All intimate partners are likely to face unpredictable and challenging situations as they spend more time together. Some partnerships fold under those stresses—but others not only survive, but get stronger. The couples whose love deepens when faced with difficulty do so by focusing on two things: the blessings of their relationship and how to stay out of harm’s way.
There is a plethora of published relationship advice to help long-term partners stay attached when crises threaten, but much of it is hard to put into play in the midst of significant distress. When relationship partners are overloaded and fragile, they cannot always respond effectively.
As a relationship therapist for the past four decades, I often see couples during these difficult times. Their lives have been upended, they are overwhelmed and confused, and are desperately searching for a simple set of workable rules to help them through an often anguishing time.
Over the years, I’ve created a simple set of attitudes and behaviors that not only work beautifully during these times of stress but are good guidelines for committed partners to follow every day.
I call them The Ten “Do’s and Don’ts” that successful relationship partners regularly practice. Each list represents a set of easy-to-remember behaviors. Together, they form the bookends that protect intimacy from its most common enemies. If couples practice them as a way of life, they are much better prepared for any crises they might face in the future.
The Ten “Do’s”
Accurately “tuning” into another person means that you get them. When intimate partners intuitively resonate with each other’s heart, mind, and soul experiences, they understand how their thoughts and behaviors will affect them before they speak. That knowledge drives what they do and say to help each other feel truly seen and heard.
All people are continuously affected by their past experiences and unconsciously weave them into their present and future behaviors. Successful partners make it a point to remember those thoughts and experiences and track them. They mark, note, and weave everything they know about each other and regularly communicate that understanding to each other.
Intimate partners share their internal experiences with each other because they feel safe to share them. Successful partners do not hold back thoughts, feelings, or intended behaviors that might at some time affect the other partner. Both partners agree that they would rather know their truth no matter what the outcome might be.
4. Prime Time
I often ask a couple in the first hour of therapy where each currently is at his or her best in their lives. Much of the time, sadly, they do not respond with “in my committed relationship.” There is a predictable correlation between how long people have been together and the quality and quantity of time, energy, and fresh love they prioritize for each other. Great partners make certain their relationship is where they rejuvenate rather than simply regenerate.
No one escapes traumatic experiences in life, but some have been more damaged by them than others. Those emotional, intellectual, and bodily experiences result in exceptional vulnerability when they are triggered by specific events. People who love each other always keep in mind what those fragile experiences are and when they might arise.
There are two crucial aspects to communication. The first is the verbal content of what they are sharing. The second is the non-verbal way they present themselves and how those behaviors affect each of them in the moment. Partners who communicate effectively never forget how what they are saying is affected by how they are saying it. The medium is always the more powerful message.
Every human being needs to know that he or she is significantly important to the person he or she loves. They need to feel they are automatically included, welcome to speak about their upsets, and free to share their concerns. They feel safe in that space, able to be understood and forgiven, even when they falter. Loving partners give one another the sense that how they feel and what they do are important and worthy of both recognition and response.
8. Focusing on the Positives
Every relationship has its assets and liabilities. Many partners focus on what upsets them rather than what blessing the relationship continues to provide. When successful partners feel their relationship is being threatened in any way, they consciously and intentionally remind each other of why they still want to be together and resolve those crises as rapidly as possible.
9. The Gift of Sanity
Whenever one partner speaks his or her truth, the other chooses first to validate and support that point of view before offering one that might be different. Successful partners want to know what their partners are thinking and feeling and do what they can to learn more about what may be driving those experiences.
10. Faith in Each Other and in the Relationship
Great relationships partners believe that they are blessed to have one another, and that their relationship is truly special and unique. They know that their faith is based on continued commitment to do whatever is necessary to keep it that way.
The Ten “Don’ts”
1. Breaking Confidentiality
As they spend more time together, intimate partners often begin to share vulnerable and sacred thoughts, feelings, and memories with each other. Those intimate experiences can run the gamut from telling someone about painful traumas to feelings of hostility towards a family member. As they reveal these often fragile and sensitive experiences, they know that they will be sacredly held and will not be shared without the other partner’s permission.
Partners who treasure honesty, authenticity, and each other’s resilience do not hold back on thoughts or feelings that can unexpectedly explode at some future time with unintended painful consequences.
A routinely-withholding partner may be having thoughts, feelings, or intended behaviors that could eventually hurt the other, without ever giving the other partner the opportunity to vote. That policy will eventually destroy trust.
3. Hitting Below the Belt
Over time, most partners know enough about the other to understand and acknowledge which behaviors they could say or do that could be crucially hurtful to the other. Expressing any of those, especially during an argument, can leave deep scars and erode trust. Successful partners always keep in mind exactly what they must never bring up, especially during times of animosity or stress.
4. Loading the Emotional Bases
When either partner feels powerless during a conflict, he or she may try to strengthen the platform by citing other sources. “Everyone agrees with me that…,” “I read in this article that…,” “My whole family thinks that you…,” “Even out therapist agrees with me about…,” etc.
Successful partners make it a point to simply tell one another when they feel cornered or powerless during an argument. They count on the other to listen and respond supportively. Very rarely is winning an argument by padding the opposition worth the loss of intimacy when that strategy is employed.
Volumes have been written about how damaging the effects of blaming is on an intimate relationship. One of the most confusing and destructive varieties of blame is when either partner attacks the other for something that he or she is also guilty of doing. Whether conscious or unconscious, projecting one’s own faults onto the other is especially destructive.
Another destructive blame behavior is putting down the other partner when he or she cannot, or doesn’t want, to do what the blamer wants. No partner can always give the other what he or she wants. Blaming only makes the situations worse.
6. Chronic Nagging
Unsolicited advice is rarely welcome, especially if it is negative. Nagging is the continuous repetition of preaching, instructions, or directions that the other partner has not asked for nor usually wants.
Most partners being given constant “cattle-prods” to live his or her life as the nagger wants will eventually rebel, disconnect, or sink into a passive/aggressive reaction.
7. Broken Promises
When either partner asks for something important, it is crucial that the other be honest in his or her ability or willingness to grant it.
If one partner believes that the desired behavior will occur, but it never does, he or she may eventually stop asking. Promises that are continually postponed or broken eventually become excuses and then lies. Any partner who is continually exposed to the disappointments and disillusionments of broken promises will eventually stop asking for them.
8. Character Assassinations
All intimate partners have conflicts. Even when their relationship is mostly compatible, they can still get frustrated with how their partners are behaving.
But successful partners know how to fight fair. They know that their disagreements will become more ruthless if they don’t. Character assassinations are heart-breaking examples. The partner's angry expressions eventually go from challenges to unwanted behaviors to mean attacks on the core of their character, often expressed in wipe-out statements. “You always go for the gut, don’t you?” “Let’s just face it; you’re an a***hole, and always have been.” “You hate men; why don’t you just admit it?” “You’re a really insensitive lover.”
Caring partners know of each other’s vulnerabilities and are careful not to take advantage of them.
Some of those characteristics are common. For instance, some people are just natural givers. Others feel immediately guilty if they disappoint their partners in any way. People who have social anxiety can’t handle groups of people or social surprises. Absent-minded people sometimes lose themselves in private thoughts without meaning to exclude others.
People who care for each other understand that their partner’s innate personality characteristics are part of them and they do not use them to their own advantage.
10. Boundary Violations
Boundary violations include any physical or emotional behavior towards another that makes the other partner feel uncomfortable or threatened. It is sadly common to find that intimate partners in unsuccessful relationships, do not remember, or do not care, to respect and honor their partner’s physical or emotional boundaries.
When intimate partners experience a boundary violation, they are likely to feel like symbolic “prey” to seeming “hunters.” Their natural responses will be to fight, to flee, or become immobilized. All three of those responses are counter to trust and will eventually destroy intimacy.
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Intimate partners who value and respect each other willingly and continuously embrace these “Do’s” and avoid these “Don’ts.” They know that they cannot achieve absolute perfection in following them nor do they expect to, but they realize how important it is to commit to these behaviors as part of the sacred commitment they have made to each other.