When kids have their say, they want their parents to be happy—together. The sweetest gift two parents can give their children is to have a meaningful, passionate relationship with one another. Easier said than done, for sure. Kids’ needs can’t always wait and parenting demands seem endless. So it’s easy, maybe even normal, to put mom and dad duties up front and stash our couple needs in the trunk and forget about them. Of course, putting love, romance and sexual desires away doesn’t make them go away—it only makes them get weird and cranky.
When you have kids, keeping your relationship healthy requires a pro-active shift in mental thinking. Parenting is a side-by-side venture, the two of you rubbing shoulders together to focus on your children. Coupling is face-to-face, sitting across from one another, looking one another in the eyes to appreciate and adore each other all over again. This doesn’t happen by accident. You have to make it a routine to think about yourself, your partner and your relationship. When or where you do this reflection doesn’t matter—car, beach, pillow at night—but how often you reflect does. An occasional reflection won’t get you far; it works best when it becomes a habit. So whether you’re trying to stay on course or get things back on course, here are three questions worth thinking about on a routine basis.
“What is it like to be in a relationship with me?”
Are you acting like the kind of person that you would want to love? Are you bossy, arrogant or lazy? Judgmental? Do you take more than you give? You don’t need to lay a guilt trip on yourself or over-focus on your faults, but it is surprising how much energy we spend thinking about how our partner treats us compared with how we treat him or her. A large part of being happy in a relationship is understanding how our partner sees us and being honest with yourself. It’s not an option, it’s essential to look at yourself through the eyes of your partner and make adjustments when possible. You may worry that this kind of self-reflection would make you codependent or weak, but the opposite is true: Self-awareness is a strength. Being honest with ourselves makes us confident and independent. It puts the power back in our own hands. Thinking about how you can make things better is never a mistake and often helps.
“Am I seeing my partner in the best light possible?”
Are you over-focusing on your partner’s flaws and overlooking his or her strengths? Do you see only shady intentions when your partner is trying to do the right thing? Nothing he does is right; everything she says is suspect? Psychologists call casting dark shadows “negative attributions,” and these attributions say more about us than they do our partner. We see what we want to see and sometimes hurt and anger lock us into negative views of our partner that are not only unfair, but aren’t even true. You can’t look on the bright side all the time—conflict, frustration and criticism may be legitimate and shouldn’t be ignored–but the ratio of positive to negative attributions has to lean heavily in the direction of positive. It’s the ratio that matters and being aware that we see what we want to see will help get the ratios right.
When couples come to me for a first session of counseling, I don’t go straight to their problems. I ask them to focus exclusively on what is going right in their relationship, what each is doing well. I ask each to say something positive about the other: This is difficult for some couples—especially when it flies in the face of their raw emotions. If you find yourself constantly projecting the dark side on your partner, take responsibility for figuring out your own feelings before you unleash on them. Acknowledge what they are doing well—there must be something. Appreciate it. And thank them before you start to dwell on their flaws and mistakes. Seeing the best in your partner will not only improve your relationship, but it will bring out the best in you, too.
“Do I care for my partner in ways that matter to him or her?”
The Golden Rule says we should love others as we love ourselves. That’s fine, but wouldn’t it be better to love your partner in ways that matter to him or her? Flowers and candy? Ugh, not if she’s allergic or doesn’t eat sugar. This is one of the most common problems couples run into: Assuming they know what their partner likes\wants\needs based solely on what they feel comfortable giving. It’s lazy love—the kind of love that meets your needs but frustrates and disappoints your partner. It can happen in any area of coupledom—parenting, finances, sexuality, handling the in-laws—and it only has to happen in one area to bring the whole relationship down a notch.
The list of assumptions we make about our partners goes on and on—often unchecked or never discussed. And why do we do it? Because it’s easy to love the way you want to love; it takes effort to love someone the way they want to be loved. Giving our partners what they need and desire is never easy. It means we have to grow. Change. Think twice. Reconsider. Do something we wouldn’t normally do. You can’t be everything to your partner; you can’t meet their every whim or desire. You can’t even be everything they need; none of us is that perfect. But you can always try. It’s making the effort that makes the difference. There is a view of love out there that says love is easy. Sorry; I don’t see it that way. We never know what love is until loving gets tough. If it’s really that easy, is it really even love?