For any long-term relationship to work, you need to put in some effort. We all know that already. What we don’t always know however, is exactly how we should behave to support our partner in our relationship.
1. Refrain from judgement.
Your partner has come home from work and changed into sweatpants. The problem is that you both had planned to go to a nice restaurant that evening. Did they forget about your date night? Or, even worse, are they planning to actually wear those sweat pants out tonight? Or maybe, they just want to rest in their sweat pants prior to changing back into something you interpret as acceptable.
Refrain from judgement. Do you judge your friends? Would your friends want to be your friend if all you did was judge them?
Think of your partner as a friend. Why would you treat them any different? Sure, there is room for joking around and teasing but if you know something offends or hurts your partner that’s where you need to draw the line. If it’s something you can live with then you need to suck it up. I’m sure that there are things that you do that irritate and annoy your partner as well. If you are lucky to have a patient partner like I do, their patience will often remind you of your own habit of hastiness and motivate you to change this.
I believe it was Mufti Menk who once stated that if you don’t have anything nice to say to your partner, reply with “Masha ‘Allah!” instead.
This almost goes without saying, it is vitally important to listen to your partner. How should you listen? Actively; that means that you don’t spend the entire time thinking about what will come out of your mouth next. Reserve judgement and provide empathy.
What should you be listening for?
Constructive criticism of you. There is no point in being in a relationship if you are not open to being challenged and growing. If you want something easy then don’t enter a relationship. While relationships should provide ease, they are certainly not easy. Be open to ways that you can enhance your character and ask questions for clarification.
Tone of voice. The tone that someone uses when they speak often tells you more about how they feel than the words that they are actually saying.
Body language. Related to tone, body language can be a very subtle way that we reveal our emotions without directly telling the other person.
For things you can learn from. It would be such a boring life if you only talked about yourself and never took the time to pause and reflect on new ideas and arguments.
3. Provide empathy, not advice.
Empathy is a skill that involves tuning into the emotions that the other individual is experience at the moment and reflecting those emotions in language back to them. Many of us seem to think that men are the only people who have struggle with empathy but this is not true. While volunteering on the Crisis Line I witnessed that many female callers also needed to hone this skill.
So how can you improve your ability to empathize?
Start with learning some “feeling” words. You can search “feeling words list” on Google and save or print a copy to keep readily available. Here is a comprehensive list. This list also includes evaluations in addition to feelings.
The next time you have a conversation with someone, this can even be over text message (although you miss the advantage of hearing emotion through their voice), practice listening to what they are saying and then take a moment to really think about if you were in their situation how you would feel.
Try your best to reserve judgement. This is not your life, it’s theirs. When you can embody the same feeling that this individual is experiencing, it will be easier to recognize and select from the list of emotions you have prepared. When you find one, you can reflect it back to them by saying, “that sounds [insert feeling word].”
For example, your partner is telling you about a difficult day at work. It rained on their way into work and when they arrived their secretary practically ran to them to tell you about a last-minute meeting they scheduled for you. The meeting did not go well. The client rejected their project proposal and your partner seems upset. Something I would say is, “you must have spent the rest of the day feeling dejected”. Using empathy may seem awkward at first but it is a skill that becomes easier the more you use it.
4. Be ready to make sacrifices.
If it’s my way or the highway you’re going to end up on a very long and lonely highway. If you think that this person is in fact worth sacrificing for to maintain the relationship (with the caveat that sacrifice is not the same as abuse) then you need to reframe the relationship from prioritizing what YOU want to what is going to fuel the partnership between the two of you. If this person was to leave your life tomorrow would you regret not sacrificing the petty details that you’re hung up on. Can you live with messy dishes if that means that you prevent the other person from leaving?
Alternatively, it could also be that this individual is not someone with whom you are willing to sacrifice and that’s ok too.
5. Change your mindset from “what do I want & what can they do for me?” to “what can I contribute and do for them?”
If you haven’t read The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman then seriously, what are you doing with your life? Kidding, but not really. I normally abhor these type of pseudo psychology guides but this one was an exception. Chapman outlines, in what he classifies into five categories, ways that each of us individually experience “being loved”. What I really like about this book is the explanation that by focusing on your partner’s needs, you don’t need to focus on what your partner can do for you because they will feel compelled to reciprocate. If you instead focus on your own needs, your partner will eventually get tired of trying to please you and receiving nothing in return. They will likely stop prioritizing your needs and you will end up feeling frustrated because you’re not getting what you want or need in the relationship. Remember, a relationship is not about “me”, it’s about “we” and how to grow ‘we’ into a relationship that uplifts and enhances both of you together.