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Romance is only the beginning

by Deidre Ashley

February 8, 2017 | from Sound Mind | The Jackson Hole News and Guide

Valentine’s Day is a day of gifts, candy and flowers in celebration of romance.

But while chocolate and roses are a welcome gift (hint, hint), romance is not the only factor in a strong and lasting relationship.

Anyone who has been in a relationship, successful or not, can agree that relationships are complicated and take work. Here are some tips from relationship experts:

Don’t keep score: While many people feel a relationship should be a 50-50 partnership, the reality is that partners should be more flexible than that. There are times in life when one person may need to shoulder more of the burden in order to support the other through a difficult time. The partnership becomes more about being supportive and less about keeping score.

Make an effort: After time passes and children, jobs and other life stressors take center stage, many couples forget to make the effort they made in the beginning of the relationship. Carve out time, and be present and interested in the other person and his or her hobbies, interests and dreams. A relationship is a living thing, like a plant. It will grow only if you nurture and tend to it. If you neglect it, it will die.

Dig in: Work harder during difficult times. It is easy to be in a relationship when things are good. There will be periods in every relationship when you each think about getting out. The real work is when things are difficult. Assume you are in the relationship for the long haul. Keep choosing each other.

Celebrate every day: Most days, life is ordinary or mundane. Notice and celebrate the beauty in everyday events and successes.

Be present, truly present: Make time to spend together and actually connect with the other person. Pay attention and listen to and be interested in each other.

Communicate: It is amazing how often we impose unrealistic expectations on our significant others. Don’t make assumptions about what the other is thinking or feeling or expect her to be able to read your mind.

Never underestimate the value of humor or silliness. It can help us process through tough times. Have fun together doing things you both love.

Apologize, forgive and let things go: Let’s face it, we are all human and make mistakes more often than we’d like to admit. We tell a white lie. We forget an appointment or special event. We get angry and say things we don’t mean. Instead of blaming or dodging responsibility, make the relationship stronger by owning your mistake and repairing the harm.

Navigate conflict: “Successful” couples may still fight; they just learn how to fight effectively. Romance is important, but what can really make a relationship strong and lasting is how areas of disagreement are navigated. Couples in healthy relationships understand the notion of “friendly fighting” or disagreeing without being disagreeable.

Noted psychologist and marriage researcher John Gottman gives guidance on behaviors and attitudes to avoid during conflict. Gottman calls these “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”:

• Criticism: Avoid attacking your partner’s character and focus on what the real issue is. Telling someone you are upset that she did not take the trash out is much more effective than generalizing about her being irresponsible or thoughtless. Keep in mind that the fight is most likely not about the trash. Dig a bit deeper to better understand what the real issue is. Go after the issue and not each other.

• Contempt: Insulting or tearing down your partner is disrespectful. Remember, this can also include those sneers and eye rolls.

• Defensiveness: Our natural reaction to conflict can be to become defensive — a reaction to feelings being hurt. That is not helpful in working through conflict productively. Try to be mindful instead of being reactive. Listen respectfully while removing the judgment.

• Stonewalling: Taking a break when things get tense is healthy and a good idea. However, stonewalling or refusing to respond can be destructive in relationships.

So there you have it, the keys to navigating a successful relationship beyond the romantic holiday.

Happy Valentine’s Day — and don’t forget the chocolate.

Deidre Ashley is the executive director of the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center. She is a licensed clinical social worker and has a master’s degree in social work.