Relationships aren’t easy, but far too many couples throw in the towel on their relationship prematurely, only to repeat the same dysfunctional patterns in their next relationship.
The truth is, most couples are capable of thriving and lasting long term if they’re both committed to working on it. Regardless of whether you’re in a 50-day or a 50-year relationship, here’s how to make relationships actually work:
1. Accept conflict as normal.
Perfection exists only in Hollywood. Disagreements happen. Unless you’re embroiled in severe problems (i.e., unfaithfulness, abuse, addictions, legal problems, or violence), don’t throw away a relationship because you’ve hit a rough patch. Trust and commitment deepen as you travel through storms together.
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2. Grow yourself up emotionally.
Most people, even very “good” people, have some dysfunctional behaviors that are destructive to themselves and others. Some of the most common ones are defensiveness, poor communication skills, and lacking emotional intelligence. You probably intuitively have somewhat of a sense of where your areas for improvement are, and if you don’t, try asking for some feedback from your partner, close friends, or even exes. (Yes, depending on where you’re at emotionally with them, reconnecting with an ex to talk about your strengths and weaknesses can actually be a very helpful practice.) Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that you’ve got room for growth. Everyone does.
3. Give each other space.
Even people in happy, loving relationships need alone time. Healthy couples are able to spend time away from each other, working on their own goals, spending time with their friends and hobbies, and just doing their own thing. Don’t be worried if your partner asks for space or wants some nights to themselves every now and then, and make sure you’re also regularly taking time to focus on yourself. You should each be whole people with your own exciting lives, and you’re choosing to share those lives with each other.
4. Develop an “I’m awesome” attitude.
You and only you determine your self-worth. Far too many people base their self-worth first on whether they have a partner and later on the success of the relationship they’re in. But how you feel about yourself should have nothing to do with your relationship status, nor the whims and moods of your partner. It doesn’t matter whether they stay or go or compliment or criticize you. Your self-esteem needs to be like nonstick cookware—a third-party opinion slides right off, whether good or bad.
5. Take care of your own needs.
You’re an adult, not a child. As a result, you call the shots. Need a nap? Take it. Want ice cream? Have some. Want to go to the movies? Enjoy. In partnership, you can ask the other person to help you meet your needs. But, like you, they have their own needs and problems. They may say no. This is not a rejection. Instead, it’s an invitation—to be self-reliant or reach out to your community (i.e., friends or family) for help. If you make one person your be-all and end-all, they will resent it. And so will you.
6. Communicate boundaries.
More relationships die from silence than violence. Do you bite your tongue when you’re upset? Do you turn away from bad behavior? Do you nag instead of enforcing consequences? If you act “compliant” to keep the peace, you contribute to the inauthenticity of the relationship. Decide to forge a different path: Speak up. Say no. Express your needs. Create a truly open channel of communication with your partner. If you can’t be honest without feeling guilty or feeling like it’s going to start a big fight, it might not be the right relationship for you.
7. Never reward bad behavior.
Psychology may explain bad behavior, but it doesn’t excuse it. Even if you understand why your partner sometimes does hurtful things to you, if they’re not trying to change for the better, you need to draw a line. When you continue to spend time with them, laugh, have sex, and otherwise pretend that everything’s OK, you’re offering positive reinforcement that they don’t actually need to change. Set some ground rules. Don’t wait around for someone to change if they’re not actively working on themselves now; you can’t have a relationship with someone’s “potential.”
Relationships can be like old shoes—we stay in them even when they are no longer functional because they are comfortable. But comfort is rarely an indication of a life well-lived.
8. Heed the wisdom of your internal voice.
When your relationship is in crisis, it’s natural to go to your friends for advice. But the symphony of opinions can sometimes drown out the only voice that matters—your own. Get quiet. Meditate. Pray. Clear mental space, so you can hear your intuition. Can this relationship be saved? Is it in your best interest? Are you being pushed to grow? Are you truly giving each other what you each need? Your heart will never fail you, so learn to listen.
9. Flood it with affection.
Relationships are supposed to be fun! And joyous, and warm, and filled with laughter and affection. People in long-term relationships tend to forget this over time, and that’s why so many couples eventually break up because they believe the “spark” is gone.
Make time to play together. Create an atmosphere of levity and positivity when you’re together. Speak lovingly to each other, always. Hug each other, cuddle, and hold hands. These small things are what make relationships so wonderful in the first place, and keeping these loving practices alive is key to making a relationship work in the long run.