Today I continue the Valentine’s Day series. Here I share strategies that can lead to a stronger and happier relationship with your romantic partner. I call these strategies simple, but are they? They are, I think, but simple is not the same as easy, that is, the strategies are straight-forward, but can be emotionally difficult to carry out and, thus, end up never acted upon. To counteract this (quite understandable) hesitation, I’ll also present tips on how to take action.
Thousands of Differences, Thousands of Opportunities for Disagreement
My approach starts with the (very obvious) realization that we humans differ on thousands of variables related to how we perceive, think, value, respond emotionally to, and act in the situations we encounter throughout each day, every day.
This obvious fact struck me with particular force early in my relationship with my wife when she and I were discussing (probably arguing about) our bedroom door and windows. Yes, indeed! It turns out that I like the bedroom door closed and the windows open, especially when the weather is nice, but even a tiny bit in the winter to let in some fresh air. My wife, on the other hand, likes the door open and the windows closed.
And it hit me: she and I differ in so many, many ways. We loved each other then and love each other now – we recently celebrated 30 years of marriage – and yet here we were arguing about the open-closed status of doors and windows! If even in the most basic ways we differ, what hope is there that we can ever agree upon much more complex and consequential things, like how to manage money and raise kids? And yet we did (or we did enough to) make it work.
The closer, more meaningful, and more committed the relationship, the more consequential even small differences can become. Now, some differences can be annoying to one or the other partner even without further interpretation. For example, let’s say that when I wake up and go the bathroom to brush my teeth and shower, I like it quiet. I want to ease into the day. Sometimes – unless it’s totally dark – I like to keep the lights off and enjoy the soft glow of dawn. Now, let’s say my partner comes in, turns on the lights, and turns on some loud podcast. I will feel annoyed.
But often such situations don’t stop at one person solely experiencing annoyance. They often proceed to the making of attributions and misattributions. For example, in my annoyance, I may think, “She doesn’t care about me. She knows I like it quiet. She’s uncaring and selfish.” And on and on it goes. A small difference in how one navigates one’s world becomes a drama laden with attributions of moral failings and bad intentions.
So, what to do on our way to a happy, fulfilling, lasting relationship? Here are my thoughts. (I welcome your additions or pushbacks.)
The ‘Zipper’ Mindset
For me, the solution starts with a certain mindset. I remind myself that when two people enter a relationship, they each arrive with a rich endowment, one encompassing their heredity, childhood experiences, adult experiences, personality, knowledge, skill, wisdom, and much more. Each person presents with so much richness in every aspect of their being.
But we’re not yet at the point of living happily ever after! As they have come together, the couple clashes. All of who they are, what they have experienced and learned, the lessons they arrived at, the way they navigate their world, now come into close contact with this other person, one who invariably differs in many ways, many of which seem strange, inexplicable, and wrong.
Now what? Now to the ‘zipper’ mindset. The zipper mindset requires that both partners remain mindful that both they and their partner have arrived at their togetherness with a unique endowment, one differing from their own and one that, invariably, will be at odds with their own, but one of untold value. The zipper is the need to arrive at a relatively smooth conjoining of these two endowments.
It is to realize that one need not bury or disavow one’s history and way of being, but that, for the zipper to work, a new way of mutual navigation needs to occur. Sometimes, this happens on its own with the passage of time and wordlessly. This was (arguably) more often true in the past when substantial percentages of couples would marry in their late teens and early twenties. Each partner was then largely still unformed and proceeded to form together with their spouse. Now marriages and non-marital close relationships often initiate at older ages, ages at which each partner has already largely formed their habits and worldviews, which now must be meshed.
This means that often meshing each partner’s way of being requires talking things through. But this ‘negotiation’ between partners should occur from the mindset of the realization, acceptance, and even celebration of each partner’s rich endowment, even the parts that differ from one’s own.
BTW, I like using words such as ‘endowment’ and ‘richness’ because they remind me of the inherent goodness of each person and of their coming together. Both people in a relationship have arrived to be together, quite improbably given the vastness of the world, each having ‘traveled’ on a path from the beginnings of time, to meet here now and resolve to be together.
The goals of negotiation are to let each partner maintain their endowment, to feel appreciated and celebrated in their uniqueness, and to arrive at practical approaches to meshing their endowments without causing ‘damage’ to them.
It starts with the need to talk; however distasteful this might seem to some. There are just too many landmines to not discussing that which calls to be discussed. The danger of misinterpreting, misattributing, misappraising one’s partner’s behaviors is too great. There is a real and present danger of the settling in of resentment and, especially painfully, contempt. Resentment can often be walked back and resolved, but contempt for one’s partner is often the kiss of death to the relationship. Preventive action needs be taken.
To negotiate is to let each partner win while allowing mutual action to take place. To work together as one is a powerful intoxicant but requires coordination and coordination requires speech. It is true that many coordinated activities become habitual and do not require ongoing discussion and negotiation. But, over time, a couple always encounters new challenges that require new ways of coordinating. This process is ongoing and is part of the challenge and fun.
To negotiate is not the same as to compromise. When I’ve worked with couples counseling them, I often joked that if one partner wants to spend their holiday in London and the other in Puerto Rico, a compromise may land them on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic. So, to negotiate is to find ways for each partner to clock a full win – just not every time. It’s not uncommon that couples will alternate in who gets to choose a vacation trip or a restaurant on their weekly dinner date.
Disagree and Commit
Disagree and commit. This phrase is attributed to Jeff Bezos. It means that within a business team, the team can brainstorm, argue, and disagree, but when a final decision is made, everyone on the team does their utmost to make their project succeed.
This approach works equally well in personal relationships. For example, if I dislike going to restaurants that mainly serve pasta, but my wife chooses a pasta restaurant, I will go and find ways of enjoying it and of trying and learning something new, while refraining from ruining our outing by making long faces, snide comments, or otherwise showing annoyance or disappointment. And when I choose the restaurant the next time, I expect the same from my partner. As a side benefit, I have found that many times I was wrong in my initial assessment and enjoyed that which I tried so hard to avoid.
But it must be said again: often these solutions cannot be arrived at without explicitly raising and discussing the issues at hand.
On a practical level, many couples find that having a weekly scheduled ‘open discussion’ hour is useful to them. Some combine this discussion time with a restaurant date. The public location always encourages civil discussion. Haha.
I’ll end here. Thanks, and let me know what you think and which topic you want me to cover next.
“For the two of us, home isn’t a place. It is a person. And we are finally home.” ― Stephanie Perkins
“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” ― Carl Gustav Jung
“There is greatness in doing something you hate for the sake of someone you love.” ― Shmuley Boteach
“To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow – this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert
“I wish that life should not be cheap, but sacred. I wish the days to be as centuries, loaded, fragrant.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
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