My wife and I when we met in 1998 in Miami, FL, and a similar more recent photo
This article first appeared on the blog of Intentional Insights, a nonprofit organization that popularizes science-based strategies for emotional intelligence, rational thinking, and effective giving.
Have you ever made silly mistakes that ruined great relationships? I can't be the only one, can I? Well, since then, I've read a lot more about the science on how to have happy and long-lasting relationships, whether with romantic partners or family and friends. My wife and I have been together for 18 years, over half my life, and I have a wonderful circle of close friends. I want to share these science-based tips with you to help you avoid those silly mistakes and help your relationships flourish!
1. Be intentional.
Be intentional and figure out the truth about your relationship. Think through all aspects of your relationship -- your feelings and thoughts, the other person's feelings and thoughts, and the external context. If you notice yourself flinching away from a certain aspect of reality, this is the time to double down your focus and really get at the truth. The things you flinch away from, the truths you don't want to acknowledge to yourself, are likely to be the ones that will most undermine your relationship in the future. It's better to face the truth squarely in the face right now and address it rather than let it sabotage your relationship in the long run.
2. Avoid failing at their mind.
One of the biggest dangers in close relationships is assuming the other person is exactly the same as you in their feelings and thoughts, and thus failing at their mind. This is something that's so easy to flinch away from, as our emotional self just doesn't want to accept that the person we're so close to is actually different from us -- sometimes very different. I know I made this mistake, and it cost me dearly in the past. So how to avoid it?
3. Use Tell Culture.
Use Tell Culture! Tell Culture is a communication strategy where you are open and honest with close people in your life about your feelings and thoughts, about what's going on with you, lowering your private barrier and being vulnerable and authentic. Tell them information about yourself that you think they would want to know.
For example, if you want a hug, you should tell the other person that you would enjoy a hug. However, for Tell Culture to work, it's really important for you not to expect that the other person will hug you. You are responsible for telling them about your needs and desires, and they are then free to act as they choose based on their own needs and desires.
4. Remove communication barriers.
For open and honest communication to work, you need to remove communication barriers. Figure out your individual communication preferences and then compromise on something that works well for both of you.
5. Practice emotional attunement.
As you communicate with each other, don't listen only to what the other person is saying, also listen to the emotions underneath the words. Notice whether the other person seems stressed, frazzled, sad, frustrated, confused, pleased, glad, joyful, etc.
Pay attention to the tone of the voice, body language, and what is not being said as well as the content of the words. Such emotional attunement will level up your ability to understand the other person, and respond in ways that lead to happy and long-lasting relationships.
6. Check in on your relationships.
This is a magic-bullet solution to so many relationship problems! Schedule systematic meetings to talk about the state of your relationship and what can be improved. For the process, you can follow this science-based questionnaire or come up with your own approach to the relationship check-in.
For example, my wife and I have a relationship check-in every two weeks. We first talk about what we appreciated most about each other during the last two weeks. Then we discuss what can be improved in our relationship, and how to do so. We then finish up with gratitude to each other for doing the relationship check-in and have some delicious chocolate to reward ourselves. It's done wonders for improving our relationship!
7. Trust others.
All of these strategies will help you build up trust, what research shows is key to having happy, lasting relationships. Always keep in the back of your mind a personal evaluation of the level of trust in the relationship. How much do you trust the other person to act in ways that both match your mental model of that person? How much do you trust that person to have your back?
If you want an intentional relationship, do things to build up trust and gather information about the other person's trustworthiness. Exhibit vulnerability and openness, share secrets, and be generous in your offers to compromise. If the other person shows themselves trustworthy, then be more committed to the relationship. If they do not, then re-evaluate your own level of commitment, as the relationship likely will not work in the long term.
8. Respect boundaries and privacy.
A key aspect of showing trust is allowing each other to set boundaries and permitting privacy. Technological developments make it so easy for us to track each other and to be in constant communication. However, permitting each other to have a private space and avoiding pushing the other person to do things they would prefer not to do helps a lot in creating sustaining happiness in relationships. Respecting boundaries and permitting privacy will do wonders for building up mutual trust!
9. Have healthy conflicts.
Surprise, conflicts can be healthy in relationships! If you go into a relationship expecting never to fight, you'll lose out on great relationships because the first fight might well lead to the end of the relationship. Instead, learn strategies for healthy conflict resolution, and talk about them with your relationship partner before the fact.
Start any conflicts by highlighting how you care about the other person and the relationship. Talk about both the facts and how you feel about them. Avoid the blame game and instead be as generous as you can be in interpreting the other person's actions. Be open to changing your mind if you discover you made the mistake and apologize quickly and profusely. Avoid focusing on the past and instead orient toward better behavior in the future. At the end of any conflict, focus on reconnecting and rebuilding emotional bonds strained by the conflict. My wife and I found these techniques to be so helpful in resolving tensions between us!
10. Meet your own goals.
Remember that you are in the relationship for yourself, not the other person. So meet your own goals first in any relationship. Be intentional and consider what you want from the relationship as you evaluate it in your own mind and heart. Don't allow the other person's needs and desires to overwhelm yours. Play by the rules of Tell Culture and be honest and open with the other person in the relationship about your needs and desires, and encourage that person to be honest and open with you. Otherwise, you risk building up resentment and frustration both for yourself and the other person in the relationship, and subverting the possibility of a happy and long-lasting relationship.
Balance getting your needs met with meeting the other person's needs. Seek a mutually beneficial compromise on any areas of disagreement. The ability to compromise is key to happy and lasting relationships. Today's society emphasizes individuality, but for any relationship to work, we need to get out of the self-centered shell and put ourselves in the shoes of the other person, understanding their perspective, thoughts, and feelings. That makes compromise much easier! My wife and I make compromises for each other all the time, big and small, and that's how we keep our relationship strong.
12. Don't fight against change or diversity.
People change and relationships change all the time. This is not something to mourn, but just a fact of life, to be acknowledged and celebrated. Sometimes, relationship needs to become more diverse for both people to remain happy. So consider the possibilities of non-traditional relationships such as polyamory and others. At other times, people who were right for each other earlier are no longer right for each other. To ensure mutual happiness, it's important to let each other go at that stage. The key is to be intentional and pursue your own goals in any relationship you are in.
I hope these science-based tips help you have happy, lasting relationships!
Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky runs a nonprofit that popularizes science-based strategies for emotional intelligence, rational thinking, and effective giving, Intentional Insights, authored Find Your Purpose Using Science, and is a tenure-track professor at Ohio State. Get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.