So many times couples dissatisfied with their relationships (but committed to making their relationships work) ask me what the secret is to creating a healthy relationship or marriage. They probably feel let-down when I tell them that there’s no “secret,” no quick fix. As with anything worthwhile, it takes focus and effort and consistency. And a big dash of follow-through.
After all, how many times have you heard someone touting a big diet breakthrough (“The Secret to Getting the Body You Want!”), and when you look closely, you see that what they’re suggesting is not a secret (nor is it ‘quick’) at all: it’s consuming fewer calories and expending more energy in the form of exercise.
Building a healthy relationship is no different—it requires common sense and a willingness to do the work. However, it’s important that you don’t ignore certain aspects of your life when attempting to strengthen your relationship. What do I mean? I think an example might help illustrate my point.
Meet Clare and Tony…giving up while marching on
“I don’t know how to put my finger on it,” Clare told me. “Something is missing, but it’s not like something is wrongwrong. I mean, I don’t think Tony is cheating on me or anything. He’s not doing drugs. He hasn’t lost his job. He’s not mean to me or the kids…” Her words trailed off as she gazed out the window.
“That’s a good start,” I said, “establishing what’s not going on for Tony. Can you try to express what is going on?” Tony was supposed to be here, too, but it was no secret that couples counseling was Clare’s idea (he didn’t see any problems with their marriage of 12 years) and he was coming along just to appease her. They’d come to two sessions together, but this time Tony texted her to tell her to go alone; he said he’d had a tiring day at work and just needed to sleep.
She thought about my question for awhile. She seemed to answer carefully. “It feels like he’s given up. Not just with me and the kids, but in general. He’s there, but not fully there.”
I asked her if she could be more specific.
“For example, I thought it would be a good idea if we did something in common. Something fun, something outside of the obligations of work and house and kids. So I signed us up for a ‘cuisines of the world’ cooking class at the community college, which he agreed to, mind you. But then when the first night came, he said he was ‘too beat’ and just wanted to veg on the couch. ‘But you go ahead,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to stop you.’”
“We had a big fight,” she went on, “because I said all he ever did was veg on the couch…” She bit her lip and hesitated. “Worse, I said the sofa cushion was glued to his ass.” She laughed nervously. “That went over like a lead balloon! He told me that I should follow him around at work one day and I’d see he’s on his feet nonstop. And that’s true, his job is physical (and I’m at a desk all day at work). But there have been opportunities for promotions or getting into a different aspect of the company, and he never tries, never does the professional development a move would require.”
“It’s not like a want him to suddenly be a go-getter or anything,” Clare said. “But it feels like over the last couple of years, he’s started marching through life instead of taking part in it. I’m not sure if that makes sense.”
It did make sense, and Clare and Tony were not alone in this. I talked to Clare about how to discuss this with Tony (in a way that wouldn’t feel inflammatory or accusatory). Of course, it’s always a good idea to check in with a medical doctor first to be sure an underlying health issue isn’t impacting things (or a psychologist to assess if there are signs of depression). But beyond that, Tony would need to want to do more than “march through life.” Clare couldn’t do it for him, as much as she wanted more for their marriage.
And there is no doubt that if Tony did decide to work on himself, the rewards would spill over to the marriage as well.
Meet Lucinda and Damien…how self-improvement leads to relationship satisfaction
Lucinda said she’d been reading my blog and receiving my newsletter for years, and she felt lucky to discover that she and Damien lived within driving distance of my practice (about 90 minutes). They’d been married for almost 15 years and didn’t report any ongoing issues, but wondered if I’d be willing to have a session with them as sort of a relationship checkup. (That question was the inspiration for my relationship checkup.)
“We have our ups and downs,” Damien said during the session, “like any couple, I imagine.”
They both looked to me as if for reassurance. I indeed reassured them. “Just as any life has ups and downs, so does any relationship experience peaks and valleys.”
“But on the whole,” Lucinda stated, “we’re happy.” Damien reached over and squeezed her hand.
I teased out more specifics from them as the session progressed. It turned out that they’d had a very rough year, not in terms of their relationship, but in terms of life events beyond their control. At the start of the year, Lucinda’s mother had died after a long, difficult illness (and Lucinda was heavily involved in her mother’s care), and then, three weeks later, Damien’s seemingly healthy mother died suddenly and unexpectedly, of an aneurysm. Damien’s father, who was suffering from dementia, was now living with the couple and their two pre-teen boys.
“And I got this promotion at work,” Damien added, “one I’d been working toward for years. I mean, I’m happy for it. It’s a bigger salary, which means we can put more away for the boys’ college, and we can get that new roof we’ve been needing, but it’s way more responsibility, longer hours, and more stress. So it’s a mixed blessing, I suppose.”
I asked him how he was dealing with the stress.
“Don’t laugh,” he said.
I promised him I wouldn’t.
“Well, I’ve been doing yoga.”
“Why would I laugh at that?”
“Yoga used to strike me as a girly thing,” Damien said.
“You’re not the only guy in the class,” Lucinda said. She turned to me. “He started going to my classes.”
“True,” he said smiling. “There are a few of us brave Y-chromosomers in there. And yeah, I’m finding yoga plus jogging three times a week really helps me with stress.”
“He’s being modest,” Lucinda told me. “It’s more than managing stress. Despite the fact that he’s a great dad and a great son and successful at work (which means he doesn’t have all that much time for himself and some nights doesn’t get enough sleep, though he doesn’t complain), he takes the time to do things that make him well-rounded. He’s kept up with his hiking club that meets two Saturdays a month. He’s learning Italian with Rosetta stone. And he even talked about finding a woodworking class so he could learn how to make furniture.”
“You’re embarrassing me!” Damien said sheepishly.
“Sorry,” Lucinda said. “But I think us having a strong relationship, despite life’s challenges, is no accident. And a big part of the reason is your determination to keep growing and improving.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself!
How to improve yourself so that you can improve your relationship: DECIDE
When you set about on a path of self-improvement, here’s an easy acronym for you to remember: DECIDE. We’ll discuss each point below; the acronym stands for decision, engagement, curiosity, inner life, doing, exercise.
Anything worthwhile begins with a decision. And it must be your decision. It can’t be forced upon you by someone else, or it won’t lead to genuine change. It must come from within you. Decide that you would like to embark on a journey of self-improvement (which also means a journey toward knowing yourself better; don’t worry about the specifics right away, for now it’s the sincere decision that matters).
Stop seeing the world as something that pulls you mindlessly along, something that makes cosmic decisions for you while you blindly acquiesce. True, there is much in life we have no control over. But there’s also much that we do have control over. For instance, in the example of Tony and Clare above, Tony had control over whether he vegged on the couch every night or whether he took part in life more fully.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not anti-couch or anti-veg! Sometimes an escapist run of TV while sprawled out on the sofa is exactly what we need. But if it’s become the default “activity” of your life, you might have let yourself slide into complacency and you may be allowing yourself to miss out on a rewarding life (and you might not be happy about it, nor is your spouse or partner).
Engaging with life will look different for different people. A night on the dance floor would feel like torture to me (and I’m sure the dancers around me, who wouldn’t appreciate my lack of rhythm!), but to others it’s heaven. Likewise, people who are more introverted might classify engagement as activities with a few choice others or one close friend, while extroverts may prefer large groups and making new friends in the process.
The point isn’t to do something that feels inauthentic for you. (That’s not true engagement anyway.) The point is to find out what makes you feel happy in the world, and then pursue it.
I’ll never forget a writing instructor I had in college. He said that we were likely to hear “write what you know,” and while there was some good in that, he thought it was far better to write what you want to know. I deeply believe that fostering your natural sense of curiosity is a powerful way to expand yourself (and therefore expand your relationship…don’t forget that what you do and what you care about will naturally affect your partner).
Before you protest with, “But I’m not a curious person,” let me interject. Have you ever noticed that all children are naturally curious? They don’t need to be coaxed to be curious about the world; they just are. That was true for you as a child, too. What changes that are the pressures and demands of adult life…it often feels like there’s no room for the luxury of curiosity when we’re consumed with the very real responsibility of paying the bills or raising a family. But being curious needn’t take you away from those responsibilities; quite the contrary, it can make you happier while you go about fulfilling your obligations.
People think that curiosity follows when something interesting is presented to them, but most often, with true curiosity, it’s the opposite: if you’re curious about the world first, you’ll find things that interest you.
Looking inward doesn’t mean you have to be a spiritual person, so if spirituality doesn’t play an important part of your life, you don’t have to shoe-horn it in. Going inward can be done at any time, in any place. Meditation is a popular method of self-reflection and quieting the mental chatter that we’re all plagued by. But if you’re not drawn to meditating, no worries: nurturing your inner life doesn’t have to be regimented or proscribed. It can be as simple as reminding yourself to check in with yourself—with that small, still voice within you—each day and see what comes up.
We’re usually so busy with things outside of us (and understandably so!). In order to expand yourself, you’ll need to pay some attention to your inner life. It takes practice, but once you make it a habit, it will be rewarding and will likely positively impact all aspects of your life.
Eleanor Roosevelt suggested “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Now before you strap a harness on and hurl yourself out of aircraft, let me qualify that.
Like with our discussion of engagement above, doing will differ for different people. The idea is to push ourselves out of our comfort zones to see what we really can do. Ultimately, this is how we grow. You don’t need to feel terror, though! Just challenge yourself to do something you may have overlooked or postponed in the past. And remember that doing is a natural outcome of a genuine decision. All the thinking in the world won’t be as meaningful as it can be if it doesn’t lead to application at some point. (Again, these don’t have to be big, mountain-moving events…it can be as simple and private as writing that poem you’ve always told yourself you might write.)
By now we all know how vital regular physical exercise is to a healthy body and a balanced life, so you don’t need me to expound on that here. Beyond that, though, I challenge you to also exercise your mind as you walk the path of self-improvement. Through reading, learning, feeding your curiosity, exploring your inner self. The brain is a muscle, and, like the other muscles of the body, with exercise it will grow stronger.
So there you have it, DECIDE!
Want a More Fulfilling Relationship? Create a Fulfilling Life for Yourself
You’ve probably heard Gandhi’s advice to “be the change you want to see in the world.” This wisdom holds true when it comes to your relationship.
If you are not the person you want to be, or at least striving toward becoming the person you want to be, how can you expect your marriage or relationship to be the relationship you want it to be? I have not met one couple that enjoys a rich, satisfying relationship while one of the partners is unhappy with his/her own life. Improve yourself, improve your relationship. It’s an equation to remember!
Here’s to creating a healthy relationship!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured [top] images “Man sleeping on the couch” by Artur84 & “Male looking through binoculars” by Imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)