Something I Wish I’d Known About Relationships Earlier

My partner and I have been together for quite a while. Nineteen years, in fact, and we have certainly had plenty of challenges and triumphs in that time. I don’t think the fact that we’re deeply in love with each other after almost two decades makes me an expert on relationships. After all, each person and each relationship is unique and I try to not be arrogant enough to think that what works for us will work for others. At the same time, between that personal experience and my work as a sex educator (just about twenty-one years), I’ve picked up a few tidbits along the way. There’s one that I’d like to offer you. If it helps, great! And if not, that’s ok, too. After all, YMMV.

In both my personal and professional life, I’ve noticed that a lot of people drift into treating their partners and family members with less care than they treat friends, acquaintances and strangers. The saying “familiarity breeds contempt” comes from one of Aesop’s fables, in which the Fox gradually became so used to the Lion that the he stopped being scared. While I don’t think it’s a good thing for people to be scared of their family members or partners, it has certainly been my observation that people tend to start off more polite and mindful of other people’s needs, and over time, slip into taking them for granted.

It’s rather ironic that the people who are most important to us are sometimes the people we treat with less care, respect, and attention. I think that one reason for that is that we fall into habits of feeling secure in our relationships with them, so why put the effort into politeness? That slips really easily into taking them for granted and that is an easy way to create resentment, the relationship killer. Fortunately, there’s a really easy way to change that. When you’re talking with your partner, say please and thank you. Especially thank you.

Expressing gratitude for all of the things your partner does for you goes a long way towards feeding your relationship. It lets them know that you’re paying attention. And it helps you cultivate the practice of paying attention, which lets you see more ways in which you can show your thanks. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Letting your partner know that you appreciate what they do for you- the small favors, the big projects, and everything in-between- makes things smoother. Practicing gratitude can make you happier. And when you inevitably say or do something that hurts the other person, you’ll have some extra cushion to soften the blow.

My partner and I thank each other for lots of things. For doing the dishes (especially when it’s the other one’s turn). For going grocery shopping, for taking the trash out, for filling the gas tank up, for taking the trash out. And we both find that it helps a lot.

Sometimes, I’ll do something and my partner doesn’t notice it, for any of a number of reasons, and vice versa. So we’ve given ourselves permission to bring it up. We might say, “I paid the bills tonight.” Or “I picked the cat’s medication up at the vet.” Bringing something to the other’s attention isn’t nagging when it’s done gently- it’s an update. We don’t expect the other to know everything or read each other’s mind.  Plus, it creates the opportunity for gratitude. When I hear a “thank you,” I know that my efforts are being appreciated.

Not everyone is as word-focused as I am, and there are other ways to express thanks. I like the model of Chapman’s The Five Love Languages although I find his insistence on heterosexual, monogamous marriage in a Christian context rather limited and limiting. Here’s the short version:

There are a few ways that most people like to give and receive love. When we’re full up on love (or close to it), we can usually give and receive in all of them. But when we’re angry or stressed or feeling alone, we usually have a preference for which one we want. And without thinking about it, many people give love in the mode that they like to receive, even when that isn’t what the other person wants. Many of our relationship miscommunications are simply the result of speaking the wrong language, so when we can use the other person’s we’re likely to get a better response.

Here are Chapman’s five:

  • Words of Affirmation
  • Quality Time
  • Physical Touch
  • Acts of Service
  • Gifts

Any of these can be used to express gratitude, and it can be really fun to change up which one you use. Having said that (and acknowledging that Words of Affirmation is my primary language), verbal recognition for someone’s efforts is pretty easy to do and you can do it in most situations. So even if your preference is for one of the other ones, give a quick word of thanks in the moment and then make a plan for some Quality Time or find a Gift. Plus, Words of Affirmation are easy to use in non-romantic relationships, like with a co-worker or a neighbor, so it’s a pretty versatile approach.

Like I said, I don’t think this addresses every relationship issue there could be. But it’s a simple thing to do and it can bring more ease to the daily experience of a relationship. If I’d known about it earlier, I might have avoided some of the missteps that I took. But I figure that life is too short to only learn from our own mistakes- we need to learn from other people’s experiences, too. So give it a try and see what it does in your life. If it helps, drop me a note. I always like hearing from folks.

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2 Responses so far.

  1. LoriA says:

    “In both my personal and professional life, I’ve noticed that a lot of people drift into treating their partners and family members with less care than they treat friends, acquaintances and strangers.”

    I definitely notice this too. Having grown up in an abusive home, I’ve also seen how this dynamic influences and is influenced by abusive dynamics. I’ve only been away from home for a few years now, and I’ve only lived with one other person during that time, but I already get the feeling that no longer caring about treating people extra well can spiral downwards into abuse. I wonder if anyone else has had similar experiences.

  2. Stephanie says:

    It’s also easy to only notice what’s important to you. It used to drive me crazy that an old boyfriend would drop his clothes all over the place, not do dishes or ever cook. It helped, though, when he pointed out all the things he did do around the house–hooking up/handling all the computer, phone, TV and general technology stuff in particular–that I benefited from but didn’t notice, because I took them for granted as long as it all worked. It was a good wake-up call for both of us, to realize & appreciate that we both worked around the house in different spheres.

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