Monday, May 4, 2009

The Times UK: Make your relationship work

From The Sunday Times

May 3, 2009

Make your relationship work

All you need is love, right? Wrong! It takes a whole lot more to make a relationship work

Sally Brampton
If there is one area in our lives where most of us struggle, it's relationships. That's the bad news. The good news is that they can be improved. It takes hard work, but anybody who says, "If you have to work at it, it's not worth it", is probably in denial or an unreconstructed romantic in search of Miss or Mr Right — who, guess what, they never succeed in finding.

With two failed marriages behind me (I'm now, happily, on my third), I take an intense personal interest. We learn how to have relationships from our parents, and some of us are taught rather better than others. My early lessons were not good and, eventually, I was in such despair that I took myself off to therapy to learn how to undo some of my more destructive habits and responses. I am still learning and I still get things wrong (old habits die hard), but one thing I do know is that negative behaviours aren't written in stone.

Recently, I was having dinner with a girlfriend who has the best marriage I've ever seen. She and her husband like each other and laugh a lot, but it can't simply be put down to good luck, right man, right woman. Perhaps that's why I study them with more than forensic interest. At dinner, she was telling a story about her mother: "I was so angry when I put down the phone, I had to call a friend and unload before he came home so I didn't dump it all over him."

Unloading high emotion or anger before my husband walks through the door had simply never occurred to me (as I say, a rubbish early education), so it struck like an epiphany that it's not so much what those friends do, as what they don't, that makes their marriage work. Call it reverse psychology. It's all very well to be told to be gentler, kinder or more tolerant, but such well-intentioned instructions are so wildly abstract that they are close to meaningless. Understanding what we shouldn't do, rather than what we should, might provide a better and more useful insight. In that spirit, I made my own list of 10 relationship no-no's.

1 Don't blame somebody else for the way that we feel

We have to take responsibility for our own emotions, rather than handing them over to our intimate other. And we should not confuse their emotions with our own. Say our other half comes home and yells at us about something inconsequential because they're stressed at work. Our first response is to take it personally and feel aggrieved. Better to take a step back and look at what's really bothering them. A little empathy, a simple question — "Are you okay?" — can defuse a potential row in a way that hostility met by hostility never can.

2 Don't to try to change the other person

In trying to change someone, we're playing the "if only" game, as in, "if only you were tidier/more sociable/less complaining/more generous, our relationship would be fabulous". We cannot change other people. All we can change is our own responses and behaviour. That doesn't make us total wimps, nor does it mean we can't ask for what we want or need. We can, but as adults, not as children. Adults explain, children complain, which takes us straight to rule No 3.

3 Don't use the word 'you', replace it with the word 'I'

Take charge of your own feelings, as in, "I feel this when you do that", rather than, "You did this and made me feel that way". Say your husband (or wife; bad behaviour is gender-free) never helps out around the house. We can explain that we'd like it if they helped more, or we can complain that they never help, which takes us to rule No 4.

4 Ban the words 'never' and 'always'

They are almost always accusatory, as in, "you never empty the dishwasher" or "you always forget my birthday". Add a jabbing finger and you have almost definitely moved into blame territory. Along with blame comes criticism and its bitchy close relation, contempt — both are poisonous to a relationship. If there are sticking points that can't seem to get resolved, appeal to somebody's good nature — "I wish you'd remember my birthday, it really upsets me when you don't" is far more likely to result in ribbons and roses than snide comments about selective memory, just as contemptuous remarks about how remarkable it is that dishwashers load themselves are far more likely to mean you end up with a sink full of dirty plates.

5 Don't be defensive

It's simply another form of blame, as in "it's not my fault" (it's yours). Trying to see another person's point of view is not stepping down, it's stepping forward. It is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It takes generosity to put ourselves in another's shoes, and if relationships thrive on any single gesture, it is to take our personal feelings out of the situation and show generosity.

6 Don't sulk or stonewall

Men are particularly good at this; usually on the pretext they are "just keeping their head down". Silence can be a form of punishment (as hostile in its own way as noisy anger) and refusing to engage makes conciliation impossible.

7 Don't keep a battle going

Learn to accept an apology as well as to apologise, not necessarily for the action (sometimes we are right to be angry), but for the situation: "I'm sorry we had such a silly quarrel".

8 Don't make assumptions about other people's behaviour

How can we learn not to do this? By stopping and asking ourselves a few simple questions: "How do I know if that's really true? Am I overdramatising this?" We might, for example, assume somebody is late because they don't care, whereas the truth is that they can be late for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with us. Other forms of mind-reading include expecting other people to fulfil our wants and needs without stating them clearly ("he/she should know") and are based on yet another assumption: "If he/she loved me, he/she would know." Nobody, however intimate, is clairvoyant.

9 Don't be controlling

Your other half might be rubbish at cooking, but constant interference is not going to make them any better. People are imperfect, even the ones we love, and control is a form of game-playing. If you set somebody up, they will almost always fail. One game couples like to play is withholding affection or sex, but the real casualty, often fatally wounded, is the relationship, as both people draw further apart. Another form of game-playing is victim. "I was only trying to help" is a subtle, manipulative form of control.

10 Have good manners

Not in the sense of frigid politeness (which can be as riddled with contempt as outright insults), but as in treating your other half as you would your closest friends: with respect, affection and tolerance. If there's one thing that has always struck me about those friends with a good marriage, it is that they are unfailingly considerate of each other. If you can do all that, you're a better creature than I am, but what I can truly say is that I try. Where there's a will or, to paraphrase, a willingness, there's almost always a way.

Helpful reading: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver (Orion £8.99). Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships by Eric Berne (Penguin £8.99)

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