Don’t expect to be one and the same. One of the more ridiculous myths about “true love” is the idea of the soulmate – that there is someone out there who is your perfect match. A good relationship is about navigating the numerous differences between you – over politics, food, money, how to raise children. It’s those differences that make life more interesting, as our lover opens up a whole new way of seeing or understanding the world. Enjoy what others have to offer rather than trying to change them to fit your own template of how life and love should be.
Accept that your partner is fallible. Expecting someone to be everything you need and everything you are not is a recipe for disaster. We all make mistakes, particularly in our love-lives, as relationships are never easy. But if you can exercise forgiveness in small ways at the start of a love affair then you’re more likely to find ways to forgive the bigger hurts and transgressions, if and when they happen.
Learn to talk about “why”. There are good rows and bad rows but make no mistake – everybody argues. Ridiculing or humiliating each other is not a good idea, or a good omen. But if you can both talk honestly about what irritates or upsets you and why, you are more likely to understand each other better. It can feel easier to avoid being honest if we feel that could be hurtful, but it is only with honesty that trust is built, and trust is the essence of a good relationship.
Accept that sex changes. There are different qualities to sex at different stages in a long relationship: first, passion; the urgency of reproductive sex; snatched sex in the early years of parenthood; then the slower intimacy of midlife onwards. But our culture presents only one type as being valid: youthful, vigorous, usually penetrative. It is possible to maintain a happy sex-life for decades with the same person. It may not be as often, or the sort of sex that you think you should be having, or think others must be having (but aren’t) – just relax and enjoy this special kind of intimacy together.
Appreciate what life still has to offer while you can. The great wonder of middle age is that we know our time is now limited. If you have managed to surf the ups and downs of bringing up children, work and making ends meet all within the same relationship, the rewards can be great. You have a wealth of shared memories to laugh over. You accept each other in your entirety. Rather than fearing getting older, remember that many couples in a long relationship find these to be their happiest years together.
Forget trouble for a little while and laugh together. A good laugh is like good sex: spontaneous and uninhibited and an act that unites two beings as one. It’s worth going out of your way to have a good laugh, especially if things have been rocky. Go to a place where you used to laugh or where there’s a good chance of laughter. That moment when you exchange a look and end up laughing, often over a shared memory, is the best way to understand each other again. It can be pretty sexy in bed too – as long as you’re laughing together.
Shut up and listen. No matter how bad things are, give your partner a chance to speak. Given silence in which to speak or rant, they’ll say more than they meant to – even more than they knew they were thinking. It can be surprising and revealing and paves the way for honesty. We tend to jump in with an opinion before we’ve heard each other out. Don’t scream, keep your cool: it makes a big difference. So often, things can be resolved by learning to listen.
Arrange time without the children. When you have kids you adore, find time to be just you alone so you remember and remind each other of who you were before they arrived, who you are now, and who you will be when they are gone. It’s natural that attention shifts to the children, but it’s a good idea to remember why you are together, and have a child together, in the first place. It’s possible to make it work by setting aside a time in the week and asking a relative to mind the children. Easier said than done, but important.
Invest in the relationship with your partner’s family. These relationships can be rocky. Keep yours smooth by remembering birthdays and anniversaries, by butting out of family disputes, and by never forcing your partner into the position of taking sides with you against their mother, father or siblings – those relationships go back a long way. Try to establish a friendship with the most sympathetic of your in-laws who can be your defender, if necessary, when you are not present. An ally in the family can also fill in aspects of the past that may help you to understand your partner.
Don’t snoop. If you’re tempted to check your partner’s inbox or online history, stop, talk to yourself (whatever the psychologists say, it’s good for you). Ask, “Wait a minute, am I doing this because I think my partner is up to no good?” If so, have it out with him or her – you don’t need evidence, you need a conversation. Suspicion needs healing. The internet is a great place for expressing wishful thinking – but it’s important your partner is able to talk to you about those feelings.
Be able to reveal vulnerability, even if it feels daunting. When we start a relationship we like to feel in control, powerful even – to protect ourselves from the vulnerability that comes with opening up to a lover. We may carry the hurt from past relationships, so we protect ourselves by trying to appear in control. Yet no relationship was ever deepened by lovers’ attempts to assert themselves over each other – rather, it is through the mutual exploration of their imperfections, fears and anxieties that true connection occurs. It may sound counterintuitive but it’s true.
Change the metaphor that you associate with developing your relationship. Instead of “working” at it, learn to “play”. “Work” feels heavy and makes us think of future struggles, whereas “playfulness” engages the things you associate with good times, childhood comforts and moments of spontaneity. This means that instead of navel-gazing and pondering, you’re coming at the difficult things in life with humour and a lightness of touch. A couple that can laugh together, even mid-row, is in a healthy place.
Learn to spend time alone. Developing a relationship with yourself, deepened by solitary pursuits, hobbies and taking time out from work and relationships, will pay huge dividends with your partner. You will come back to the relationship refreshed, more able to express your needs (as you’re more likely to know what they are). We will always ultimately be a mystery to each other – it’s more healthy for this to be acknowledged, celebrated even, than denied.
Don’t be cruel. According to research, people who sneer, ridicule or talk down to their partner are on a fast track to relationship destruction. Those in successful relationships hardly ever speak to each other that way, even when angry. If you find you want to be cruel to your partner, ask yourself what’s really going on. The fact they haven’t made the bed is never really the issue – it’s far more likely you fear that this means they don’t care about you. Instead of attacking your partner for their laziness, show your true feelings.
Adopt a new narrative. Instead of thinking of your relationship as an arc, with a beginning, middle and an end, try to think of it in terms of the seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter. Harnessing the idea of seasons can be particularly helpful when couples start a family. Despite the joy that babies bring, they often feel like a bomb going off in a relationship – the exhausting demands of parenthood can feel overwhelming. Yet get through those first few winters of despondency and there will more than likely be the spring of renewal and love rediscovered.
Be prepared for surprise and open to change. Love matures and changes as we mature and change. The qualities that make a loving partner are the same qualities that make a loving person. You and your partner are dynamic creatures. Just because you believed one thing when the two of you began your relationship doesn’t mean you will still believe that same thing years, months or even weeks down the road. As the two of you grow, your partner’s desires will change and so will yours.
Understand that you can only develop yourself. We often fall in love with a person who has the qualities that we would like to develop in ourselves. We see all the budding possibilities and are excited to be accepted by such a wonderful and perfect person. Watch out! This sometimes means that rather than developing the qualities in yourself that you would like, you will try to develop the other person’s potential instead, and this creates havoc.
Realise that it is in moments of restlessness and upheaval that you find out who you are and what it truly means to love. It’s easy to be considerate and loving to your partner when the setting is romantic, when you’ve got jingle in your pocket, when you’re looking good and feeling fine. But when one of you is out of sorts, exhausted, overwhelmed and distracted, behaving lovingly requires conscious effort.
Be kind. Becoming a more effective partner is the most efficient way to assure a loving, intimate relationship. Kindness and having your partner’s back are essential. Using “argument enders” and “intimacy builders” will strengthen your connection. Argument enders include: “I never thought of it that way”; “I’d like to think that over”; “Can we continue this discussion tomorrow?”; “You’re right”; “I could have handled that better”; “I’m sorry, please forgive me”; “I know you’re sorry; I forgive you”. Intimacy builders could be: “Help me understand”; “I’m on your side”; “We are in this together”; “Good idea”; “Let’s give it a try”; “We’ll figure it out.”
It’s not about being right or making the other person wrong. Don’t allow your relationship to be about quarrelling. It is about understanding and learning to talk about hot subjects without getting heated. A relationship presents countless opportunities to rise to the occasion and be the best person and partner you can imagine. A relationship is working and playing together, it’s finding delight, joy and comfort in each other. It is about facing difficulties and eventually becoming wise.
If you have been unfaithful, you must be “giving” to your partner in order to reconnect. We get attached not only by what we receive from our partner, but by what we give to them. Thinking about what matters to them, then consciously reaching out with acts of consideration and affection will not only make them feel closer to you, it may help you to feel closer to them.
Explore the root of an affair in order to move past it. If an affair happens, both partners need to explore why it happened, and ask themselves, “What does the affair say about me, my partner, and us?” Maybe one or both of you felt ignored by the other, maybe you felt dead and the affair brought you to life, maybe you were rebelling against the rules of the marriage the way you’ve rebelled against rules your whole life. Promises never to stray again are meaningless unless the “fault lines” within and between partners are addressed.
If you want to reconnect to your partner, you need to turn toward that person and treat them in ways that foster caring and closeness. You won’t figure out if you want to be with your marriage partner by busying yourself with other people or activities. People often want to feel loved by their partner before they begin the hard work of trying to repair their relationship. But I’ve often found that the opposite works: feelings of love may blossom after you've recommitted, taken a fair share of responsibility for what went wrong in the relationship, and treated your partner in ways that foster trust and intimacy.
Understand the true nature of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a gift from the heart of a hurt partner – it’s a transaction between the two people held together by a violation. Unfaithful partners must work hard to produce bold, humble, heartfelt acts of repair and take responsibility for the harm they caused. Hurt partners must work hard to encourage their partner to make good, take a share of responsibility for what created a space between them, and allow the injury to recede into the backdrop of their lives.
Work to rebuild intimacy. Becoming sexually intimate is often complicated and challenging, particularly after a troubled time. Both partners need to reach out with tenderness and compassion, recognising they may each feel vulnerable and raw. This is time to take off any pressure to perform and to put aside expectations for high performance and orgasms. The couple’s sexual intimacy will grow if each partner works to warm the space between them with acceptance and affection.
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