Relationships thrive when the 4 pillars of successful relationships are nurtured. The 4 pillars are Honesty, Respect, Generosity & Negotiating. Relationships are one of the most important parts of life & there are no classes in high school to help you learn how. Make no mistake about it, relationships are a lot of work because everybody is wired differently.

Relationship Wisdom

Relationships thrive when the 4 pillars of successful relationships are nurtured. The 4 pillars are Honesty, Respect, Generosity & Negotiating. Relationships are one of the most important parts of life & there are no classes in high school to help you learn how. Make no mistake about it, relationships are a lot of work because everybody is wired differently.

I’ve been working with couples for more than 40 years. (I still remember one of my first sessions in 1978 when a spouse revealed having an affair & I was a stunned student intern.) Creating this podcast was to try to get free help to couples to think about how to improve their relationships because relationships are one of the most important parts of life & there are no classes in high school to help you learn how to go about them.

I believe that relationships thrive when the 4 pillars of successful relationships are nurtured. (The 4 pillars are Honesty, Respect, Generosity & Negotiating.)

Couples work is something many therapists back into learning just because it’s there. In 2002 there was this quote “A dirty little secret in the therapy field is that couples therapy may be the hardest form of therapy, and most therapists aren’t good at it.” in an article in the Nov/Dec Psychotherapy Networker. I pursued doing couples therapy because when there are two people there is more truth in the room.

I love rising to the challenge of being good at couples therapy. Both partners have to like you & be able to hear you saying hard things that will help them both to grow. Building that level of trust when there is almost no trust left between the partners is quite the undertaking. 

There is a complexity to this work that is truly worthwhile. Relationships are so hard to build & maintain because the level of honesty required is not easily found. Let me repeat that: Relationships are so hard to build & maintain because the level of honesty required is not easily found. Even in the TV show SHAMELESS in season four, Fiona  finds a good guy who doesn’t lie & when he asks her not to lie, she is completely baffled by this request.

Relationships require trust & trust requires honesty. We often end up with our growing up & learning by spilling over onto the people we love. Honesty is very hard to come by in a world where too many people are enchanted by conspiracy theories & lies are swallowed whole. Honesty means looking at yourself with some level of self awareness. You have to know when to have true remorse & to recognize your own failings which I describe in depth in Episode 73.

Honesty is about reality, love is about the fantasy of being together. So let’s take one all too ordinary example, your sex life has disappeared & neither of you has addressed it. Then months evolve into years. If there is out loud agreement that celibacy is the new norm ok, but the reality of living without the best free resource for pleasure & never discussing the issues is not ok.

There are many examples of silence about important hard things that slowly create a grand canyon of distance instead of intimacy. Intimacy builds on sharing who we really are & when we disagree, it is important to know about instead of pretending it’s ok when it’s not. Silence creates distance & honesty creates closeness. You can pretend you aren’t sharing so you don’t hurt the other person which is morally bankrupt short term thinking. Morally bankrupt because you are really protecting you, not the other person. Long term thinking is to understand the more complex idea that it is only through truth that you stop feeding the distance between you.

Make no mistake about it, relationships are a lot of work. 

Everybody is wired differently; just think about the last movie or book you recommended that someone else didn’t appreciate. It’s how we manage respect for the differences that makes or breaks a relationship. Even with parenting that can be true, in teenage years kids are exploring how they are different & if you have an obedient teen now they may end bu resentful later. Testing boundaries & finding out who they are, not like you is what all that painful struggling is about. This is why I often say respect is more important than love. Respect also leaves room to not like the differences. It bothered me so much my husband did not read books when we started out & now he’s shifted to become a reader but not because I nagged or whined about it (which I did of course). It was a real values collision for me that reading was not important while it was such a refuge for me. It’s values that we collide over the most. Respect for the differences is crucial for relationships to work.

When a decision is important for a couple that disagree, respect & the ability to see their point of view really matters. What matters is softening the hard edges of disagreement & there is only one way to accomplish that: Be willing to talk, talk,& talk through & about the differences is the first thing you can do to improve. If the question is should we have kids it might take 150 conversations. Talking is the only way to soften the differences between you.

The second thing you can do is be curious instead of critical about the differences. Criticalness hardens, the goal again to achieve more respect is to soften the hard edges of differences. Too many partners do not recognize the walls they build by being critical. Good couples therapy helps you learn more & to be more curious about the differences.

Why is love work you may ask yourself. Joseph Campbell described marriage as an ordeal. The beginnings of love are delicious but it’s not the real substance of a relationship. I’ve always wanted to do a study of people who marry or honeymoon in Disneyland, my belief is Disneyland is all about fantasy & illusions just like the beginnings of love. So I believe the divorce rate would be 75% instead of 50% but alas I only have a sample of one. 

So the work of love often arrives 6-10 years after the very beginning, because that is when the illusions fall apart. That’s what they used to call the 7 year itch in the 50’s. You are sick & tired of the differences & you begin to wonder what you are doing with this annoying person who takes you for granted or ignores your sex life. This is an opportunity for the real work can begin. For my husband & I it was year 9. It’s your chance to build a solid infrastructure of truth & trust.

Shame can be a real obstacle to building a solid infrastructure. Shame is a huge roadblock to success in therapy or to feeling good about yourself. Shame can interrupt being fully truthful in relationships. It’s like the guy who pretends to his family that he goes to  to work every day because he’s too ashamed to tell that he lost his job. Shame is also a huge factor in failure when someone is in addiction recovery, if the other partner is constantly unforgiving & angry because of all the past relapses. When shame gets triggered it’s hard to share fully & be vulnerable. Relationships require vulnerability in order to grow & last.

Fighting in old stuck patterns is also suffocating to a healthy relationship. Again as I pointed out previously with criticalness, if you access your curiosity things will improve. Ask yourself if you really understand your partner’s point of view or are you so full of resentments you can’t begin to understand why their perspective matters. Silent, unspoken resentments pile up & kill off the relationship.

Magnifying your disappointments feeds resentments. Accepting that disappointments are a part of every authentic relationship matters. You have to learn to speak your truth in a way that is not the beginnings of war. Nobody is listening when wars begin. You have to learn what can change & accept what will remain the same. It’s our humanity for all of us being both good & bad that makes relationships hard work.

Ultimately a relationship requires being generous, to yourself & your partner. You have to be willing to extend the olive branch, to make amends, to be vulnerable & share your truth. John Gottman’s research says he can predict divorce based on people turning away from each other over & over. You have to learn to turn towards each other even when you don’t feel like it. 

Generosity includes recognizing when your partner is telling you something about yourself that you need to face & improve, without piling on the defenses so you can erase the hard truth. My constant refrain is that the whole point of partnership & marriage is to help you grow up into being a better person. I base this on the gestalt quote “Growing up is honestly facing painful situations”. Recognizing when your partner says they feel ignored, that you’ve been selfish. Understanding how you’ve spilled over onto the person you love so they feel peripheral is an important opportunity for growth.

Communication improves when you are willing to hear things that are hard, things that pinch you into recognizing a need to improve. If your partner doesn’t speak their truth & lets you get away with things over & over then you miss out on a chance to improve. If you don’t find the gumption to listen to something true about you then you add to the distance between you. 

I want to define this old fashioned word gumption, I was reminded of it by one of my favorite authors, Rachel Joyce. I especially like that gumption is not as scary as the giant sized word courage. It means “spirited initiative & resourcefulness”. I guarantee that gumption is something that will improve your life because you can’t just be a passenger if you want a more interesting life.

People have communication problems because one person doesn’t say enough & the other person doesn’t want to listen. Truth is not a luxury item but is hard fought for & too often buried. Greater honesty with both saying it & listening to it improves communication. You have to talk about hard things for relationships to thrive for decades.

Negotiating is the fourth leg to build for a relationship foundation. I spent a lot of time as a mother working with my kids on making deals. We had a chart on the door of our game closet with each of their names & they made slash marks when they took their turn for choosing a game. When they were older if they really wanted a more costly item, they needed to pay for half of it. The ability to make deals & stay true to the terms of the deal matters in relationships. 

Deals are the ability to take action on respect for the differences. Deals take care of both people. Deals require thought about what’s fair. Deals can reduce manipulation when they are fair. All of us want to have things our way, the primitive part of our brain is determined like a 3 year old for deals to be about Me, Me, ME!! Deals help you remember there is an US that is more important than just you getting exactly what you want.

Negotiating is a dance in messiness, it means the solutions are uncertain. There is so much anxiety & uncertainty in the world already that stepping into the messiness of negotiating can be very difficult. We all love certainty which is why in some relationships one partner is submissive to the other, because it is easier. Recognizing that relationships are complex and solving both your needs together is worth the work & the messiness.

The ability to negotiate & problem solve is all about being more mentally healthy, because recognizing there are choices is a skill that really matters in relationships. In parenting my adult children it crucial to choose to make the shift from Mom with lots of opinions to editing & silence about what I think in order to recognize & respect their differences. Young adults need space to practice their own choices for their life.

Negotiating means you really have to take into account what’s important to the other person, whether or not you agree with it or like it. Negotiating means you give up some of your own maneuvering to accommodate what matters to your partner because being fair is a value. You have to take turns “winning” just like my kids when they were choosing what games to play.

My challenge for you today is to evaluate your relationship on each of the 4 pillars:

Honesty, Respect, Generosity & Negotiating. How honest are you with each other about hard things? Do you respect the differences even when you don’t like them? Are you generous & turn towards each other or do you easily build walls with anger or self righteousness? How fairly do the two of you negotiate? Do you often look for ways to meet both your needs or do you stay determined only for yourself? Once you have thought about these questions have a conversation on how the two of you can improve with specifics in mind. Vague generalizations don’t help you solve what’s missing.

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About the Rhoda Mills Sommer

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