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Happily Ever After

Richard and Sally’s recent columns have explored how some common problems that plague couples can be overcome. However, not all relationships are doom and gloom. Today, and in the next two articles, they write about some of the factors that can help couples live “happily ever after”.

They’ve noticed that while we live in a society where relationship breakdown is commonplace, some couples seem able to hang on to friendship and love – for each other and for their children.

Sally: What comes to mind when you’re thinking about couples we’ve met and worked with who have successful relationships? Are there any defining qualities?

Richard: Four words sum up these for me: respect, understanding, trust and love. Small words with big meanings.

Without exception, these couples like and respect each other. Other words that go along with respect are value and honour. I believe everyone is due respect simply because they are human beings. But on another level, respect has to be earned. We tend to show particular respect to people because of their character – who they are – and because of achievement or excellence in some field. This sort of respect has to be earned within couple relationships, too.

Equally, we find it hard to respect those who show selfishness or irresponsibility, incompetence or repeated failure, and pettiness in all forms. Couples can soon learn not to respect each other it these behaviours become common place between them.

I’ve noticed couples show respect to each other in many ways. Frequently, one member of a couple says something affirming about the other’s character. Perhaps, something like: “I admire your honesty, decency, loyalty, generosity or kindness.” These are very basis moral qualities, and most people recognise these in others. Maybe, they’ll congratulate the other on some achievement.

Couples also show respect through the tone of voice they use with each other, by the look in their eyes towards each other, by the way they touch, or by showing genuine concern for each other.

Couples who demonstrate mutual respect rarely put each other down, embarrass or speak badly of each. One of the most important commitments a couple can make is to be loyal to each other when the other is not present. In other words, talk about the other as if they were present.

Constant criticism, fault finding and nagging (one of the three most frequent complaints couples make) undermines respect. Being ignored or disregarded damages respect.

Sally: Many couples, who have successfully stayed together, come to believe their relationship and their children are the achievements in which they take most pride.

Richard: I’d agree. Our marriage and our children are what I’m most proud of. Our children are central to our lives, as individuals and as symbols of our relationship.

Sally: Whilst we’ve seen many couples with successful relationships, none of them would pretend there were no serious differences – conflict, anger, sometimes infidelity – along the way. What they do have is an ability to work through the issues, and a belief that the satisfactions outweigh the frustrations in the long term.

Richard: One issue that couples often need to work through is the new emphasis in our society on equality in relationships between men and women.

Successful couples we’ve worked with seem to have agreed in principle that men and women have equal rights and responsibilities within the family, however differently they may have negotiated the actual division of household chores and the work of raising children. They seem to enjoy the greater flexibility and greater choice available through operating on a more level playing field.

Sally: You mention negotiating, which brings us to how couples build understanding between themselves. This is so important – after all, how can I respect you until I first know – understand – you? A couple’s attempt to negotiate about something is doomed if neither understand the other’s position.

Understanding demands effective communication, probably the most important skill in life. But consider this: people spend years formally learning to read, write and speak, but virtually no time at all learning to listen! Unless we listen, how can we begin to understand another human being?

We typically seek first to be understood. Often, people don’t listen with the intent of understanding; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak!

Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Successful couples often demonstrate this principle in their communication. They have developed the ability to really listen with patience and with an open mind.

It’s hardly surprising then, that poor communication is one of the top three complaints couples bring to our counselling sessions.

When I hear couples speaking but not listening, I often ask them to participate in an experiment to help them communicate better. The couple agrees to spend some time together on their own with the purpose of talking with and listening to each other. Perhaps, initially, they might agree to 15 minutes a day or every other day – whatever they feel they need and can cope with. At their first session:

- The couple toss a coin to decide who speaks first;
- Whoever wins – let’s assume it’s the woman – has, say, five minutes to speak about whatever she wants, while her partner listens without interrupting her;
- Then they switch roles. Her partner now has an opportunity to speak for five minutes, responding to what he has heard, while she listens;
- If they wish, the couple can go into another round of speaking and listening.

I sometimes suggest that they use an alarm clock to ensure that each keeps to the time limit. Doing so is, in itself, a mark of respect for the other.

Richard: Understanding takes time to develop and I may ask couples, “When did you last take time out to enjoy each other’s company and talk and listen without interruptions?” The question is too often followed by silence as the couple tries to remember!

The usual reason for not taking the time is, “We’re so busy, we both work.” Work-life balance is a casualty in our society, I believe.

You and I once had this problem. What changed it was when I read about the importance of prioritising my use of time according to what matters most, an idea I picked up from Stephen Covey author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

If we want to build a successful relationship we must be prepared to put appropriate time into it, just as we do for, say our careers. I remember when I decided to plan time with you and with the children by putting this in my diary just as I did my business appointments. I came to regard these times together as sacrosanct. It made a big positive difference to the quality of our relationships.

Sally: We’ve run out of space. We’ll write about trust and love next time.

This article, written by swift counsellors, was recently published in the Swindon Evening Advertiser