Valentine’s Day occurs only once a year. It’s a time to wine, dine, and romance your sweetie whether you feel like it or not. And whatever your opinion on enforced handholding and chocolate giving, it’s nice that there’s a day to focus on the fun, romantic side of your relationship. But what about the less, well, sexy parts of being a couple—the ones that are making so many people miserable the other 364 days of the year?
“The truth is, romance is a very small part of what makes a marriage or long-term relationship successful,” explains Dr. Howard Rankin, creator of the Science of You website and founder of the American Brain Association. “It’s getting the other 98 percent right that makes a couple last in the long haul. So, really, it’s too bad we don’t have any days devoted to issues like communication, fighting fairly, and forgiving.”
Dr. Rankin is something of a relationship expert. A nationally recognized psychologist and neuroscientist with more than three decades of experience, he has counseled his fair share of individuals and couples looking to make a change for the better in how they interact with each other.
Relationship change requires behavior change, and this is far from easy. However, Dr. Rankin has a track record of helping people do it successfully. (In fact, he has been described as one of the world’s leading lifestyle change experts.) And with his new video and workbook set, Communication Secrets of a Great Relationship, coming out in May 2011, he has spent a lot more of his time refining his thoughts and insights on the subject.
Whether you choose February 14 or another date, Dr. Rankin suggests you designate one day as the “New Year’s Day” of your marriage or partnership. There are certain, very specific things you—yes, you—can do during the upcoming year that may change your relationship for the better.
“It’s fine to enlist your partner in this effort,” says Dr. Rankin. “But if he or she won’t cooperate, you try changing and see what happens. Very often you’ll find that your partner quickly and enthusiastically reciprocates, and the entire dynamics of your relationship changes.”
For the rest of the year, focus on the following ten steps that can transform your good (or so-so or maybe even deeply troubled) relationship into a great relationship:
Ask yourself: Would I rather be right…or would I rather be happy? You’ve heard it all before: She doesn’t load the dishwasher the right way, he leaves his socks on the bedroom floor, she keeps squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle. And these little, everyday toilet-seat-up-or-down issues are just the tip of the iceberg. Couples could argue literally about everything—politics, religion, what to watch on TV, how often to see the in-laws—and some do.
But Rankin says that in successful relationships both partners accept that we all have our different ways of doing things. What’s more, they realize that accepting those differences is a key to a peaceful home.
“No one wants to be micromanaged, especially in her own home,” Rankin explains. “If you just want to be right and prove your point on everything, your relationship is likely to fail. The fact is that often, there isn’t a right or a wrong way, just different ways. Assuming that yours is the right—and only—way is arrogant and disrespectful. Think about the big picture. Does it really matter how chores are done or is this just about control?”
Master the fine art of communication. It sounds so simple: You speak, he hears. And vice versa. But it’s much harder than it sounds. In fact, Dr. Rankin says communication is at the root of the problems faced by almost every couple he’s ever seen. Not only is communication already a complex process, there are other issues inside a relationship that make it that much trickier. Gender differences, contrasting thinking styles, and different personalities can all make communication inside a relationship especially difficult. If you can learn to communicate effectively with your partner, you are well on your way to a successful and happy partnership.
The biggest mistake that couples make is not realizing the need to create an environment that allows their partner to talk freely about their thoughts and feelings. Rankin explains.
“If your husband doesn’t reveal too much about himself, it may be that he is not very skilled at doing that—or it may be that every time he tries to tell you something he gets shot down,” he points out. “People simply won’t talk if they think they are going to get criticized in some way. Be respectful and listen. You may not understand or agree but you should always respect your partner’s right to his viewpoint.”
Learn to fight fair. You’ve probably heard that couples argue most about money and sex. But are these disputes really about sex and money or are they about something else? Emotional discussions, says Dr. Rankin, by their very nature, are about more important underlying issues, like trust, control, or jealousy. It’s just that money and sex are the currency of control in many relationships. How you handle these conflicts will determine whether the underlying problem is exacerbated or resolved.
So how do you fight fair? Well, Rankin gives his clients a long list of guidelines: calling timeouts when things get too heated, never fighting in front of the kids (or anyone else), not dredging up the past, and so forth. But mostly, fighting fair means trying to solve the issue rather than trying to score points against your partner.
“Try to abandon the usual strategy of trying to win at all costs,” says Rankin. “Instead, work toward a productive resolution that you can both accept.”
Commit, already. (And no, it has nothing to do with a wedding ring!) Commitment is the glue that keeps a relationship together, says Rankin. And guess what? Most people have no idea what the word really means. They think in terms of marriage licenses or sexual fidelity, but real commitment goes beyond these things. The truth is, you can be totally faithful to your partner but still not be committed to the relationship.
“A relationship without commitment isn’t a relationship—it’s a loose arrangement,” asserts Rankin. “Commitment really means that you consider the other person in all matters—you consider how any action you might take affects your partner and the relationship.
“This does not mean that you will always make personal decisions secondary to your relationship,” he clarifies. “It does mean, however, that you make every effort to consider the impact of your actions and treat the relationship and your partner with fairness, respect, and without harm. Various studies have shown commitment to be a predictor of long-term marital happiness and stability.”
Be trustworthy. In a solid relationship, you need to be able to assume that your “other half” is telling you what you need to know and doing what he says he is doing. He needs to feel the same way about you. That’s what trust means. And it’s not just about fidelity, says Rankin. It’s about trusting that your partner will respect you, be honest with you (which includes avoiding secretive behavior and “lies of omission”), and not hurt you.
“Do not break trust with your partner,” cautions Rankin. “Lack of trust is corrosive. It eats away at the very fabric of a relationship and leads to disillusion and dissolution. Once trust has been broken, it is very difficult, often impossible, to regain it. Even a gullible person will wise up eventually to an untrustworthy partner. It might take him some time—but he will eventually.
“In order to make this part of your relationship better, you must learn how to deal with anger and conflict,” he adds. “If you as a couple can manage anger and disputes, then one or both partners are less likely to resort to lies and deceit to avoid confrontation.”
Learn how to share unconditionally. This is much harder than it sounds. As products of our consumer-based possession-obsessed society, we are not very good at sharing. We fight hard for ownership and can’t let it go once we have it. (Rankin jokes that you only need to look in the typical attic to see how difficult it is for people to let go.) In fact, sharing is so alien to most of us that we give up something only because we want something in return. And that’s not sharing at all—it’s trading.
“We all want unconditional love, and yet we find it very difficult to give unconditionally ourselves,” says Rankin. “And yet, successful relationships do require sacrifice. Someone has to give up something from time to time—whether it’s something big like a career or a hometown or something small like acquiescing to your partner on her choice of restaurant.
“Try giving your partner an unconditional surprise at least once a week,” he suggests. “Do it without expecting anything in return. And if you’ve been holding out on giving up on something, consider letting it go. You may be surprised at just how good it makes both of you feel.”
Nurture your partner’s dreams and goals. (And by the way…don’t smother him!) In a nutshell, nurturing your partner means accepting his independence and doing whatever you can to encourage it. Too many people are overly dependent on their partner and will therefore do anything to prevent him from living his own life. (This, obviously, is the opposite of nurturing.) Others are simply so self-centered that they don’t even know their partner’s goals and aspirations.
“If your inclination is to be with your partner 24/7 and control his every move, you really need to take a step back and learn to be a self-sufficient, independent human being,” says Rankin. “There is no way you can have a healthy relationship otherwise.
“On the other hand, if you’re failing to nurture your partner because you don’t know what his goals, dreams, and aspirations are, you simply need to ask him. Then, devise three ways that you could help in the realization of those goals. It can be a total game changer for your relationship.”
Realize that real romance isn’t about the roses. It’s one thing to send the children off to their grandparents’ house, fly to Florida, and board the cruise ship. But it’s not a romantic interlude if he then spends all his time in the casino and she becomes irremovably attached to the spa. Romance is, above all, about making your partner feel special, and you can do that only by paying him or her some attention.
“It is all too easy in the mayhem of everyday life not to make time for romance,” Rankin warns. “In the heady stages of the early infatuation, romance was natural and an essential priority. However, as the relationship matures, you have to go out of your way to make sure that romance occurs at all. Listen up, parents and other busy couples: Without special attention and time alone together, intimacy will disappear.
“Realize that romance can happen at anytime, anywhere if you make it happen,” he adds. “It doesn’t have to be Valentine’s Day! It’s about taking the time, creating or taking advantage of that moment of isolation where there is just the two of you, and sharing the closeness that makes your relationship special.”
Embrace the F-word: forgiveness. It is inevitable that in the course of your most intimate relationship, conflicts and major disagreements will occur. But Rankin says that one of the secrets of a successful relationship is ensuring that these muddy waters of disenchantment and anger don’t inevitably harden into bricks of resentment.
To stave off resentment, you need to accept two facts that many couples struggle with:
• You cannot control another person unless they let you.
• Sometimes you have to give up, or modify, your dreams.
Unless you come to terms with these facts, you are going to have a rough time being successful in any close relationship.
“In a way, forgiveness is an act of selfishness,” Dr. Rankin reflects. “If you carry around resentment, you are the one who really suffers from the stress of the anger and frustration. I’ve heard it said that resentment is like taking rat poison and expecting the rat to die. To continue a relationship and be happy, you have to learn to forgive and move on.”
Don’t make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” (Don’t assume!) Do you really understand your partner? Or do you only think you do? Dr. Rankin says one of our most important life skills is the ability to monitor our own instant judgments and automatic perceptions and measure them against reality. We all project our interpretations about others’— especially our spouse’s— behavior. But such projection is a problem because most of the time we’re wrong or missing some important detail (and who wants to be psychoanalyzed by her spouse anyway?).
Resist your natural tendency to interpret your partner’s behavior. Instead, actually talk to her to find out what’s really going on. This is a crucial (and underused) relationship skill.
“Asking, instead of assuming, will result in a much more peaceful environment,” says Dr. Rankin. “And trying to find out what your partner is really thinking and feeling and respecting it is a true act of love.”
“A good relationship shouldn’t take a ton of hard work,” says Dr. Rankin. “However, it does take a certain amount of reflection, self-control, compromise, and vigilance. You can’t just do what you want to do all the time and expect to be happy in your partnership.
“However, the time you put into creating and maintaining a healthy relationship is worth the effort,” he adds. “Do it, and by the time Valentine’s Day 2012 rolls around, your candlelit dinner might not feel quite so fake and forced or at least so novel. It will feel like a fun, romantic interlude in a relationship that works 365 days of the year.”