Relationship improvement is like strength training. You increase the load, muster the discipline to show up and to keep practicing and, eventually, you get stronger.
Personally, I hate going to the gym. I body-build rarely and only under duress. I always quit. But I’ve spent most of my adult life strength-training my relationship skills.
I’ve made a career out of it. Where other journalists cover wars and financial crises, I’ve always been drawn to the drama of relationships, curious about why some are so much better at it than others. I am endlessly fascinated by how we cope, fight, and love each other. And over the years, as I’ve parsed the give-and-take of others’ relationships, I’ve gotten better at seeing what matters and knowing what I need to “lift.”
I saw the payoff of these many decades of relationship-strength training this morning in a phone conversation with my partner who lives 5,000 miles away. She was distracted, annoyed, and conscious of a difficult coworker lurking in the next room. We had a brief conversation about mundane matters, like neighbors and insurance, because I needed to fill her in. She asked appropriate questions and made comments. But her voice and affect were completely different; it was almost like talking to a stranger.
I didn’t take it personally. I just observed. As a result, I saw a part of her that I am not normally around to witness. We are all multiple “selves,” and this was her work self, or at least one of them. And that self was pretty miserable. I felt for her.
A younger, less relationally-fit me might have felt sorrier for me. I might have thought her “distant.” That I didn’t accuse or quietly pout, and that I knew it had nothing to do with me is a testament to the heavy lifting that’s gotten me here.
No one is “good” at relationships without strengthening the right muscle. It’s a challenge. As Marianne Williamson famously put it, “Every relationship is an assignment...part of a vast plan for our enlightenment.”
Not an easy assignment, but relationships are everything. Whether you look through a psychological, spiritual, or practical lens, if you’re good at relationships, you’re good at life. And you get better at them when you focus on these five essential practices:
1. Slow down. Harsh words and inconsiderate actions can’t be undone. Instead of rushing to respond, take a beat, a breath.
2. Never forget what’s me and not-me. In every relationship are two, different and unique beings. We get into trouble when we try to read into people’s action or when we convince ourselves that we know what’s going on in their minds.
3. Strive for understanding, not winning. There is no such thing as “right. ” You might not always love where the other person is coming from or how she acts, but as the Buddhists remind us, it does no good to argue with reality. The least and best we can do is to be empathetic.
4. Remember that you always have a choice. Ask yourself, “Is what I’m about to say or do going to help this relationship?” You choose whether you feed or starve it.
5. Only control you. If you put your energy toward convincing, cajoling, tweaking, or in some way fixing the other person, it’s lose-lose. Just concentrate on holding up your end of the relationship.
It would be disingenuous to say that, even with practice and good intentions, I sometimes can’t ― or don’t want ― to hold up my end. It’s harder when I’m angry or when I feel attacked, as happened with a neighbor recently. It’s harder with people who have no self-control. Being the only grown up in the room tends to bring out a rebellious inner child.
But when the other person also has good relationship chops ― such as my partner, who immediately wrote a text apologizing for her distant tone ― you do the heavy lifting together.