Everybody would love to have an amazing relationship. But most of the advice you get isn’t from real experts. Whaddya say we just go ahead and fix that?
Albert Ellis was quite a character. He was controversial. Outspoken. A bit of a rebel. In fact, the book he’s most famous for was titled: How To Stubbornly Refuse To Make Yourself Miserable About Anything-yes, Anything.
Clever but a bit unprofessional, right? Here’s the thing: according to a survey of psychologists he was the 2nd most influential psychotherapist ever. Sigmund Freud came in third.
And he also covered romantic relationships, most notably in his book, Making Intimate Connections: Seven Guidelines for Great Relationships and Better Communication.
What did Ellis have to say about making your relationship amazing?
Let’s get to it…
1) Accept Your Partner “As Is”
No, you’re not going to change them. And as long as you think you will, you’re going to be causing yourself — and the relationship — even more grief.
Everybody has flaws. We’re all human. The goal is to be with someone whose flaws you can deal with.
Avoid blaming. Determine that you are in your relationship to enjoy yourself, not to try to fix, reform, or straighten out your partner. Be responsible for your own feelings. Allow yourself to influence your partner, but do not demand that he or she must change. Also give her or him the freedom to influence you.
And the research backs Ellis up. Trying to change your partner not only doesn’t work, it harms the relationship:
…when participants (N = 160) focused their relationship improvement attempts on changing the partner, individuals reported more negative improvement strategies, lower improvement success, and, in turn, more negative relationship evaluations… results suggest that targeting the partner may do more harm than good despite that relationship evaluations pivot on whether the partner produces change.
And what does John Gottman, the foremost researcher on marriage, say happy couples do? They accept one another as-is:
These couples intuitively understand that problems are inevitably part of a relationship, much the way chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older. They are like a trick knee, a bad back, an irritable bowel, or tennis elbow. We may not love these problems, but we are able to cope with them, to avoid situations that worsen them, and to develop strategies and routines that help us deal with them.
Accept reality. Accept your partner.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
So you can accept your partner’s flaws. Awesome. You’ve dealt with the bad — but what’s the best way to handle the good?
2) Express Appreciation Frequently
Show admiration, not criticism.
Avoid steady criticism. Acknowledge your partner often for small things. Find, discover, or even create things you really value about your partner. Say them. Honesty is important here. Avoid the main relationship “killer” — frequent criticism of your partner.
Again, Gottman agrees 100% with Ellis. Gottman spells out 4 things that spell doom for love, and take a guess what #1 is? Yeah, criticism.
Complaints are fine. Criticism is more global — it attacks the person, not their behavior. They didn’t take out the garbage because they forgot, but because they’re a bad person.
And what does Gottman say is one of the antidotes? Admiration.
Ever listen to someone madly in love talk about their partner? They sound downright delusional. They act like the other person is a superhero. A saint.
And research shows that is perfect. Gottman consistently found that people in happy relationships see their partner as better than they really are. Those in lousy relationships see their partners as worse than they really are.
And they didn’t just feel admiration; they expressed it:
Happy couples tell their tales with warmth, affection, and respect for each other… Spontaneous compliments are common…
(To learn the four things that John Gottman says kill relationships, click here.)
So you can cope with the bad and you’re expressing the good. But how do you communicate?
3) Communicate From Integrity
Be honest and don’t punish them for being honest.
Be honest regarding beliefs and evidence that conflict with your own views of what is happening. When your partner is right, admit it. Be both honest and tactful. Allow different perceptions to exist. Agree to stop penalizing each other for your honesty as you now often may do. Agree that both of you will be honest and let the other “get away” with honesty.
Yeah, yeah, I know: you’re always honest…
No, you’re not. In the heat of an argument you aren’t focused on telling the truth — or admitting when you’re wrong — you’re trying to win.
You need to put that aside and take the high road. Ellis says, “Accept your fears that honesty and integrity will not always make you look good” and “Have as your objective the resolving of the conflict, and not the gaining of advantage.”
Sounds cliche but honesty is critical. Research shows even “white lies” harm a relationship.
At least one study suggests that 10 percent of communication between spouses is deceptive… Research suggests that all forms of lying—including white lies meant to spare the feelings of others—are associated with poorer-quality relationships.
(To learn the 5 things John Gottman says make love last, click here.)
So honest communication sounds easy but what about when you discuss important topics where you really disagree?
4) Share And Explore Differences With Your Partner
Maybe they believe or want something you consider plain wrong. That judgment isn’t going to help. Ellis says, “Assume that your partner always has a position worth considering.”
You can agree to disagree, but don’t avoid the hard topics and don’t be dishonest about your perspective just to keep the peace.
Explore disagreements with your partner to move toward a higher resolution that accepts parts of both your views. Or, to agree to disagree. Additionally, be ready to compromise without pretending that you agree when you don’t really agree.
What’s the best method to use with major points of disagreement?
“Connect before you correct.”
Don’t jump into telling them why you think they’re wrong. Fully hear them out and confirm that you understand what they’re saying, and that they know you understand.
And this strategy works when you’re dealing with people you don’t love…
Chris says you want to summarize the person’s perspective for them so that they reply, “That’s right.” Those two words are magical:
That’s a really powerful connection to be able to establish. They’re telling you they feel connected to you, and they feel a great rapport with you. If there’s anything that’s going to move them in your direction swiftly it’s when they say, “That’s right.”
(To learn an FBI hostage negotiator’s secrets to persuading people, click here.)
So you’re good on the communication front. But what do you need to do to have an amazing relationship?
5) Support Your Partner’s Goals
It’s not all talk. Ellis says to “Express your love for your partner in practical and supportive ways.” Help them get what they want and need.
Don’t surrender your own integrity and your own important desires and views, but go as far as you honestly can to support your partner even when you clearly disagree.
The leading researcher on romantic love, Arthur Aron, agrees. He says one of the things that’s critical for keeping love alive is “Capitalization.” (No, I don’t mean using bigger letters.)
Celebrate your partner’s successes. Be their biggest fan.
How a couple celebrates the good times is more important than how they deal with the bad times. When I interviewed Arthur he said this:
Celebrating your partner’s successes turns out to be pretty important. When things go badly and you provide support, it doesn’t make the relationship good, but it keeps it from getting bad. Whereas if things are going okay and your partner has something good happen and you celebrate it sincerely, you’re doing something that can make a relationship even better.
(To learn the most common relationship problems — and how to fix them — click here.)
But what about when they really do something wrong that upsets you?
6) Give Your Partner The Right To Be Wrong
Are you perfect? Of course not. Neither are they. Don’t forget that when things get heated.
Respect both of your rights to be fallible humans — your inalienable right to make mistakes and to learn from your own experiences and errors. Don’t honor only yourright to be an error-prone human.
If you punish them for every error and accuse them of being a bad person, they’re going to hide their mistakes and not discuss them. Allow them to admit mistakes and they can learn and improve.
You’re not perfect and they’re not perfect. Which is good. Because perfectionism does not make for a happy love life.
People high in perfectionism, a hyperbelief in their own correctness and a desire to find a partner with similar traits, are 33 percent less likely to describe their relationship status as satisfying. – Flett, Hewitt, Shapiro, and Rayman 2002
(To learn the 3 things that keep love alive, click here.)
And what if your partner isn’t giving you what you need — what you absolutely, positively must have from them?
7) Reconsider Your Wants As Goals
Albert Ellis hated the words “should” and “must.” He felt (and his work proved) that they caused a lot of the emotional distress people felt.
When you say something “should” or “must” happen, you’re basically telling the universe or other people that they have to obey your rules. And as you’re well aware by now — they don’t. So you get angry, frustrated or depressed.
Turning your “shoulds” and “musts” into mere preferences, helps you avoid those awful emotions. And changing the things you want from your partner from “demands” into “goals” has a similar effect.
Demands make you frustrated and your partner angry. But goals are something you can work toward without infringing on their autonomy or making you crazy.
Many of the things you think you “must” have are not truly essential. Often we have unrealistic expectations of a fairy tale relationship like in the movies. And research shows that’s a prescription for disappointment.
Elements of fairy tales such as Cinderella were present in 78 percent of people’s beliefs about romantic love. Those people were more likely to have experienced disillusionment, devastation, and angst in their relationships than were those who gave less credence to fairy tales. – Lockhart 2000
(To learn how to never be frustrated again, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up and find out the trickiest part of implementing these techniques — and the reason most people fail when they try to use them…
Here’s how to have an amazing relationship:
- Accept your partner “as is”: You can return it to the store but trying to repair it yourself voids the warranty.
- Express appreciation frequently: You’re with them for a reason. Tell them the reason. Often.
- Communicate from integrity: Admit when you’re wrong. And don’t punish them for telling the truth, even if you don’t like the truth.
- Share and explore differences with your partner: Don’t dodge the tough stuff. It’s okay to agree to disagree.
- Support your partner’s goals: If it matters to them, it’d be a really good thing if it mattered to you too.
- Give your partner the right to be wrong: You’re not perfect. So don’t insist that they be.
- Reconsider your wants as goals: They don’t “have to” do anything. But if you stop insisting, they might start agreeing.
So what’s the tricky part here? The thing most people screw up?
You may need to do this on your own — at least at first. You have to make a unilateral commitment to improve the relationship.
When your partner screws up and violates one of these rules you can’t just throw your arms up and say, “Well, if they’re not going to do the right thing, then I don’t have to either.”
That might help you “win” — but it’s going to make the relationship a loser.
At first it may be like dealing with a child. Just because they scream, cry, and pout doesn’t mean that’s how you should respond. If this really is someone special, do the best thing for both of you and follow the rules, even if your partner initially doesn’t.
I know someone with a distant partner who gave from her heart from April until the next February. And in March he finally woke the heck up and realized how loving and patient she had been: accepting his eccentricities, admiring his good qualities, never criticizing, making her own wants into goals instead of demands, and almost delusionally seeing him as better than he had been acting.
That’s the best part: you can use these methods to help teach your partner how to use these methods.
Couples say they want to learn and grow together. But you may have to start unilaterally. On your own. But if it’s the right person, and you practice these methods consistently — especially when it’s difficult…
You won’t ever be alone again.
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Eric Barker is the author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. Eric has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 290,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here.