Smart Relationship Maintenance
We have checks for our physical health, so how about checks for the health of our relationships, too?
It’s smart to have regular check ups with our partner. This way, our relationship health doesn’t get overlooked. Plus, we can catch small issues before they grow bigger. Early detection is always a good thing.
Before we dive into tips, hints, and steps, remember that the foundation of any good connection between partners is one where both people are committed to workability and satisfaction. Basically, this means agreeing to a win-win mindset. I’ve known couples who came up with an agreement to that effect, and had a signing ceremony!
When working out a problem or making the best of a difficult situation, the solution must work—be a clear win—for both of you.
Next, there are two types of relationship maintenance to consider: impromptu and scheduled. They have different purposes.
When a problem comes up in a relationship, it’s usually best to get to a solution as soon as possible. For instance, if one of you notices growing frustration because of an unmet need, addressing it sooner rather than later will help you both.
If the origin of your issue is outside your relationship, a pressing family or work situation for instance, addressing it together without delay will calm both of you and offer a positive focus.
Here are questions to guide you toward finding win-win solutions straightaway.
- Ask: What’s not working?
- Identify: What is needed?
- Explore: What would it give you/allow you to feel/make possible if you had what you need?
- Check: Does your partner have any questions about what you’re asking for?
- Brainstorm: take turns suggesting what might work. What would a win for you be? Have your partner ask you for details to help draw out, clarify, and develop a possible solution. Then, reverse it. What would a win be for your partner about this issue? Help them clarify and develop their ideas about a possible solution.
- Together ask: What are the commonalities in our ideas about what would work?
- Determine: What solution would work for both of us?
- Ask the million dollar bonus question: Is there anything your partner needs from you in order to be able to give you what you need (and vice versa, if applicable).
The beginning of every month is an ideal time to attend to the ongoing health of your relationship. This is a chance to stand back and observe how the two of you relate. There’s no emergency in the air. It’s a chance to take a look at the overview. Setting aside time to take stock honestly and openly helps keep your relationship on track. You can even use this time to shake things up a little!
For regularly scheduled check-ins, each partner considers the following questions in advance, and brings their responses to share. This takes time and attention, but it pays off.
- What is working well in the relationship, and what should we keep doing? Let’s say we’re married and we have a date night every week or two, and that’s working. This is a chance to talk about it, say why it’s working, and celebrate it! What do you appreciate most about it?
- What is working pretty well in the relationship that we could improve? We now meet for lunch once a month. We could easily consider meeting twice and vary the location of the second lunch. It would shake things up a bit and be more interesting. Do we want to give that a go?
- What are we not doing that we need to start? Maybe we’re not planning ahead for vacation time. We miss the advantage of reduced airfares or special hotel rates, or we skip it altogether and end up staying home. We could set up a vacation savings account, get a knowledgeable travel agent, or have a dinner where we ask others about their favorite vacations. These activities would help us keep the subject on the front burner, and when we look back at our lives, we’ll be glad we had those adventures!
- What are we doing that we’re not doing so well? What needs an overhaul? Maybe both partners work from home and haven’t taken the time and attention to consider how this affects them. In their monthly check-in, they realize that time apart and time away from home would be healthy for both of them. They talk about the possibility of taking solo vacations once a year, such as a spa getaway, or a hiking/camping/climbing/wilderness adventure. Or perhaps one partner schedules a visit to a faraway ashram to meditate for two weeks while the other signs up for a hiking challenge and a writer’s retreat, and then joins a local basketball team at the gym. They realize they need to shake things up a bit!
Check-ups must be approached with an open mindset. These meetings are never for the purpose of comparison/keeping score, criticizing, or complaining, but rather to have an objective relationship health check and move forward in a positive way.
Next: two main personal qualities that help maintain good relationships.
Being awake and aware is a relationship super-power.
At its most basic, self-awareness is the ability to focus on yourself, and study how your actions, thoughts, or emotions do or don’t align with your internal standards. Self-awareness is conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.
If you’re highly self-aware, you can objectively evaluate yourself, manage your emotions, align your behavior with your values, and even understand how others perceive you.
Self-awareness allows you to be more effective in business, in your relationships with others, and especially in your relationship with yourself.
Learning to be more aware requires us to reflect on whether our actions match our inner standards or goals. To this end, asking a “what question” can be more helpful than asking one that starts with “why.”
Instead of “Why don’t I speak up with my partner?” one could ask:
- What are the interpersonal dynamics happening between us when we talk?
- What do I experience in my body when I bring up a subject to discuss or problem-solve?
- What occurs that prompts me to give up, or to go into an old story of not being able to get what I need, or not being able to get my point across? Does it bring up the thought that no matter what I say, nothing will change?
- What can I do about my fear of speaking up?
This kind of introspection allows us to look at behaviors and beliefs for what they are, not as “this is right and this is wrong.” We can skip the blame or fault while observing ourselves, and only give a factual report of what happened.
In my book, How to Save Your Fourth Marriage, I mention how the skill of Observation helps us grow our self-awareness:
“The ability to observe is vital to any healthy relationship because it
supports conscious change. Without this skill, we unwittingly recycle
habits, including some that are detrimental. To observe is to step out of
a situation, to hold it less personally and examine what was said or done
with curiosity, as if viewing someone else. This is not difficult, though
it is a clear distinction from what many of us do.
It can seem counterintuitive to back up to examine ourselves or odd
that to take a close look means stepping away. We are not accustomed
to being curious bystanders, either, with a friendly pen and notepad to
survey ourselves. Human beings, especially smart and talented ones,
need reminders to observe playfully, to opt for lighthearted note-taking,
rather than self-critical.“
Self-awareness can help us release old patterns and stories that do not serve us, leaving us to explore new ways of being. Being in inquiry empowers us to make new choices that bring different results.
A second personal quality that impacts the maintenance of healthy relationships in a big way is curiosity.
In their book The Curious Advantage, Paul Ashcroft, Simon Brown, and Garrick Jones define curiosity as “exploring, asking questions, experimenting, and linking ideas, information, and knowledge,” or “putting your wonder into action.”
Neuroscience expert Amy Brann calls curiosity “interest with sparkle.”
Curiosity has layers, and one of those layers is expressing interest in our partner’s life. This is a complaint some couples have about each other, that “my partner doesn’t ask about me” or “doesn’t want to talk to me.” They are aching to share and be heard.
This also comes up as a complaint about first dates, that one person dominates the conversation and only talks about themselves. I’ve experienced this myself. On one phone conversation with someone I met online, I listened to him for a full thirty minutes and he did not ask me about myself. There was nothing to lose by bringing it up, so I thanked him for sharing about himself and said, “What would you like to know about me?” He stumbled and came up with one question, which I answered, and then he took the conversation back to himself.
Whether he was uncomfortable about asking personal questions, had no interest in asking, or wasn’t capable of being curious, by that time, none of it mattered. After several attempts, I bowed out. That was the last time I spoke to him.
On a different occasion, another man had the awareness to say, “I’m not very good at asking questions about you, just so you know.” I responded by saying, “It’s okay. Do you want to practice?” We laughed about it, and then he did just that—he practiced! We had a great conversation.
Being curious can make you a more interesting person to talk to. Curiosity means asking for stories, not just answers to questions. Instead of the usual “What do you do?” you might ask “How’d you end up in your field of work?” Or instead of saying “How are you?” to a friend or colleague, ask “Hey, good to see you! What’s different since we last met?” It might spark an interesting response.
What’s the opposite of curiosity? Apathy, disinterest, or disregard, for sure.
However, the opposite I’d like to address today because of its consistent and sometimes devastating impact in relationships is a more active opposite—defensiveness.
Curious minds learn, and defensive minds attack.
Although defensiveness can be a natural response, in an intimate relationship it’s rarely the most useful one. We all know those moments where it’s challenging to listen when we’ve already made up our minds. Or we’re fresh out of energy or patience, and being called to observe ourselves and the consequences of our words just isn’t on our radar.
It’s okay. Take a breath. Notice when you’re defensive. Greet it. Call it out. Say to yourself (or aloud if possible), “I see you. Take a seat while I open my ears and my heart.”
Being willing to be curious with our partner helps move a conversation forward instead of stopping the dialogue.
To find out how curious you are, see how you match up with these ideas.
1. You are eager to learn.
2. Your basic approach to life is that there is always more to know.
3. You welcome feedback, even when it doesn’t match your take on things, and even if it feels critical.
4. You actively and regularly invite others’ points of view and prefer open dialogue and discussion.
5. You ask questions and gather information before coming to a conclusion.
6. You actively and intentionally listen when other people challenge your ideas.
7. You’re unafraid to revise your opinion.
8. You’re willing and able to make course corrections when presented with new information.
9. You create an environment where your boss, colleagues, family, and your intimate partner can question you easily and without consequence.
10. You avoid false certainty by actively testing your “truth” to determine if what you are “sure about” is accurate according to facts, data, or other valuable sources of information.
If you answered yes to these ten statements, you’re doing well on the “curious scale.”
To practice curiosity as a skill to build better relationships, notice when you’re defensive. Even curious people get defensive from time to time. You’ll probably feel it in your body first.
It takes determination and effort to stop, take a breath, and look into what you’re defending and why.
Examine your reaction and see if you can turn it into a question. Ask questions of the other person such as:
• What do you notice? What do you see?
• What are the obstacles you see and how would you fix them?
• What do you want? What are you asking for?
• What’s going on?
• What’s your concern?
• What’s your complaint and how can I help?
And then listen attentively and consider the information given to you. Again, this takes time, but it’s time well spent.
Has being defensive ever worked for you? Take a look. Or is it just how you’ve been trained to think, lead, or act up until now?
It’s valuable to use your reactions as a signal to pause and initiate an inquiry. You may be surprised by the new insights you find and the genuine relationships you build.
Curiosity brings clarity. It’s not easy, but it’s illuminating and humbling to find out we don’t know everything!
To Your Healthy Relationships!
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