Rain thundered down from the sky. I looked out the window and saw a “welcome to Johnson City, Tennessee” sign. My girlfriend at the time, Serena, had been at the wheel of her Toyota Camry for almost 8 straight-hours. Midnight quickly approached.
I had contracted some weird stomach virus going around my college campus, and was testing the limits of my abilities to not throw up in the car.
We spent less than 48 hours in Tennessee for an event cut short due to heavy snow. Serena had to drive all the way back to the Washington DC area (since I still couldn’t hold my stomach back) after a quick turnaround to drop me off at school, and then drive alone on her way back to Philadelphia, where she went to college.
She didn’t have to come on this insanely long, frivolous trip, but she did it for me. The entire 48 hours was a true act of love and selflessness. As if out of some bad movie, a week later, I tried to break up with her.
Fast forward to today: Serena and I have been preparing for married life together. We first met in high school, and have gone through all of the stages of a relationship together through college to moving in together and becoming professionals (I’m now 25 and she’s 26). As you can probably tell, a lot of shit happens between first becoming infatuated with someone and deciding to commit to them for life.
It’s not easy to know how to navigate a relationship, especially today where everyone seems to always seek something (or someone) better, always looking for the next thing or finding flaws in the thing (or person) they have.
While I’m certainly no expert and still have quite a bit to learn, I’ve discovered a few key fundamental pillars that have been incredibly powerful for me in growing and maintaining our relationship in the face of modern day pressures. Hopefully you can find these useful in your own life too.
1. Making commitments and sticking to them
How many times has the above meme happened to it? Commitment seems to be fleeting these days – even for things as simple as meeting a friend when you say you’re going to meet them. But in any relationship, there’s nothing as powerful as doing what you say you’re going to do: ESPECIALLY when something else better comes along.
A few years back, I had committed to going to Ikea with Serena on a specific date to shop for a few things we needed for our apartment. Important note: I hate Ikea. And shopping. A few days later, a friend invited me to his birthday party. It just so happened to fall on the same Ikea date. Rather than telling Serena, “Sorry, I can’t go to Ikea, let’s reschedule”, I told my friend that I unfortunately had other plans that day, and would celebrate with him on a different day.
It seems somewhat mundane. But oftentimes people over plan their days/weekends and have to cancel on others, or blow people off at the last minute if something more exciting comes up. By sticking to your word, it shows the other person (in any relationship) that you value their time and respect the commitments you make to them.
2. Following Up
If you’ve ever worked in sales, you probably understand the art of the follow up. And the same idea applies here in relationships. Except, the follow up here means actually: 1) figuring out what you’re supposed to follow up on and don’t let it get to a boiling point and 2) actually following up.
Maybe an example will make this clearer. For a while, Serena did most of the cooking in our home. I’d help from time to time but never took the lead. I knew that she wanted me to help her out here more but I just never took action. After a few months of this, one night Serena came home late from a long day of work. Of course, I was home; rather than prep dinner ahead of time, I wasted time talking to a friend on the phone waiting for her to help with the work once she got home. Needless to say, I let the situation reach a boiling point.
Going forward, I knew my specific behavior here bothered her, and I worked hard to take the lead more often in this aspect of our lives, constantly following up and ASKING her if she felt satisfied / more “heard” on this issue. I found it important to check in with her from time to time to make sure I didn’t slip back into old bad habits.
So for practical purposes, in any relationship, it’s critical for you to recognize those problem areas and consistently follow up with your partner to ensure you’re actually helping to fix said problem areas.
I think most people realize selflessness as a key piece of any relationship. To be clear, I’d define selflessness as an action for your partner that doesn’t directly benefit you in any way. However, kind of like in making a commitment, oftentimes you need to do things for your partner that you yourself don’t want at all.
Since we went to colleges in different cities, Serena and I both spent incredibly inconvenient amounts of time taking buses and trains to visit each other on the weekends. We missed out on sleep, spending time with friends, and just the pure convenience of being in college. But in these times we decided to put the other one first.
Clearly not every selfless act looks this extreme. Even going out of your way with small gestures of selflessness day in and day out go a long way in building and solidifying any relationship. The action itself demonstrates that you truly care about the other person.
Of course, in between those selfless acts, you have to slip in some independence! At this point, you might think that I spend every second of my waking life either with or trying to please my girlfriend.
Actually, one of the most important parts of any relationship revolves around the support for your partner’s independent activities. You do not possess your significant other – the moment you try to own them you risk losing them forever.
Again, this insight doesn’t have to be complicated. Simply it could mean:
- Spending time with your own friends after work
- Making your own independent plan for the weekend
- Hanging out with each other’s families without the other
- Going on a solo trip with your partners’ support
Going through the effort, and of course supporting each other, to have your own independent lives remains crucial to the well-being of your relationship. You don’t want to get sick of the other person or feel as if you can’t pursue your own interests or other important relationships! Providing your partner support in their own endeavors also gives them the confidence to be their true, unique self when they’re actually with you too.
5. Never stagnate
“Self-transformation is precisely what life is, and human relationships, which are an extract of life, are the most changeable of all, rising and falling from minute to minute, and lovers are those in whose relationship and contact no one moment resembles another.” – Rilke
Needs, desires, and interests change over time. As you change how you interact with your partner, your relationship will change too. It’s important to recognize this and understand it. The change in any relationship is inevitable. Embracing it and learning how to cope with the change can determine the fate of a relationship.
Getting stuck in old patterns and constantly trying to do things you’ve done in the past will at best make your relationship stale and at worst create the conditions where the differences between you and your partner are just too vast to overcome. Constantly challenging each other to grow as people and adapting to the changes in your relationship can help you navigate the inevitable hurdles you face, and also make your relationship that much more satisfying.
Of course, these insights just sit at the tip of the iceberg. And don’t get me wrong: the best relationships are always hard and take constant work and attention.
But at the end of the day, creating happy and healthy, long-lasting relationships might be the most important thing you ever do in life. From this frame, it’s important to reflect on what’s worked for you in your good relationships and have guiding principles that can work to fall back on.