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Rules for Relationships: Realism and Empathy

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie

Hara Estroff Marano has written a good post at Psychology Today with a handy list of rules for happy relationships. If you are still seeking, read the whole post, but I’ve excerpted some of the best points:

• Choose a partner wisely and well. We are attracted to people for all kinds of reasons. They remind us of someone from our past. They shower us with gifts and make us feel important. Evaluate a potential partner as you would a friend: Look at their character, personality, values, their generosity of spirit, the relationship between their words and actions, their relationships with others.

• Know your needs and speak up for them clearly. A relationship is not a guessing game. Many people fear stating their needs and, as a result, camouflage them. The result is disappointment at not getting what they want and anger at a partner for not having met their (unspoken) needs. Closeness cannot occur without honesty. Your partner is not a mind reader.

• Respect, respect, respect. Inside and outside the relationship, act in ways so that your partner always maintains respect for you. Mutual respect is essential to a good and fair relationship.

• View yourselves as a team, which means you are two unique individuals bringing different perspectives and strengths. That is the value of a team—your differences.

• Know how to manage differences; it’s the key to success in a relationship. Disagreements don’t sink relationships. Name-calling does. Learn how to handle the negative feelings that are the unavoidable byproduct of the differences between two people. Stonewalling or avoiding conflicts is NOT managing them.

• If you don’t understand or like something your partner is doing, ask about it and why he or she is doing it. Talk and explore, don’t assume or accuse.

• Solve problems as they arise. Don’t let resentments simmer. Most of what goes wrong in relationships can be traced to hurt feelings, leading partners to erect defenses against one another and to become strangers. Or enemies.

• Listen, truly listen, to your partner’s concerns and complaints without judgment. Much of the time, just having someone listen is all we need for solving problems. Plus it opens the door to confiding. And empathy is crucial. Look at things from your partner’s perspective as well as your own.

• Take a long-range view. A marriage is an agreement to spend a future together. Check out your dreams with each other regularly to make sure you’re both on the same path.

• Sex is good. Pillow talk is better. Sex is easy, intimacy is difficult. It requires honesty, openness, self-disclosure, confiding concerns, fears, sadnesses as well as hopes and dreams.

• Apologize, apologize, apologize. Anyone can make a mistake. Repair attempts are crucial—highly predictive of marital happiness. They can be clumsy or funny, even sarcastic—but willingness to make up after an argument is central to every long-term relationship.

• Some dependency is good, but complete dependency on a partner for all one’s needs is an invitation to resentment at the burden and unhappiness for both partners. We’re all dependent to a degree—on friends, mentors, spouses. This is true of men as well as women.

• Maintain self-respect and self-esteem. It’s easier for someone to like you and to be around you when you like yourself. Research has shown that the more roles people fill, the more sources of self-esteem they have. Meaningful work—paid or volunteer—has long been one of the most important ways to build and exercise a sense of self.

• Don’t just run away from a bad relationship; you’ll only repeat it with the next partner. Use it as a mirror to look at yourself, to understand what in you is creating the relationship. Change yourself before you change your partner.


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