National Spouses Day (January 26) and Valentine’s Day (February 14) aren’t just about the mushy, romantic sides of being in a relationship. Don’t get me wrong . . . flowers, jewelry, cards, and candies melt our hearts. But great communication, appreciation, and keeping solid agreements make or break our relationships.
My fiancé, Lisette, and I have been together for seven years now. Even though we’re engaged, we think of ourselves as a work in progress. We discovered in each other what we were looking for in a partner, but we weren’t naive. To succeed, we knew that we’d need to step up our games and bring out the best in ourselves and each other. That meant being fully committed, with no safety nets or back doors—and communicating better than either of us had ever done before. We came up with a name for our relationship, calling it the “baby.” Like a small child, it was very young, vulnerable, and fragile; and needed love, care, and protection to thrive.
Working diligently on bringing out the best in each other and ourselves, here’s what we’ve learned:
- Trust and Commitment Mean Everything
Great partners and relationships ask nothing less of us than our best. That means 100 percent honesty, including owning up to those parts of ourselves we’re not proud of—and cleaning up our acts. I had difficulty admitting that I’d become a bit of a flirt. As a single guy, my boundaries with women had become way too relaxed. Friendliness had created the appearance that I was available, when I wasn’t. And while my ego was getting fed continual attention, I was unknowingly disrespecting Lisette and leaving her questioning my trustworthiness.
Lisette is a beautiful woman; and she is also warm, loving, funny, and playful. But she was in denial about how much attention she was getting from men—and acting somewhat naïve about it. Several men had fallen in love with her without her really being aware of it—until it became a problem. She was unwittingly putting herself and our relationship at risk and had to address her lack of awareness and naivete that could have presented serious problems for the “baby.”
We knew that unless we took steps to clean up our acts, tighten our boundaries, and become more aware of our surroundings, we would weaken the trust in our relationship. So, little by little, we set clear parameters for what was okay and not okay when it came to other people. Being respectful in this way solidified and deepened our commitment. Taking care of the “baby,” and being confident that we would both be honest and faithful 100 percent of the time, was our foundation.
- Care for and Feed the “Baby” Every Day
Every serious relationship, needs and deserves care and attention. This means considering the other person’s well-being and feelings with the highest regard and utmost sensitivity. Since neither Lisette nor I was psychic, guessing was not the answer. And it wasn’t enough to tell ourselves we had “good intentions” so the other should simply be satisfied with the way we were behaving. We had to get to know each other intimately, and we found that we each had our own way of giving and receiving love. This meant taking the time to tune in to how we were each feeling and what we were wanting. Learning to routinely ask Lisette how she felt and drawing her out, gave our relationship the direction and care it needed to flourish. And, of course, this went both ways.
- Create Transparency and Safety
Both of us agreed: no surprises, no secrets. Everything would be out on the table where we could “process” it and deepen our understanding of each other, even if it set off a reaction. We knew that avoiding unsettling issues might be easier in the short term, but the debt would eventually come due. Nothing was more important than staying ahead of the pain curve by bringing things up instead of hiding, denying, repressing, and avoiding them. Making it safe for the other person to talk openly without fear of running into a wall of defensiveness, insecurity, excuses, and/or justifications was critical. We needed to really listen to each other and talk openly about our innermost feelings and desires. This meant no judgment, sarcasm, brooding and/or hijacking an issue from the other.
- Use Daily Check-Ins to Stay Connected
Check-ins are the connective tissue in every good relationship. Airing out the day’s “best and worst” and “high and low” moments opens up fresh avenues of communication. Like a line of credit, we know it’s there to fall back on and tap into when we need it. Plus, it’s more effective than mind-reading. Assuming our partner knows how we feel or what we want is a recipe for disaster. Open communication provides a safe and familiar place for us to reconnect and ask for what we need.
- Make Continual Improvements
Our relationship, like all relationships, is a work in progress. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be great. Neither do either of us. Growth and improvement come from getting to know each other better, setting new boundaries, solidifying new agreements, discovering new horizons, and continuing to make time for the “baby.” Strong relationships require a strong work ethic; as well as a willingness to learn, change, grow, sacrifice, repair, and renew.
- Master the Art of Humble Forgiveness
We’re all going to screw up, regress, fall short, and have lapses in our sensitivity to our partner, so we’d better learn how to apologize and forgive. Giving ourselves and each other second chances, where appropriate, can be a blessing, an opportunity to heal and a platform from which to reach new heights..
- Make Time for Play Dates
Making time to play, frolic, or explore new things is essential to invigorating our relationships. Whether it’s sitting out on the deck at sunset; or going to concerts, plays, or lectures, relationships need fun and light-heartedness to thrive. Pushing the “Refresh” button can be as simple as a cooking a delicious dinner together, sleeping late on the weekend, volunteering together, setting aside a date night, taking salsa lessons, hiking a beautiful mountain trail, or going on a fun (spontaneous or planned) travel adventure.
- Give Selfless Care Under Duress
We’ve both had losses, setbacks, and rough stretches over the past several years where one of us had to take care of the other. Being stubborn, staunchly self-reliant, and used to taking care of ourselves, it took practice to become gracious receivers. Both of us are still learning how to sit still and allow ourselves to be taken care of. We may continue to squirm a bit, but we’re learning.
Love alone doesn’t make for a successful relationship. Couples who operate on a clear, solid standard of care and integrity grow and flourish. Putting the other person’s well-being right up there with our own builds trust and confidence.
Relationships are mysterious propositions. Each one is different. Making yours everything you want it to be means communicating and making sacrifices. At the center of every good relationship, there are two people who are works in progress, getting to know themselves and each other. And who are ready to learn.
So, if you’re serious about making your relationship your priority, jot down a few things you can do to strengthen your “baby.” Share them with your partner, and get help from a coach or counselor, if necessary. Becoming a beloved companion may not be easy, but it’s an investment that pays off ever so richly.