As featured on The Jakarta Globe
Recently, I realized that I have spent almost as much time being married as I previously spent being single. I have known my husband for some 23 years now and I can proudly say that my relationship is an imperfect one. While I could not imagine living without him, I have been struck by the realization that I’m so used to having him around that I’ve begun to take my relationship for granted.
We know that the opposite of love is not hate; rather it’s indifference. Too often couples allow themselves to sink to the level of “I couldn’t care less” and this danger, if not taken seriously, could result in many midlife divorces that are so rampant in our society.
Through my course of work, I have interviewed many individuals who have been in and out of relationships. In my opinion, one particular factor that has resulted in many marriage or relationship breakdowns is “self centred living”. The mistake that many individuals make when they enter a relationship is thinking that our spouse will meet our deepest needs. We then feel deeply “cheated” or hurt when they don’t, compelling us to shut down. Honestly, how many of us start a relationship with the view that we are there to serve our partner?
But as we all know, a relationship is hard work. If your relationship is not growing, it courts the danger of being stagnant or being torn apart. The myths that you can change your partner for the better or your relationship will sort itself out once the children arrive could only complicate matters. If you’re intentional about working on your relationship, here are some pointers that can help make it a healthier, more enduring one.
1. Choosing commitment- Love isn’t just about feelings. It’s a decision. A commitment to put your relationship above everything else gives you an immediate edge. While commitment isn’t as “sexy” a concept as romance or passion, it is undeniably the sturdy foundation for lasting relationships. Commitment means endurance and the promise to stay and work through any challenges that emerge, together. Commitment also means giving up on choices; far from the notion of being trapped in a relationship, commitment only brings freedom from concerns about finding someone better “out there”. It also means not bailing out at the first sign of distress in the relationship. Commitment is acknowledging that every relationship goes through trials and tribulations. Yet, leaving is not an option.
2. Making no room for self-centredness- Unlike your job, your relationship decisions are not made in the boardroom where you have to constantly fight for your position or promotion. You have nothing to prove to each other; a healthy relationship needs no competition just pure collaboration. According to a book entitled Men & Women: Enjoying the Difference by Dr Larry Crabb, “Little growth in marriages takes place until we realize that the disease of self-centredness is fatal to our souls and marriages. Nothing exposes our self-centredness more clearly than anger.” Men and women have an equally amazing ability to justify our own anger and bitterness towards our spouse, while excusing our own bad attitude. Being angry at our spouses can be very attractive because it makes us feel both powerful and self righteous. Many of us are easily convinced that the root of the problem lies only with our spouse and that our own personal faults are far more minor and are merely reactive. Self-centredness is a cancer that blinds us from seeing that the problem is not merely our spouse; the problem is ourselves.
3. Practice honest communication- Admit it – we’re easily irritated when our partner doesn’t get it. We assume that after being in the relationship for so long, our partner would just pick up on unspoken signs that we’re tired, irritated or hurt. For once, if your partner isn’t Professor X or Jean Gray from the X-Men, then we could not be further from the truth. Many couples expect their partner to read what’s on their minds or worse, they ignore talking about issues that make them feel uncomfortable or unhappy. But the cracks on the wall will not go away as easily as a fresh coat of paint. Left to fester, it threatens the very foundation of your relationship. Studies have shown that it’s a mistake to judge the quality of a relationship by how much or how little you argue with your partner. The key in any argument is not about being confrontational but being intentional about expressing how you really feel. Practising honest communication is hard but the price of keeping secrets could be even more damaging.
4. Show appreciation and give thanks- One of the basic human desires is to be appreciated. Many couples agree that they can always do with a little bit more affirmation from their partners and they also agree that they can afford to develop a habit of showing more appreciation too. No matter at what stage of the relationship you are in, it is important to let your partner know that “You’re the best and I love you.” In the early days of your relationship, there were probably many wonderful qualities you noticed about your partner and it takes very little now to reinforce that those qualities are still appreciated even after you’ve been together for a long time. One can never go wrong with constant affirmation, appreciation and acknowledgement for they are building blocks to a healthier, more enduring relationship.
5. Don’t just reminisce old memories, create new ones- Studies have shown that boredom can inflict harm on relationships. So be proactive about adding some colour to your love life! Instead of browsing wistfully through old photo albums taken when you started dating, wishing things were new and exciting like before, resolve to do something new and exciting together. Make plans sans children, to travel together. Being alone without the demands and distractions of the children could do wonders. Kill the routine and instead of going for typical steak dinner on your date nights, spice things up by taking the road less travelled. Be spontaneous. Take up dancing classes together; nothing like spinning and dipping to feel like bride and groom again.
6. Apologise and forgive- Forgiving is an act that liberates you from anger, so seeking forgiveness from your partner helps them to release that pent up negative energy. Forgiveness and apology work hand-in-hand. Without both, you risk the chance of harboring resentment. Resentment is a debilitating feeling that destroys everything in its wake. Your partner isn’t perfect. You aren’t either. Most marital or relationship spats represent an opportunity to resolve conflicts and make things better. We need to learn to tolerate conflict in our relationships and the best way to do it is to tame the ego and learn to say “sorry” first. And when your partner does apologise, forgive. It takes two people to couple up and have a relationship but only one to make a relationship better. Waiting for your spouse to change first is a recipe for unhappiness. Fortunately, you have the choice to also create your own happiness and the decision lies with you.