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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 20, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 16
Ask Michael: 'Relationship' is a verb
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Ask Michael: 'Relationship' is a verb

by Michael Raitt - SGN Contributing Writer

How many of you have found yourselves saying, 'I'm in a relationship' or 'I'm working on my relationship'? Do you know the difference? These statements have very different connotations. When we hear about someone being in a relationship, it feels as though the relationship is going well. When one declares that they are working on their relationship, the meaning often construed is that there are issues and problems. The reality is, relationship isn't a destination. Being in a relationship is about actively participating. The odds that a relationship will last and be happier are related to the work put into the relationship.

Why do relationships require constant work? One complex reason: the world is a very dynamic place. What that means is that we experience things at different times and in different ways because of all of the other stresses in our lives. You've all experienced this; a comment from your partner on a day when things have gone well at work doesn't affect you as much as the same comment might when you've had a bad day at work. As well, we change over time. Our experiences influence who we are. In a relationship, we have to learn to adapt to each other in the face of these factors.

The biggest problem in relationships is people get stuck in patterns and they don't do things differently. Here are some things to consider to get out of being stuck. The proviso upfront is that this isn't always easy work to do. It takes practice and dedication.

First, most counselors will teach you about 'active listening.' This is a skill where we listen more effectively to another. It's active because we intentionally engage with the other in a way that we get more understanding about what they are saying. For example, if you went to the doctor and were talking to him/her about an upcoming major surgery and his response was simply to take your medication and be at the hospital on time, you wouldn't feel like he was really paying attention. Rather, if he sat with you and acknowledged your fear and gave reassurance, you'd likely walk away feeling like it was a better interaction. Therapists use this all the time (or they should!). You know when you feel you are being heard and when you don't feel heard.

The next is necessary for active listening to occur. People have to learn to stay calm sometimes. In relationships, partners often get defensive. How do you not get defensive? People get defensive when they feel they have to defend themselves or prove they are right. In many cases, it is hard to prove who is right. People do experience or remember things differently so arguing about who is right is endless and frustrating. When we are calm, we aren't defending ourselves and we interact with our partner differently. This can contribute to the exchange going better than it would with defensiveness.

A third important thing to do is to forgive. This is a concept that really gets people upset. There are effective ways to forgive and ineffective ways. The most ineffective way is to hold on to your hurt or anger about something. That really isn't forgiveness. The way I define forgiveness is that I make a choice about no longer feeling hurt or angry about something done by another. It isn't about saying what they did was okay or minimizing what they did. It is simply about how I want to feel about it and when I want to change that.

However, let's be clear about how forgiveness works. If you've done something to me that is hurtful, I forgive you, and you continue to do it, that is a problem! I am completely in charge of how I feel about something. The other is completely in charge regarding how he wants to treat me. Forgiveness isn't permission to continue to hurt another.

Liven things up! Every month, each partner can participate in doing something nice and fun for the other. Plan dates, give small gifts, do something nice for the other. Remember to let the other know how and why he/she is important to you. I frequently ask couples to describe what each does for the other that shows they love them. Ask yourself the same question; what do you do that shows your partner you love him/her and what does she/he do that shows they love you? Many can't answer that question. Know clearly what you do that shows love and make sure your partner knows that those actions are about love.

Finally, sex! Don't forget sex! Sex is healthy and it contributes to the well-being of individuals and the relationship. If sex is an issue in the relationship, it is worth figuring out how to deal with that.

'Do your behaviors match the message you intend to send?' That is an important maxim. Behaviors indicate so much in a relationship and when you love someone, you have to show that you love them. You have to work at it all the time! If you are looking at it as a chore, you might want to look at that as a big indicator of something. Look forward to working on the relationship and doing things that make the relationship a place both want to be. Make 'working on our relationship' a positive reflection of the relationship.

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