What Makes A Relationship Work?
Ask a hundred different people and you’ll get a hundred different answers. Here's an idea you may have never heard before. A recent conversation with a friend got me thinking about our current perception of what it means to be “submissive,” and that maybe there is a totally different way to look at it. Instead of the stigma, what if it could actually benefit our relationships? Make them stronger, healthier, and happier long term. The current understanding is that there is one dominant partner that tells the other what to do. And the submissive partner is simply obedient. What if we change the word “obedient” to the word “willing?”
We are so afraid of being wronged that we lose our ability to be agreeable. We spend more time than we realize in defense mode. This ego prevents us from experiencing the beauty that is feeling truly connected to each other. If we can check our pride for just a moment and let our guard down, we'd see that it can dramatically change the quality of our relationships. Being submissive sometimes gets a bad rap, but there is an element of allowing that can be a source of power in the dynamic.
Here is the language you need to start using, and why
I want you to tell me what to do,
because I can’t read your mind.
There’s a really interesting concept presented by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski called "Fish Love.". The takeaway from his story is that true love is more about giving than receiving.
I often hear people tell me they love their partner. And then somehow in the next moment they are arguing based on a ‘what have you done for me lately’ issue. If I truly love my partner, I want to pay attention to his needs. In order for me to do that, I need to know what those needs are. There is a faulty belief that occurs, and we're all guilty of it: No one can read your mind. If you need something, it's on you to ask for it. It’s devastatingly common for people get upset about things they think their partner should automatically know. For example, “I told him I had a busy day, so he should have known I needed help with dinner.” Sorry, it doesn't work that way. The only thing you are accomplishing with that mindset is setting yourself up for disappointment, and setting your spouse up for failure
The other side of that equation is that we can be better about asking each other. If my spouse tells me he is crazy stressed, I can be proactive and ask, “is there anything I can do?” Each of us constantly has our own mental list of worries and to-do’s that keeps us distracted. Be mindful if you are blaming your partner for not being able to think about your needs as well as their own. Because what happens as a result? Anger. Bitterness. Resentment. Learning to manage expectations does wonders for our mental health, and the quality of our relationships.
I want you to tell me how to love you,
because I take that responsibility seriously.
One of the best selling relationship books of all-time is The Five Love Languages. The lesson is that there are different ways (“languages”) in which people feel love. The goal is to learn to communicate in the way that resonates best with your significant other.
Why is this philosophy so successful? It turns out that a lot of us are existing in relationships where we feel unloved, neglected, or unimportant. Those are some pretty strong sentiments. When we feel that way, it can be overwhelming and and like there is no hope. The truth is, there are small, simple changes we can make that can create a huge, positive ripple effect. A compliment, a hug, a gesture of appreciation.
The one thing that can screw it up? Willingness.
I have to be willing to make changes for the other person. I have to want to make the effort to know your love is felt. I have to care that you know it. And do so without worrying what I'll get in return.
I want you to tell me how you feel,
because it helps me understand who you are.
As the book The Four Agreements suggests, a huge hurdle we could all benefit from overcoming is learning not to take things personally. How many times have you seen your other half in a bad mood and made the assumption it had something to do with you? Or made an assumption that you already knew what it was about? And the defensiveness takes over and we say things like, “What’s your problem now?” Or "What did I do this time?”
We're not good at talking about emotions, especially the vulnerable ones. The person you are with may not be capable of, or comfortable with that kind of expression. But we all know what it feels like to feel stressed, angry, frustrated, sad, and scared. So instead of jumping to attack, what if we try compassion and kindness instead? What if we try asking more questions instead of making accusations? What if we give the other person the space and time to open up, and know that we want them to because we want to know what they are feeling and why. It’s the kind of intimacy we don’t pay enough attention to, but the kind that creates the strongest bonds.
I want you to tell me how to talk to you,
because communication will make or break us.
It's the most prominent, ongoing issue in relationships. Many people come to therapy and openly admit, “I’m not very good at communication.” You’re not alone. We are not inherently born with the ability to always say the right thing at the right time.
Further complicating the issue is that the “right” words vary depending on who you are having a conversation with. Some people respond well to constructive criticism, while it sends others into days of self-deprecating. Some people will react to raised voices, while it causes others to shut down. Some people prefer blunt directness (my significant other), while others prefer to breakdown the emotional experience of what is happening (me).
Sadly we don't magically figure this stuff out in our sleep. We've got to be proactive about it. If you don’t want to go to therapy, read some books. Anything by John and Julie Gottman, Brene Brown, Deborah Tannen. And here’s another revelation: if you’re having trouble communicating, try focusing on listening rather than trying to get your point across. Ask more questions. “What am I doing that isnt' working?” “What can do better?” And listen to the responses.
I want you to tell me what you want to do to me,
because I want to be the one you share your erotic self with.
In Esther Perel's research on desire, she talks a lot about the concept of infidelity and why it happens. Even in happy marriages. While there are numerous factors, one of the reasons that stood out to me was the experience of people being fearful of telling their partner what they want in bed. The topic of sex is (unfortunately) hard enough to talk about without being made to feel that our desires in that area are too much, disgusting, inappropriate, weird, or wrong. Because of these beliefs, it makes it scary to communicate what we want for fear of judgment, criticism, or rejection.
If the person you are with makes an attempt to communicate sexual interests to you, it might be a good idea to check yourself before you react. Intimate desires, just like emotions, can be really difficult for people to express. An indicator of a strong couple is the ability to be vulnerable with one another. Don’t shut down your partner’s willingness to open up to you.
Something else to consider? When your partner is suggesting trying something new, before you cringe, here’s a mind-blowing revelation: You might like it.
I want you to tell me how to touch you,
because I care about our intimate connection.
There was an article written by Jennifer Bleyer published in Psychology Today in October, 2015, that talked about the concept of “sexual communal strength.” Bleyer explains that this is “a couple’s motivation to meet each other’s sexual needs.” It’s no secret that most couples have some kind of discrepancy in desire. What the current research (and common sense) suggests is that even if you are not in the mood, do it anyway. Not because you are being forced to, but because you are choosing to for your partner. We can’t always make it happen, but if we have the opportunity, the question to ask is not “Why should I?” but “Why shouldn’t I?”
When we show interest in meeting our partner’s intimate needs, it’s a way of communicating that they are important. A fundamental feeling we all crave. Keeping in mind that physical touch encompasses so much more than sex.
Think of it in terms of a non-sexual example. My boyfriend has a pretty intense need for the bed to be made every day. It’s not something I pay attention to, and couldn’t care less about. But when I have the opportunity, I do it. It doesn’t hurt me in any way. He’s not forcing me to do it. I do it because I know it means a lot to him. Shouldn’t we enjoy doing things that make the person we chose to be with happy?
Yet for some reason when that behavior translates to sex, our defenses go up. We’re so protective, but of what? Somehow there is more power attached to sexual acts, so we feel more resistant to "submitting" to them. Why? If we are in a healthy, committed relationship, why does this cause feelings of contempt?
I want to know what makes you happy.
I can’t do it for you, but I want to support your journey.
With relationships comes sacrifice. We lose some of our individuality when we create a life with another person. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just part of the process. But we do ourselves a disservice when we stop nurturing our own happiness. Our personal goals, dreams, aspirations, bucket list stuff.
Anyone who has done any kind of therapeutic work knows - the only person responsible for your happiness is YOU. However, we can absolutely support our significant other in trying to achieve, accomplish, or realize anything they identify that might make them feel happier.
When someone else's happiness is your happiness, that is love. - Lana Del Rey.