This weekend we ticked a major box on the bucket list – delivering a TEDx talk! Unusually (at least for TED talks!) we presented as a couple, living out our message that by proactively building great relationships we get to reap the benefits that come from improved productivity, wellbeing and work-life balance.
This was a message birthed through the pain and hard work of getting it wrong in our early years of marriage and then learning and developing habits that we have distilled and shared with countless couples over the last 20+ years.
Our “big idea” (using TED speak) is that ALL relationships face a similar set of hurdles, but by being equipped to get over the hurdles, not only do we significantly improve the chances of our relationships surviving, we begin to thrive.
For most of us, falling in love is the easy part – all we need is a pulse and some feelings! The “dating/ getting to know you phase” can have a few niggles, but for the most part is fun and pleasant with everyone on best behaviour to woo and charm each other. Inevitably though, challenges emerge with the reality of daily life together. We come face to face (literally!) with morning breath, no makeup, grumpiness through fatigue, annoying habits, mess and the whole range of behaviours that signal the end of the “honeymoon period”. This is where many couples lose it and things plateau or head downhill – tragic on many fronts.
This period of surprise, sensemaking, disappointment or even disillusionment is a natural part of the process of any team becoming strong and performing well together – whether a team of 2 or 22. Inevitable hurdles get triggered by life events like setting up house together, having your first child or being promoted to a position that demands more time away from home. During these seasons of life we need to lean more heavily on each other in different ways and we start bumping up against hurdles like unmet expectations, unhelpful approaches to working through conflict, trust and respect issues and / or poor communication skills. Being equipped to get through these periods is crucial – because, as surely as night follows day, they are coming! Handled well, these are the times through which great teams and great relationships lay the strong foundations of commitment, trust and respect.
But our lack of skills and the absence of any consistent approach to equip us to get over these hurdles are costing us big time – as individuals, as families, as companies and as nations. Divorce rates in much of the developed world are around 40% and cohabiting couples typically break up in the UK at higher rates – around 60-70%. This puts the breakup rate in the UK at around 50%, meaning that wherever you are reading this, chances are either you or the person next to you will have first-hand experience of the trauma of relationship breakdown in a long-term committed relationship.
Marriage and relationship issues are especially problematic in city jobs where high stress, long hours and lots of temptation around take their toll. We’re yet to come across a firm that is formallymeasuring the impact of relationship breakdown directly, but the undeniable effects are very present and very real – camouflaged in figures around attrition, absenteeism, presenteeism and poor mental health. In our experience, when relationship problems occur they are especially damaging in professional services firms where the nature of the work is particularly mentally demanding. This creates a double whammy – the pressure of the work makes unhappiness at home more likely, and unhappiness at home has a greater impact on performance and productivity in these firms than in other careers.
What if we could equip our people to be able to get over these hurdles proactively and as a natural part of personal and professional development? Waiting to offer counselling when things break down is often too little, too late – and the breakdown statistics confirm this strategy is not working.
Based on our work with couples over the last two decades, we have observed that ALL great relationships exhibit 4 simple, yet fundamental, habits. Further, every failing relationship we’ve every seen has lacked one or more of them. Our experience confirms that mastering these 4 habits, gets you over the inevitable hurdles so that you can thrive as a couple – and as individuals in all spheres of life.
These 4 habits for Great Relationships are:
- Be CURIOUS, not critical
- Be CAREFUL, not crushing
- ASK, don’t assume
- CONNECT before you correct
They are simple habits, but they’re not automatic… and for the most part are contrary to our natural instinct and responses. That’s why they have to be learned on purpose and practised until they become the new natural response. The great news is that we can all develop these habits, get over the inevitable frustrations of merging two lives into one and discover the joy of “honey after the honeymoon”. It’s not about being perfect – who is? But it is absolutely about being intentional in learning and living these habits. Otherwise we are signing up for a 50:50 chance of surviving let alone thriving. Those odds might be ok for flipping a coin to say who will pay for the next round of drinks, but way too costly as a life strategy.