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The Three Most Important Words in Any Relationship

If you are currently in a relationship, or have a past one to look back on, ask yourself this: Would I dare to ask for a favor while my partner is up?
03/18/2010 05:12am ET | Updated November 17, 2011
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The next time you are out with friends, try this fun game: ask what the three most important words in a relationship are. A few of your friends will pick "I love you," and some cynics may even choose "I'm leaving you." But neither would be right. I know this, because I have scientifically tested almost all three-word combinations, and can definitively say that the three most important words in any relationship are, "While you're up."

Stay with me here. Imagine that you are hosting a big family gathering, and after hours of preparation the food is finally served and you are sitting down ready to enjoy a delicious plate of food. Suddenly, you realize there is no butter on the table. Your spouse is getting up to get a clean fork for your daughter, who just dropped hers on the floor. You say to him, "While you're up, can you please bring out the butter?"

Everything you need to know about your relationship is right there, in your tone as you ask the question, and in the way he responds.

I was alerted to this shocking truth by a friend of mine, back when she was still married. Her husband was a famous charmer and philanderer who had problems thinking about others. Whenever she asked him to do anything while he was up, he turned on her in a fit of rage and accused her of being controlling, nagging, and demanding.

That was in private, mind you. In social settings he was the life of the party, and it was at one of those parties that my friend let us all know how much he hated those three words. I didn't fully believe her--who could fly off the handle over a simple request?--so I decided to try it out myself. On her husband, not mine.

I waited for a moment when we were all sitting around talking, and he got up to head for the kitchen. I called after him in a cheerful tone, "While you're up, can you please get me another napkin?"

There it was: his spine stiffened, he broke his stride and with every fiber of his being resisted turning around and raging at one of his guests. To his credit, he managed to pull it off. He gave me a forced smile, realizing that he was being teased and also tested. I returned the favor, laughing it off as a friendly joke. But I did not forget it.

If you are currently in a relationship, or have a past one to look back on, ask yourself this: Would I dare to ask for a favor while my partner is up? If so, would I ask apologetically, as though I didn't really deserve it and hated to be a bother? Or would I phrase it more like a command, assuming compliance to my every whim?

And on the other side, notice your own reaction the next time your partner asks for something while you are up. Do you bristle and feel taken for granted? Or do you say yes because you love this person and genuinely want to help?

If you find someone who will help you when you need it and who you are also happy to help, congratulations: you've got a keeper. If not, don't despair. Now that you know what the most important three words are, you should have an easier time finding someone with the right answer.