even if this is not entirely the case, you are actively working towards defining who you are and your own happiness.
  9. Communication: The channels of communication between you are clear. You are each expressive of your own opinions, even when these are different from your spouse’s/partner’s. You not only talk but you are both keen listeners who have learned to also interpret your partner’s body language/facial expressions.
  10. Sexual compatibility: You are each sexually aware of your own needs and desires but see great sex as a work in progress. Having a great sexual relationship (even if you are abstaining until marriage) is paramount to you. You are both open to discovering more about sex and sexual responsiveness. You each see sex as the ultimate expression of a committed love relationship and believe that it is the highpoint of your marriage (where applicable).
  11. Management of Negativity: You are both able to manage the challenges or negative scenarios (differences of opinion, disappointments etc) which can happen in a relationship, without becoming negative or abusive. You attempt to deal with anger and disagreements without allowing them to escalate.
  12. Absence of abuse: You do not physically strike or insult and berate each other.

While my unscientific checklist does not yield a total score which will determine that your relationship is healthy or unhealthy, you are free to examine individually or as a couple your performance on each item. This will assist you in determining what is unsatisfactory in the relationship, what is just average and what you can take a bow about.