What’s Buggin’ Ya:
Advice on Life and Love at Stanford
What’s a healthy relationship?
Since coming to college, we have gotten inundated with information and education about Title IX, sexual assault and dating violence. This barrage of info is good because this violence has been happening forever, on campus and off, and it needs to be stopped. However, it occurs to me that I’m not even sure I could define a healthy romantic relationship if asked. Can you help?
Hunting for Healthy
You, my healthy hornet, have your relationship-seeking stinger pointed in the right direction. Unfortunately, our culture is going to manifest the same tendencies as we humans: being more reactive (to the negative) than we are proactive (in reinforcing the positive), and trying to fix it after it’s broken versus preventing the damage in the first place.
One could get a PhD responding to your astute inquiry (as many have), but I will do my best to provide you with some important puzzle pieces from which we can begin to assemble a vision of healthy romantic relationships:
Imperfectly Perfect – Relationships are never perfect. If you build a new home (or bee hive), it might be “perfect” right before you move in, but relationships are always a work in process. Even when we make great progress in one area, life will change and so the relationship will have to adapt. Think of it more like having a healthy body. You can’t say, “I worked out a lot in 2015 and so I don’t have to work out of rest of my life.” Come to think of it, the house metaphor was actually a good one: a relationship needs constant maintenance. (Note: no one said this maintenance could not be interesting and even fun.)
Learn to Repair – Because perfection is not possible and relationships are like a challenging problem set (just more enjoyable), mistakes will happen. Thus, one skill that is indispensable is the ability to initiate repair. That is, practice apologizing. The Japanese art of Kintsukuroi (to repair with gold) even celebrates the repair of broken pottery, viewing it as stronger and more beautiful than it was beforehand.
Convenience is not the goal – In the words of Dr. Kelly Flanagan, a relationship (e.g., marriage) is “not a convenience store.” We should not have one just so we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. But where the convenience store metaphor/analogy could apply is that in relationships we must pay the price and do the work in order to reap the benefits. That is, there are rights and responsibilities in relationships. Many college students come see me because their partner wants all the good stuff, but then wants to be left alone the rest of the time so he/she can get coding done. Relationships are not a convenience store — but they might just be a bank. This comes from the work of relationship guru John Gottman, who teaches us that we must constantly make deposits into the piggybank/ATM of our relationships so that when it is time to make a withdrawal (e.g. have a difficult conversation, request something of our partner(s)) … well, you get it.
“You are (not) my everything!” – The other person cannot be everything to/for us. Alongside what I call the “Soul Mate Myth” (umm… there are over 7 billion people on the planet), there is the misperception that our partner should be and do everything for us. Well, that is silly, right? They can’t be the dog, the children or replace your best friend. And they should not necessarily be fixing your car (especially if it is a Tesla) or computer or putting in a new sewer main — unless that is their actual job.
Living with differences – Times when we “click” with another person, and think — “We have so much in common” — are fun and convenient, but they are not the point of relationships. Daniel J. Siegel teaches us that what characterizes all well-functioning complex systems is that they are integrated. That is, that these systems are made up of parts that do very different things which are linked together, or synchronized, in harmony. The best analogy is an orchestra. So enjoy your commonalities, but also celebrate your differences. Approach them with patience, curiosity and as an opportunity to grow and learn.
Valuing our partner’s growth as we do our own– This one may be the most important of all. Each partner should care deeply about the growth (personal, professional, etc.) of the other. Attachment theory teaches us that a healthy relationship serves the same function that a base camp does for climbers. It is a safe, warm, rejuvenating place where people can return from a day out in the world to recharge before heading back out the next day. This is why abusive relationships are anything but healthy. The abuser has no intention of honoring the growth or even needs of his/her partner.
Many researchers in psychology vouch for a positivity ratio in our day-to-day behaviors, emotions and even relationships. Because of our innate “negativity bias,” we have to invest and create more positive experiences to balance out and outweigh the negative interactions. The famed relationships researcher, John Gottman (University of Washington), encourages a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions in our relationships. I also love his piggybank metaphor for “investing” in relationships. Put those two together and what you have is a very intuitive financial metaphor applied to relationships that creates an “aha!” moment. We must spend most of our days asking, “How can I invest resources and ‘deposit’ positive interactions and emotions into my relationship” — because that is fun and really what the relationship is all about. When there is time for a difficult conversation, confrontation or even just a garden-variety blow-up (read: respectful, heated discussion), the people in the relationship can feel full enough, solid enough, strong enough to face the conflict and get through it.
So how do we fill our relationship piggybank?
Appreciate the Everyday – Simple comments such as, “Honey, dinner was great, I really appreciate it”; or, “Thanks for doing the laundry, it was so helpful!” can go a LONG way, especially when they are heartfelt.
“Gratitext” – Texting gets a lot of flack for being fluffy, a waste of time and something just done by teenagers. Well, not if you use texting to express your deep gratitude to someone with whom you are in a relationship. Whenever you are waiting in line, nurture the habit of discovering and then expressing the gratitude that is already in your heart.
Know Their Love Language – Giving your partner chocolate is a good idea … unless they don’t like chocolate. Take a look at Gary Chapman’s book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. Chapman discusses how to figure out your love language and that of your partner. In what manner do you like to “hear” your partner’s love and appreciation? In the book, the choices are: words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service (devotion), physical touch (intimacy) and quality time. Enjoy figuring out which “language” each of you prefer and then make it a habit of asking how you can provide a bit of that for your partner in this moment. For example, my partner loves neck and shoulder massages; so, whether we are finishing a meal or in the car, I reach over and give that gift. And sure enough, my partner breathes deeply, sighs and becomes more calm.
What Does My Partner Value? – Along with learning your partner’s love language and valuing their personal growth (the topic of last month’s Part One), find out about your partner’s core values. What gives them meaning? How do they serve/wish to serve? Whom do they serve/wish to serve? When do they feel most connected to themselves and others. Make some time for this conversation after massages and a nice meal. Your connection will strengthen as each of you makes known who you are at a deeper level.
Affection – Did you know that our ancient mammalian caregiving system is triggered by simple things like warmth and touch? Remember the psychology study where the primates much preferred the fuzzy surrogate mommy to the wire mommy with milk? Even if your partner’s love language preference is not physical touch, all mammals need touch just to survive. Babies in an orphanage who do not receive adequate touch and attention suffer from a condition labelled “failure to thrive,” which can even lead to death for some. So snuggle up under a warm blanket and get cozy. Kissing, touching and sex are ways that people build connection to each other.
Seen, Secure, Safe and Soothed: This list of alliterated ‘S’ words, my silly snuggle bug, is from Daniel J. Siegel, to give us our “rights and responsibilities” for building healthy attachment in relationships. What researchers discovered many decades ago about the truth of mommy-baby relationships is, as it turns out, also true for romantic relationships and even master-puppy relationships. Early on, mammals were built to attach for survival. Like farm work, we must cultivate secure attachment. To the extent that we do so, we are set-up for healthy relationships. Furthermore, “Seen, Secure, Safe and Soothing” relationships warm our heart, bring tears to our eyes and may be the most important variable in a life well lived.
Sincerely Seeing You,