By Suzanne E. Harrill
Are you in a long-term relationship or wish you were? What makes a couple stay together a lifetime? Are there secrets that others can learn about making a long-term commitment? There are some things I’ve learned over time through my own experience of living with my husband for 47 years. For one, it is possible to begin a traditional, unaware relationship and go through a process of transformation to change it into an aware, fulfilling relationship. I will share a few concepts that changed my life that may help you lay the groundwork for a successful relationship. My journey has been a combination of both inner and outer work.
As a teenager I thought my goal in life was to find my partner. This was to make me feel happy, complete, and secure, which were the wrong reasons to go into a relationship. I found my partner and married young, however, I did not find the continual happiness and feelings of completeness that I thought would come from the union. There was much emotional pain stemming from unawareness of such things as emotional baggage from childhood showing up in my adult relationship. The pain began easing when I began the journey of self-discovery, inner healing, and doing deep inner work. At the same time I gathered information to enhance the relationship, such as fair fighting skills.
Upon entering marriage, I was very optimistic and naïve. I lacked awareness of myself, my partner, and relationships in general. Romantic notions of living happily-ever-after filled my thinking. It took a long while to come to terms with the reality of the way things were and I had no idea that certain things would not change over time. I continued being optimistic though, and assumed good things were in store. They were, but not in the way I had imagined. There would be an intense journey ahead before living happily-ever-after could even get started.
One major shift was to learn the necessity of staying power. Just because you have conflict, your partner disappoints you and has traits you don’t like, you feel you have fallen out of love, or you are unhappy, it is an important mindset to stay in the ring and heal yourself and the partnership; that is, if your goal is to create a long-term happy, supportive relationship. No matter what shows up in your daily life while interacting with others, especially your partner, it is important to stay conscious or present. As you learn to pay attention to and take responsibility for your reactions, feelings, patterns of behavior, and beliefs when things are not to your liking, you can glean insights and make shifts in awareness that make you think and act differently. Then, as you change the relationship changes.
To help you stay in the marriage and face what comes up for you, it is also important to move out of either/or thinking. Entering marriage, I only wanted to experience the good, the easy, the fun, and what was peaceful and harmonious. I believed harmony resulted simply because two people were right for each other. I knew nothing about the baggage we each brought to the table from our conditioning and our different style of personalities. Thus, I was either happily married or unhappily married; it was working or it was not working. I was happy or unhappy; I was in the relationship or out. I had to learn to see that difficulties were important and necessary for my healing, growth, change, and enlightenment – opportunities for growth in other words. A relationship just IS at each stage as it evolves through time. It includes the positive and the negative of each personality, as well as the patterns and beliefs in each. Becoming self-aware is the inside job of creating a great relationship.
Information moved me in new directions. It wasn’t just my husband and myself that needed information outside of our frame of reference to solve our dilemmas; it is most of us. We can only go so far on our own with the things we learned from parents and society, along with our own observations, reasoning, experimenting, and problem-solving abilities. When we hit the wall and can’t progress past a certain point, we benefit from the wisdom of others. Rather than leave the relationship, as many do, when your own resources and abilities are exhausted, consider getting help to move past a relationship impasse. That is why self-help books and CDs, motivational seminars, relationship workshops, self-discovery classes, and counseling are so helpful to stimulate change. I experienced all of the above and each contributed to building a better relationship.
It helped both my husband and myself to learn that many of our conflicts were really about childhood issues that surfaced when one of us was triggered. I learned to take responsibility for my part in the conflicts between us. I learned that to heal myself I would have to look deeper than just making my husband the “bad guy” in my script. One issue I had in my early marriage was wanting my husband to listen to me when I needed to express myself, which was often. He could not meet this need. In looking at my childhood, it made sense that I needed more listening than I received from my parents. I was an only child, briefly. My mother had twins when I was only two years old. There was not a lot of extra time for me. Needing to be heard transferred to my marriage, where I expected my husband to give things my parents could not give me. I did learn ways to meet this need and express myself. When I was introduced to journal writing, I took to it immediately. Female support became a must. Then, my career path included talking to others, teaching classes, counseling, and writing articles and books about my ideas. Self-expression is a theme in my life.
The emphasis so far has been on the inner changes needing to take place to build a strong relationship. Just as important is spending time together to have fun, time to problem-solve, and time to heal conflicts. Some couples need to create a date night each week to do this. What worked for my husband and myself when we had children at home was to sit and talk while we drink coffee together before work, before the kids got up, and then again talk at night a few times a week when it was quiet. Challenging with children, I know.
Regular talking time helps build an intimate, close relationship. Talking is easier when we reach the point of accepting our partner and not trying to change our partner. Each of us is in charge of our own growth and we get to decide what is important to us, what we want to change in ourselves and how fast we move. Therefore, it is important to let our partner be in charge of her or himself too. We do influence each other. The key is let your partner know when something is bothering you and at the same time let go of control and having unreal expectations of your partner or the relationship. Know that, a relationship that is nourished grows and evolves.
Many theories try to explain why people stay together, and there is some truth to most of them. For my husband and myself, the relationship opened many doors for self-discovery, self-healing, and becoming self-aware. One important characteristic in each of us contributed to creating a long-term relationship. Even when one of us felt like throwing in the towel, we both had staying power and neither left the ring when it was tense, painful, and discouraging.
We continue to take personal responsibility for solving our own issues, reminding ourselves to let go of control and unreal expectations, and communicate our point of view whenever the relationship needs an adjustment. This relationship continues to raise my consciousness and to heal issues, but at a slower pace than in younger years. We enjoy a lot of caring, support, and companionship. We receive a lot of enjoyment from each of our individual creative interests, and we both love being with our family, grown children and grandchildren. It is so very different from what I thought living happily ever after would be like years ago. I understand now that the relationship is working with the ups and downs of life and with our very different personality types; it includes all experiences, the good as well as the opposite. We have learned tolerance, patience, and forgiveness. We know not to make assumptions and to dialog and ask questions when confused, instead of making up stories in our minds. There are still many opportunities for growth, mainly putting into practice what we know intellectually. We continue to practice acceptance of the other and stop ourselves when we want to change the other. The Serenity Prayer sums it up nicely: God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.
I will end here with the reminder that living with another person in a marriage or long‑term relationship is one, if not the most, powerful ways to know yourself, heal the negative effects of conditioning, and create a happy, fulfilling life. In conjunction with taking personal responsibility for your own life and well-being, here are 12 keys that support a healthy, satisfying, love relationship.
- Know Yourself ─ Study your family of origin to understand patterns of thinking and behaving. What did you learn from your mother about love, communicating, anger, emotional support and encouragement, autonomy, money, relationships? Your father? Your extended family? Are they true for you today? How have each impacted your relationship(s) to date?
- Love Yourself ─ As you expand feelings of self-worth, love for your partner grows as well. You love others to the degree you love yourself. Review and practice ways to build healthy self-esteem and mirror this to your partner.
- Practice Tolerance, Patience, and Forgiveness ─ One of the most important concepts for a successful relationship is to accept your partner the way she or he is, without trying to change her or him. Your partner is in charge of her or his own life, making choices and living according to what she or he values as important. When your partner does not meet your wishes or needs, has traits you dislike, or makes choices different from what you would like, it is important to find ways to understand and accept your partner. People change for their own reasons, not ours. Unconditional acceptance grows as we let go of control, release unrealistic expectations, and learn to value the other person “as is.” Learn the difference between what has the potential to be changed and what you must accept about your partner and your relationship.
- Resolve Conflict, Take Responsibility for Healing Your Own Issues ─ Differences arise in any relationship. Problem solving, compromise, and fair fighting techniques are necessary skills for living peacefully with another. Express yourself, communicate, know your limits, be fair, and be honest. Start by always telling yourself the truth about what you think and how you feel, then talk to your partner on a regular basis. Journaling helps clarify your thoughts and feelings before talking. Listen to your partner. Most people want to be heard and understood more than they want to have someone agree with them. Recognize and do something about your personal issues that get in the way of a good relationship, like codependency or low self-esteem.
- Uncover Your Shadow (Unconscious) Side - See your reflection in what you like and dislike in others. Learn about hidden parts of yourself by seeing where you project issues and traits onto your partner. Projection is a self-protective defense mechanism. When one sees traits, behaviors, or beliefs that one judges as bad or negative only in others and not in oneself, this is “projecting” failings onto another. On the journey to wholeness, we need to claim 100 percent of ourselves and take full responsibility for who we are and what we do. Allow your partner to be part of your self-awareness process to mirror potential aspects of yourself.
- Balance Personal Time with Together Time ─ Independence is a good thing, as is healthy dependency. Personal time includes such things as alone time, exercise or gym time, or being with friends. Together time includes activities with just you and your partner, or when both of you share activities with others. When you have children there needs to be family time also, and each child needs one-on-one time with each parent often.
- Update Faulty Thinking ─ Continue rooting out beliefs about relationships and life that stand in the way of your success and happiness. Then change them to higher truths.
- Have Fun Together ─ Rekindle romance. What got you started in the first place? Find activities that you both can share, whether you are similar in personality and interests or miles apart.
- Build Traditions ─ Build roots and security by celebrating birthdays and religious holidays. Celebrate holidays like the 4th of July and Labor Day with a yearly cookout with family and friends. Meet weekly for a dinner date, take vacations together, enjoy neighborhood street parties, or attend services at a place of worship.
- Self-actualize Individually and as a Couple ─ Use your talents, explore your interests, learn what you need to grow toward your potential. Encourage your partner to do the same. The more attention each of you gives to strengthening your inner self and your own life by growing, exploring, and creatively expressing yourselves, the healthier and happier you will be as a couple. Find meaning and purpose as a couple. What is your purpose together at this stage in your relationship? How can you express this purpose?
- Take Pleasure in What Makes Your Partner Feel Happy ─ Show interest and caring, love, and support for your partner’s work, hobbies, interests, ideas, and volunteer projects.
- Share Bonding Practices ─ Build connectedness and oneness. Walk, meditate, or take a class together, drink coffee or tea together each morning, share meals, make love, talk daily before work or bedtime, express gratitude toward your partner and the relationship often.