One of the trickiest parts of having a happy, successful relationship is, frankly, the relationship itself. Much like most of dating1, we are given next to no instruction on how to make a relationship work. If we’re lucky, we have our parents as role-models to pattern ourselves after. All too often, however, we’re left to our own devices with only the vaguest notions of what a relationship is supposed to be like based from ideas we’ve absorbed from pop-culture and the vague idea that if we love each other enough, everything will work out in the end.
Of course, this doesn’t work well; in fact, many people get trapped in abusive or exploitive relationships simply because they think “that’s just how relationships are.” But even under the best of circumstances, we only learn these lessons through fucking up over and repeatedly. And while some people do need to touch the stove before realizing that it’s going to burn you, most of us would probably appreciate a warning or two before we end up making an unscheduled trip to the burn-ward.
It’s worth keeping a few things in mind that help make relationships work.
Fight The Right Way
One of the things I hate hearing more than anything else from couples is “and we never fight”, as though this were something to be applauded. One of the early mistakes people make is assuming that any sort of argument is inherently a bad thing in relationships; if people fight then it’s a sign that their very foundation is flawed and love is a lie, right?
Yeah, not so much.
Whenever I hear a couple pull out this hoary old chestnut, I immediately know one of two things: either they’ve been together for less than 6 months, or that their first disagreement over what to watch on Netflix is going to be like watching Krakatoa blow it’s top.
When couples get into fights, all too often they fight wrong… especially if they’ve bought into the idea that fighting is inherently bad. These blow-ups tend to end up being a referendum on everything that they’ve been putting up with for the duration of their relationship; every single slight, annoyance, grievance and just plain irritant comes bubbling up to the surface, hurled at one another like nuclear missiles. It’s a great recipe for causing hard feelings and resentment, which will, in turn, be used as ammunition in the next fight and ups the potential of every moment of conflict from a discussion to a Relationship Ending Event.
Which is why the first rule of relationships is this: only fight about one subject at a time. When you’re arguing over whether it’s your turn to watch Vampire Diaries rather than Sons of Anarchy, you don’t bring up every other incident where your partner got his or her way. You want to solve the issue at hand, not using it as an opportunity to chew over old affronts. Bringing up other issues in the middle of a fight – no matter how legitimate your anger over it may be – only complicates matters further and turns it from an opportunity to fix things into a “Who’s more right” contest, which will only end in tears and anger. It becomes all to easy to go from “I wish you’d help out around the house more” to “You’re a lazy shit-head who spends all of his time farting about online while I’m doing all the work around here.” By getting personal, it goes from being about solving the conflict and becomes an attack on the other person – guaranteed to turn a quick discussion into a knock-down, drag out fight. Leave the personal attacks out of it, no matter how tempted you are to lash out.
There is a corollary to this rule: make sure that what you’re fighting about is what you’re actually fighting about. The UR-example of this is the ever classic “I want you to want to do the dishes” argument; on the surface, the problem is simply that somebody isn’t doing the dishes. The underlying issue, however, is that the person is feeling taken for granted and that they wish their boyfriend or girlfriend would pitch in and help without having to be asked. The dishes are just a symptom of an underlying condition – cleaning the dishes this one time doesn’t ultimately affect the real issue, which is how the person feels they are being treated. It becomes the emotional case of treating the nosebleed while ignoring the festering tumor that’s causing it.
Take Risks… Together
One of the common issues in long-term relationships is the way things can start to feel… well, same-y. Now, to be fair, this is part of how relationships are able to last. As I’ve said before: the half-life of romantic love is about 6 months to a year – following that, passion naturally starts to ebb while emotional intimacy tends to grow in it’s place. The problem however, is that as the passion fades, it’s easy to get, well, kinda bored. In fact, no matter how amazing the sex is or how hot your partner is, eventually it’s – in the words of Billy Bob Thornton – “kind of like fucking the couch.”
This is known as the Coolidge Effect: basically, a flagging of sexual interest that’s renewed when a new, receptive sex partner is introduced. Which is to say: we crave novelty, especially when it comes to sex. This makes monogamous relationships exceptionally difficult; we are literally not built for monogamy, and often we find ourselves in conflict with what our junk wants and our relationships.
The problem is that novelty is very hard to come by in long-term relationships; when you’ve been with someone for any length of time, you tend to know them very well. Even when you’re trying to shake things up a little – new positions, role-playing, what-have-you – you’re still dealing with the person you know inside and out2.
One way of reintroducing novelty into your relationship is to get out of your comfort zone. Not just sexually, mind you, but in your day to day life. Part of what makes relationships feel stale is that we fall into ruts; comfortable ruts, but ruts none the less. When every day is fundamentally the same, it all starts to blend together. Forcing yourselves out of the rut by trying things you might otherwise never attempt forces you to adapt to new and unknown situations. You want to do things together that neither of you have ever tried before – and might even be something you’ve wanted to try but have been hesitant to. It might be something as simple as a road trip to going camping out in the middle of nowhere to scuba-diving to going on a photo-safari across Africa.
The point is to do things that are out of the ordinary for you and as outside of your every day lives as you can make it. You’ll often be surprised by how the two of you rise to meet these new challenges. By taking these risks together, you’ll find that you’re seeing new sides to your partner. And when you’re seeing them in a whole new light, it will feel a lot like you’re seeing them for the first time… with all the excitement that implies.
Take Personal Time Too
Don’t forget that just because you’re a couple doesn’t mean you don’t have need for a little alone time as well. Even the most devoted couples have times when they need a break from all of the togetherness, and you’re both going to have interests that the other doesn’t share. Being part of a couple doesn’t mean you’ve sacrificed your individuality. One person can’t be all things to all people, and it’s a mistake to try; all too often couples – especially young ones – assume that they should do everything together and needing time apart is a sign that things are wrong.
Of course, the net result is that one or both halves of the couple start to feel stifled by all that togetherness, even growing a little bitter and resentful.
Having time apart is a key component to a happy, satisfied relationship. Taking some time to yourself allows you to recharge your emotional batteries, connect with friends on your own and keep feeling like you have your own life… even though you now share it with someone else. It also allows you to pursue your interests and hobbies without having to drag your partner along for the ride; there’s nothing that kills the joy of doing something you love like forcing somebody who only barely tolerates it to take part. In fact, there are relationship experts who go so far as to advocate taking separate vacations; after all, one person’s relaxing disconnect from all modern media in the middle of nowhere is another person’s vision of Hell.
Just remember: not everybody has the same needs for personal time; don’t assume that just because you’re happy being joined at the hip 80% of the time doesn’t mean your partner is going to be equally as cool with it.
But speaking of…
One of the hardest parts of making the transition from “single” to “part of a couple” is making your lives mesh neatly. We all have our own set routines and ways of doing things and trying to adapt to others’ methods often confuses and frustrates us. More often than not, what we end up with is a mishmash unspoken responsibilities and duties that are somehow as binding as a signed contract. Instead of trying to sort out who does what, we often just fall into our roles without comment, assuming that the other person has no problem taking the position we’ve functionally dumped on them. Sometimes it works… sometimes it doesn’t.
It’s more than just who’s supposed to do which household chores, however. This tendency to just assume that our partner is cool – or not cool, for that matter – with the way things are has caused more fights and break-ups than I can count. This is why you want to have a detailed negotiation about every aspect of your relationship: what do you expect, what can you simply not stand and what are you willing to be flexible about? You want to have this conversation soon, especially if you’re at all serious. You want to make sure you’re both on the same page instead of just taking it for granted you are. And when I say everything I do mean everything – it’s especially important to communicate your expectations about sex. If you have mismatched libidos or incompatible ideas of what does and doesn’t count as cheating, you want to find out early on; the sooner you bring these issues to light, the easier it is to work out a compromise, if there’s one to be found.
Will it be awkward? Yeah, probably. We’re not used to having trying to communicate our specific emotional or physical needs so bluntly – you prefer cuddling on the couch to making out, she views talking over cutscenes in video games as an death-penalty event, he wants more together time – and it can feel odd or uncomfortable actually trying to give a voice to something we usually only feel. But that lack of communication is going to cause more problems than just feeling a little awkward, so the sooner you can work things through, the better it will be for you.
Also: don’t assume that everything has to be exactly equal; sometimes one partner or the other has no problem, say, doing all the housework as long as the other does the lion’s share of some other household task.
And don’t forget: you can and should renegotiate frequently. Circumstances change, lifestyles adjust; a relationship is an ongoing conversation and should be treated like one.
Don’t Forget That You’re In This Together
This is something I see fairly often in nerd couples: the tendency to compartmentalize their individual lives from their life together. In some ways it can seem perfectly logical: this event/series of circumstances/disaster happened to me specifically, therefore it shouldn’t affect/upset you. Except… it totally does. Even if you’re not living together, you’re still part of “Team Us”; what affects one of you is going to materially affect both of you, even if it’s not immediately obvious. Sometimes it’s a minor thing – bad shit is happening which means you’re not going to be able to hang out with your sweetie as often. Sometimes it’s major – you’ve just discovered you’ve got some horrible disease. Either way, these are going to affect your partner as well as you because you’re partners. It’s right there in the name. Part of the whole point of relationships is that you’re sharing your lives together; what affects one of you is going to materially affect the both of you, even if it just means that your snugglebunny is having to double up on being your cheerleader and a source of strength.
That’s the thing about relationships. If you’re at all serious, then it means that the two of you are going to have to face the good times and the bad times together. You can’t segregate some aspect off and pretend that it doesn’t affect your partner too.
You don’t just want someone who’s there with you for some of the good times… you want someone who’s there for all of them and who’s got your back when things go bad.
Because in the end, it always comes down to the two of you, and if you want a partner in crime, you want someone who’s going to be there with you to back you up when it’s time to tell the Universe that you’re going to throw down.