To create a healthy, lasting relationship, two people often do a delicate dance to find the balance between independence and partnership, self and other and the need for commitment vs. freedom.
Choreographing this dance successfully is all about figuring out how to commit to another while staying true to yourself. If you turn yourself into a pretzel to fit what you think the other person wants or needs—even if they like you (temporarily)—there’s a small problem: the person they like isn’t really you!
Here are five communication rules to help you avoid common missteps in any romantic relationship. While it may seem easier to focus on someone else, any strong relationship must begin with you knowing what’s most important to you.
Rule 1: Determine What You Value
Knowing what’s motivating you before you engage in a conversation is as important as knowing what type of dance you want to do before stepping on the dance floor.
If you aren’t sure, bring to mind someone’s relationship you admire. Then, name three qualities you like about how they show up within that relationship. The characteristics you just named may seem to be about the other person—and they are. But the reason you admire those qualities is because they reflect what you hold dear. These are actually some of your highest values.
Rule 2: Choose Your Internal State of Being
Set the stage by choosing an attitude that honors your values. For example, you get to choose whether you come to a conversation with honesty, clarity, and openness or with anger, blame, and resentment. What are the qualities that will help create the outcome you hope for? Are you going to show up with courage and self-trust? Do you want to be open and flexible?
Let’s say I want to improve my relationship with my partner, but I realize I’ve been showing up with defensiveness and impatience. I will need to take ownership for my behavior in our conversations. Suppose, instead of defensiveness, I choose curiosity and love. My body language, tone, and words of love and curiosity will send a message very different from the ones that come from defensiveness.
Base your attitude or internal state of being on your highest values to move smoothly through the communication dance and be proud of how you did it.
Rule 3: Shift to an “And” Mind-Set
This means changing your thinking to expanding thoughts rather than limiting ones. Rather than using the words but or or, try using and. Here’s what I mean:
|Instead of saying:||Shift to saying:|
|“We can do this or that.”||“We can do this and that.”|
|“We can do this but not that.”||“How can we do this and that?”|
Rule 4: Ask for Anything You Want
It requires courage to ask for what you want. If you decide not to say anything, unspoken expectations often lead to awkwardness, tension, and blame. This creates distance in your relationship. You might fear that your partner might say no or reject you, so you don’t say anything. But silence only ensures that you don’t get what you’re seeking. So if you find yourself repeatedly disappointed (which is often the emotion that accompanies unmet desires), ask yourself whether you have communicated what you want.
Then it’s essential that you communicate your desires (out loud) in a romantic relationship. You know how this plays out: You hope your significant other has mental telepathy—especially when it comes to celebrations, gifts, and surprises. For some reason, it’s easy to think that telling your partner what you want (e.g., “I like pink roses better than yellow ones”) makes a gift not as special. My first question when I hear this complaint is “Have you asked for what you want?” Several of my clients have responded by saying, “Well, he definitely overheard me talking about it on the phone with my sister. I gave a huge hint when we passed the flower shop—because I said how awesome the flowers smelled.”
I just smile and say, “I mean out loud, directly to your partner.”
“Out loud? Directly? What a crazy thought. Are you serious? That takes all the fun out of it, and then it doesn’t count anymore.”
I’ve got news for you: it still counts. The reason is that if you speak up, your partner gets the opportunity to make you happy, and you’ll have a better chance of getting what you want. So I say, throw your partner a bone!
Of course, just because you ask for something doesn’t mean someone else has to give it to you. What then? You may feel disappointed; that’s the risk of being open and honest. The bigger risk is withholding what you really want and hoping your significant other figures it out on his or her own. If you express your desires, you’ll know you’ve been clear and have shown up in a way that lines up with what you value.
Rule 5: Your Significant Other Can Ask for Anything He or She Wants
It doesn’t mean you have to give it to them. Say your partner asks for something and your first reaction is: That request is outrageous. How dare he ask for that? Watch out. Don’t rush to say yes or no right away. When you have a strong reaction to a request, it’s not because your significant other shouldn’t have asked; it’s because you felt uncomfortable or torn about your response.
Are you hesitating to speak what is true for you? Instead of saying yes when you mean no or stuffing your emotions, shift your focus onto your partner so you can listen deeply for the motivation and values driving his or her request. Just be present in the moment. If you need to, ask for time to think through how the request would impact you. This way, whether you agree or politely decline, you have created an opportunity to connect with your partner.
Ta-da! Time for a bow. You can’t hear me, but I’m applauding.