My husband and I were blessed to be present as our stepson married his lovely bride in June, and we’re now traveling in Thailand to visit her family. Mitch and Jackie didn’t rush into this relationship, and from the perspective of our twenty-four years of married bliss, Richard and I think they are doing all the right things, and have a great chance to create a lasting, loving relationship. Congratulations, Mitch and Jackie!
In my counseling practice, however, I see lots of couples who don’t make it, for various reasons.
Cupid, the god who represented love to the ancient Romans, was blind. In mythology, he’s been represented as a cherub, a perpetual baby, (which means someone without wisdom or judgement) who flies around zapping people with his arrows, throwing them helplessly into infatuation with whomever they happen to be with when the arrow strikes. This is a great metaphor for the sensation of “falling in love” instantly, otherwise known as limerance, lust, or “blind love.” Unfortunately, lust doesn’t last, and love isn’t blind forever. I thought, in honor of Mitch and Jackie’s solid beginning, I’d outline some basic ideas to help others begin their relationships on the right foot.
Because I see so much of the damage caused by people blindly connecting, rushing through the stages of commitment, and not creating the solid basis a true relationship needs, I always welcome the chance to do pre-commitment counseling. My job is to ask the tough questions that, in the excitement of a new romance, the couple may not have considered. Here are several questions every couple should consider before moving in together or making joint financial commitments:
1. What is your definition of commitment?
Whether you know it or not, you and your partner will define your relationship. If you don't know what your relationship means to both the of you, you risk repeating past mistakes, getting stuck in uncomfortable roles, or fighting about what a healthy relationship is. Talk about what you mean by words such as relationship, commitment, love, and faithfulness. You'll be amazed by what you learn.
2. Have you discussed finances?
Next to sex, money is the biggest generator of problems, arguments, and resentment in long-term relationships. Couples tend to assume that money should be pooled, but it usually isn't that easy. A disparity in income can mean struggling about who pays for what, or whose income determines your lifestyle. Different financial habits (one likes to save, the other spends more, or doesn't keep track) can become a source of argument. For many couples, separating your money makes things run smoother; you don't wind up struggling for control. You can split expenses evenly, or work out a percentage share if your incomes are different.
3. What about household responsibilities?
If you're not yet living together, take a tour of each other's homes. Drastically different decorating styles, neatness, and organization levels can become sources of argument, and so can housekeeping and chores. If you have different tastes, it may require a lot of creativity and negotiation to decorate a joint home in a way that makes both of you comfortable.
Additionally, think hard before moving into your partner's established home. You may have trouble feeling as if you “belong” in a home that was previously established by your partner, unless you participate together in reorganizing and redecorating it.
4. How close are you to family or friends?
If one of you has a lot of family or friends, and the other does not, find out what those relationships mean. Where will you spend holidays? If there are family members who have problems, such as addiction or mental illness, how much will that impact your relationship?
5. How do you handle anger and other emotions?
We all get upset from time to time. If you are usually good at diffusing each other's anger, and being supportive through times of grief or pain, your emotional bond will deepen as time goes on. If your tendency is to react to each other and make the situation more volatile and destructive, you need to correct that problem before you live together.
6. How do you show love to each other?
Sharing what actions and words mean love to you may be surprising. Even if it's a struggle, discussing how you give and receive love will improve your relationship. You will understand what makes each of you feel loved, and how to express your love effectively.
7. How well did you discuss these very questions?
Asking yourselves these questions are excellent tests of your ability to define and work out problems. Constructive discussion that leads to a mutually satisfactory solution means you know how to solve problems in your relationship. If not, get counseling before going further.
The skills couples need to keep intimacy alive in a long-term relationship differ from new relationship intimacy skills, and they’re not easy to learn, because people don’t talk about them. Basically, couples need to lower their expectations of romance and glamour and raise the level of fun they have together. Regular weekly talks (I call them State of the Union discussions) keep the problems minor, the resentment level down,and the communication open, so that there is time and space for intimacy. In a successful, long term relationship, passion becomes a shared sense of humor and goodwill toward each other. I spend every day teaching couples how to do these things.
Generally speaking, men value competency and problem solving. Women value intimacy and emotional connection. The truth is that learning successful problem solving ends fighting and power struggles, and therefore leads to more intimacy. You may think he's focused entirely on time, power or money, but what he's really trying to do is create enough security that he can feel safe to let his guard down.
Intimacy is the art of making your partner feel understood and accepted. When this feeling is created, barriers fall. Gentle touch, eye contact a gentle sense of humor and the right words all create the atmosphere. Positive comments on your partner's looks or the day's activities positively will also help. Couples disconnect when they don't feel interested in each other any more. To reconnect, make an effort to listen and understand each others’ needs and wants. The most powerful thing you can do to keep a marriage strong is form a partnership, a team, where both parties feel respected, cared about and needed. If you really want to restore the marriage, begin not by complaining, but by seeking to understand your partner. Once the connection is there, you can begin to work out the issues.
One simple way to enhance your relationship is to create a relationship journal. The time investment is small, and the return is huge.
Every couple can benefit from creating a “Relationship Journal” It will become a positive reinforcement for your entire partnership. If you know what a “baby book” is like, this is a similar keepsake. Get a large, expandable scrapbook, carefully choosing the cover to reflect your mutual dreams. Begin the scrapbook with a few (no more than 4 or 5) highlights from your wedding. Choose only the most memorable moments. You already have your wedding album and video, plus honeymoon pictures to remember the details. Your Journal is for the most significant moments of your life together. Collect a few pictures (the bed in your hotel room?) and mementos of your wedding and honeymoon. Add a few notes about the most romantic moments. Throughout your life together, you can continue to add significant moments to your Journal. Paste in an anniversary card, two or three pictures of each vacation, a picture of your new home, each baby or new pet when it arrives, mementos of career achievements, children's artwork, and love notes to each other. Whenever you need encouragement, you can pull this book out and look at it together. Not only will it make each occasion memorable, but each new page will remind you of all the important milestones you have shared together. As this book grows, it will become one of your most precious possessions, a tangible expression of the power and joy in your marriage. (© 2006 Tina B. Tessina Adapted from the Unofficial Guide to Dating Again)
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California, with over 25 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 11 books, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page); How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free (New Page); The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again (Wiley) and The Real 13th Step: Discovering Self-Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the Twelve Step Programs (New Page.) She publishes the “Happiness Tips from Tina” e-mail newsletter and has hosted "The Psyche Deli: delectable tidbits for the subconscious" a weekly hour long radio show. She is an online expert, answering relationship questions at www.CouplesCompany.com and Yahoo!Personals, as well as a Redbook Love Network expert and “Psychology Smarts” columnist for First for Women. Dr. Tessina guests frequently on radio, and on such TV shows as “Oprah”, “Larry King Live” and ABC news.
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