Over the years I’ve made a lot of mistakes in relationships.
Over those same years, I’ve watched a lot of other people make a lot more. (Mostly because I wasn’t actually doing anything other than observing… hard to make mistakes of your own when you’re not participating.)
From all that pain and suffering (plus a few years studying things like interpersonal communication), I’ve seen that there are four things you can do to give you better quality relationships–be they romantic or platonic.
1. Listen Deeply
Relationships, especially romantic ones, aren’t just all about you. There’s another person there and they need to be heard. More than that, they need to be listened to.
What’s the difference?
Hearing someone is a passive thing. It happens whether you want it to or not as your ears pick up the sounds their mouth is making. Sure, it may all devolve into a Charlie Brown adult warbling drone, but you’re hearing what they’re saying.
Listening to someone is more than just hearing the sounds coming out of their mouth. It’s trying to hear what’s between the words, what’s beneath them, around them. Listening is an active search for meaning. A collaborative process that often involves questions to clarify what you think you’re hearing. It also includes paying attention to body language and other non-verbal cues.
Even if you don’t get it right, just trying will teach you a lot about yourself and your partner. The effort will make them feel like they’re more part of the relationship and will most likely lead to them listening better to you.
2. Speak Honestly
Speaking honestly is more than just not lying to your partner. Speaking honestly is speaking from your heart, with your mind as moderator–keeping emotions you know are counter productive in check so you can clearly communicate why you’re feeling the way you are.
It’s also not coddling them. If there’s bad news to pass on, do it quickly and directly. There is no good time for some things–only now and a worse time. If you worry too much about how much what you have to say will hurt your partner, know that the pain (for both of you) will only get worse the longer you put it off. No relationship has ever been saved by putting off important discussions until things are on the verge of exploding.
Along those same lines, share the good and the bad. If you only ever get deep when things are dark, that’s going to set a precedent of nervousness and foreboding whenever you want to communicate. When you feel something, express it in the best way possible, as soon as possible. That flow is what can really make dynamic, healthy relationships thrive. (Especially when coupled with listening.)
3. Interact Openly
Interact openly with your partner and other people in your life. It lets everyone feel like they are a part of something good.
If you’re sneaking around, ask yourself why you’re doing that. Then deal with those reasons directly. If you’re worried about how your partner (or others) will judge what you’re doing, talk to them about it. Chances are, you’re projecting some deeper fear of your own onto the reactions you’re expecting from them.
Or maybe you really are doing something wrong. If that’s the case, stop it. Wrong for you is wrong for the relationship. If it’s right for you but wrong for the relationship, you need to reevaluate the relationship’s place in your life.
There are some cases where it’s impossible to interact as openly as you’d like. These are rare occasions that should always be critically looked at and have their pros and cons weighed. Secrecy is a relationship killer. It also makes you less of who you could be.
4. Maintain Your Sense of Self
A healthy relationship takes place between (at least) two complete people. If you cannot stand on your own, there will be major flaws in any relationship you are in. If you don’t know who you are–and, more importantly, if you don’t like who you are–others are going to have great difficulty relating to you in a positive manner.
Take time for yourself. Even if that means time away from your partner. Encourage them to do the same. The more stable each of you is as an individual, the happier and more productive you can be as a couple.
These are four simple things to keep in mind… but they are far from easy things to do in life. Don’t beat yourself up too badly if you fail every now and then at one (or four) of them. Stand up, dust yourself off, apologize to anyone who needs to be apologized to (including yourself), and start living by them again.