I can just imagine us being sat comfortably in the sofa, each cradling our favourite cuppa and you telling me how happy you are and how lucky you’re feeling. Blessed even, to have the partner you now have and the relationship you enjoy together. All is well. You enjoy each other’s company, laugh easily and a lot, and can talk freely about anything. I listen with great delight, eager to hear the wonderful recounts of all the things you do together that fill your hearts… and I silently pray that this will continue for months and years to come.
And then in a moment of pause in the conversation, I face you intently and say “always remember, great relationships are not made but built, so build on purpose”.
You see, in the early days building happens automatically as we invest time and give attention to establish the relationship with long-term intent. We make time for each other, talk and listen eagerly with loving care, thoughtfully do things to delight and surprise each other to communicate the “I love you” message, arrange dates and outings and do all the little thoughtful things that make it clear we want more than just a casual friendship. Then, when the pursuit is successful and the relationship is established into a daily routine, things become familiar and comfortable and the magic starts to wane… unless of course we make a discipline of the great habits that got us to “relationship heaven” in the first place!
Of course, we can’t talk about great habits without referring to “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” identified by author Stephen Covey in his classic best seller. Not surprisingly, these essential habits are equally applicable to relationships and couples. Let me show you how.
Habit #1: Be Proactive
If you want a great relationship you have to decide to be intentional and on purpose about doing the things that keep love exciting and alive, taking ownership for the part you play and the things you can do to make the relationship the one you dream of. Learning how to show love to your partner in ways that are meaningful to them creates huge positive results for far less effort. Understanding your partner’s “Love Language(s)” and doing things that speak love in volumes for them is one of the key ways to be proactive, and a great habit to develop.
As Gary Chapman explains in his bestseller “The 5 Love Languages”, there are five key ways that we all feel loved, and we each feel most loved in one or two of the five – whether it’s spending quality time, hearing loving or affirming words, receiving thoughtful gifts, gentle loving touch or having things done for us. The challenge is that in a couple, often each partner “speaks” a different love language and the tendency is to show love the way you like love shown to you – but quite often it doesn’t have the same effect on your partner. So, learning their language and showing love in meaningful ways to them is the habit that creates amazing results.
Habit #2: Begin with the end in mind
As with everything in life, knowing where you are headed is halfway to getting there. Most of us dream of a great relationship of love and laughter which endures as we grow old together, ending up even more lovingly connected as we pull together through the storms of life. Yet sometimes our interactions on a daily basis contradict that goal, with egos and weak skills in resolving conflicts leaving us feeling battle-scarred and a little bit worse for wear each time. Beginning with the end in mind means we set our own ground rules around the things that would create more damage than necessary when things get tough.
So, for Jon and I, a couple of the ground rules we agreed on for our relationship from the start are that we would never threaten or use the “D” word – Divorce – no matter how angry we got with each other, and that we would not walk out of the house on each other in the middle of an argument. For us, those two things create more anxiety, lasting pain and potential for cracks in the relationship, so are too costly to indulge in – no matter how tempted we might feel in the heat of the moment. In addition, the age-old wisdom of never going to bed angry has also kept us healthy over the years – although it has led to some rather late nights when we couldn’t see eye-to-eye on an issue and either resolved it or got too tired to care. So, a great habit to develop is to write a mission statement together of the type of relationship you would like to create and sustain and agree the ground rules that will help keep you both pulling in the same direction rather than on opposite sides.
Habit #3 – Put First things first
Something I’ve learned more through the scars of getting things wrong than the wisdom of how to get them right is the importance of creating the habit to organise life around real priorities. So often we get distracted by the tyrannical rule of our to-do list – the millions of competing demands for our time and attention. The unending pings and alerts from our smartphones and laptops announcing emails, texts, imessages, WhatsApp along with Facebook posts, tweets, news feeds and all other social media interruptions mean we could spend our lives as slaves to the demands of OPA’s – other people’s agendas – whether it’s a crucial message or an announcement of a sale by a company you’ve never heard of about products you neither want nor need. While I understood Stephen Covey’s urgent and important quadrants intellectually and the story of big rocks in the jar first really resonated, I got stuck on how to implement it practically.
Then in a moment of inspiration, it clicked – create a template schedule of my ideal week and plan each week as close as possible to that.
The key is to schedule my values and priorities first and have the stuff of life fit in the nooks and crannies rather than the other way around.
It’s so easy to be caught up in the stuff of life and have our values – which for me include a strong Christian faith and character, an amazing marriage, great relationships with strong, confident sons, meaningful work that makes a difference, a strong, healthy body etc – relegated to silently waiting in the wings or getting shoved into nooks and crannies with the promise of “I’ll do better tomorrow” and a prayer that tomorrow won’t be too late. Find the rhythm and schedule that works for you but the key is to lead yourself first and make a priority of scheduling time to invest in the things that matter most, not just the screaming things that seem to matter now. If you want to use the simple system I coach on planning and scheduling based on values and developing habits that serve you, download the free pdf here. Either way commit to putting first things first by scheduling them into your diary so that in the inimitable words of Bob Marley, you can “love the life you live, and live the life you love”.
Habit #4: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
The most loving, caring act we can ever do for our partner is to listen with our whole heart and full attention, without judgment and ego; simply listen to understand their heart and the real point behind their words. This requires great skill and practice because there are fundamental differences between us as individuals – including personality differences, information processing tendencies, typical gender differences, cultural and family values etc. These all influence how things are heard and the response required – which sometimes might simply be a hug of reassurance, a bolstering of belief or confidence, and not always a practical solution. And when we get it wrong, there is nothing quite as healing as apologising – don’t let ego get in the way! Quite often we only listen for a pause in the flow of sound so that we can jump in with our point which frequently leads to a cascade of misunderstandings where a small issue can become an explosive argument. But if we make a habit of listening well, with the starting point being to give our best effort to simply understand what is being said, love will be spoken in volumes – whether the issue is positive or negative – and the relationship will remain a safe haven for both of you to enjoy. And when you do finally get the chance to seek to be understood, remember to speak respectfully rather than in a way that they might perceive as condescending. Mutual trust, honour and respect, the bedrock and foundation of any quality relationship, are built in those moments of seeking first to understand, before respectfully seeking to be understood.
Habit #5: Think Win-Win
Closely related to seeking first to understand is the habit of thinking Win-Win. Nowhere is this more important than in a marriage or relationship – who would ever make a long-term commitment to making someone they love constantly lose out… or lose out themselves? If this Win-Win mindset is uppermost with every decision and every agreement on roles and responsibilities, life would be far more straightforward. The common tension points around careers, division of household chores, finances and parenting are easier to navigate where there is open win-win communication. This means discussing and agreeing on the things you are trying to achieve together and who is the best person to lead in a particular area based on their strengths, experience or the demands of that season of life (e.g. pre-children, new parents, school-aged children, looking after elderly parents, empty nesters etc.).
Habit #6: Synergise
The saying is true that “none of us can achieve individually what we can achieve collectively” and when we get relationships right, the whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts. The best analogy for a marriage or relationship that is flowing in synergy, that I have come across, is that of a graceful waltz. Both partners are individually competent, yet both trust in the skills of the other. Not tripped up by ego or the need to outperform the other, each partner’s energy is fully focused on giving the other what they need to perform their best, simultaneously leading and being in a position to be led.
It’s been very interesting to observe how moods and expectations have changed over the 20+ years that we have been working with this material. One such shift is in the expectations around roles in relationships. Right up to the end of the second world war which led to the beginning of the baby boomer generation, a significant consideration in marriage was financial security, with a stereotypical model having the man as the main breadwinner and the woman being the main caregiver with a lower paying job or no job outside the house at all. Nowadays women have become their own economic power – quite often becoming the main breadwinner themselves. For many, this has shifted the perceived power balance and expectations from a relationship. As Anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher reported, in 129 out of 130 societies studied, women are moving back into the workforce and slowly closing the gap between men and women in terms of economic power, health and education.
Regardless of the roles you each fulfil, making a habit of showing mutual honour and respect is the key to achieving real synergy and moving as one in the relationship.
The story is told that when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited the halls of one of the RAF bases and saw her portrait on the wall noticeably bigger than that of her husband Prince Philip, she insisted it was redone to make them both of equal size, because Prince Philip is her equal. She has all the power and the right to pull rank, yet all the wisdom to give due respect to the man by her side. If one of the most powerful women in the world thinks this is important, we should pay it due attention too. I have yet to find a successful relationship where the love, honour and respect between the two partners are not palpably present. The rewards are absolutely worth it because by default we create an environment of trust and commitment that frees us to each turn up in the relationship as our authentic selves, open and vulnerable with each other. This in turn creates the breeding ground for us to develop into the best of who we are individually and as a couple and with synergy, waltz our way through every storm, challenge and season of life. A joy to experience, an inspiration to observe.
Habit #7: Sharpen the Saw
Underlying all the other six habits is the expectation that we will give ourselves the best chance of developing these habits by investing in learning and developing our skills. None of us come pre-packed with all the wisdom, relational skills and emotional intelligence to build great relationships and many stay stuck learning on the job. This means in many marriages and partnerships, instead of growing and experiencing new levels of understanding and intimacy each year, they keep repeating the same year and the same issues over and over again. Sharpening the RELATIONSHIP Saw means investing the time in talking with role models, reading books, attending seminars, doing courses and taking time out on couple’s retreats to give yourself “couple space” to think, reflect, discuss, learn, grow and develop skills that help build and sustain a truly connected and intimate relationship.