The trust and intimacy that frames relationships varies between kindness, generosity and predictability/stability on one hand and hostility, contempt, criticism and unpredictability/instability on the other. Because of the vast and dynamic nature of all types of relationships, there are multiple ways of understanding them. But what are the common ingredients of long lasting, intimate relationships?
Humans are highly social animals and individuals struggle to live a joyful life alone. Our genes support group behaviours based on contributing to others in balance with contributing to ourselves. Men and women are different in these needs and often relationships break up through not understanding that this difference is real. The passion and pull of love that drives us to want to be with another is linked to our own personal beliefs and definitions of life. But it is also tightly linked to the way our brains mirror ourselves off other people’s behaviours and personalities, particularly those we consider part of our family and friends—our clan.
Each of us have powerful non-conscious drivers that are modulating how we define ourselves from moment to moment, through our interactions and the way we think about others. We tend to draw closer to those who support and contribute to our ideals and beliefs, while distancing ourselves from those who don’t. We internally and externally verbalise the context of our relationships, either through criticism and hostility or kindness and contribution, and any number of variations across these extremes. We are continually redefining others up or down a scale of worth, perceiving positivity or negativity when it’s there, and unfortunately, even when it’s not there. We modulate our behaviour and thoughts to value our relationships and grow them through balanced contribution, or we damage and destroy our relationships through selfishness and refusing to contribute.
The balance of contribution glues couples together. The most important predictors of satisfaction and stability in relationships are the expressions of kindness and understanding. The more someone receives or witnesses kindness and understanding, the more they will mirror these and be kind to themselves. Repeatedly doing this leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in relationships.
Growing your garden of contribution
Consider contribution like a garden. Some gardens are lush, have good soil and grow in optimal environments, and thus require little effort to keep beautiful. Other gardens may lack nutrients, grow many weeds and take a lot of effort to maintain. And then there are gardens that should never be attempted because the environmental conditions are too hostile.
Most gardens however will thrive if enough effort is put into them, through dreaming, planning and actually doing the work to cultivate them. People who succeed in relationships see what their partner needs as a garden and they dream, plan and find ways to help them grow it. They align their wants and needs with their partner’s as much as they can. They take time and focus awareness on their partner’s wants and needs and rarely neglect the pivotal moments of emotional connection. Neglect creates distance between two people’s gardens, which in turn grows weeds of resentment as each begins to feel ignored, not important, not wanted, not special.
Kindness, understanding key to resolving disagreements
The hardest, yet most rewarding time to practice contribution and kindness is during an actual disagreement or fight. It is this precise time when one needs the skills to perceive the situation through their partner’s eyes as well as their own. This is the time to find how one must adjust their understanding of the other’s wants and needs, their beliefs, rules and meanings they are using to define their life. If each partner attempts this, there occurs an increase in options to create common ground for relationship stability. Letting criticism, contempt and aggression dictate actions, thoughts and words during a conflict will inflict deep scars on any relationship, particularly if both parties engage in this behaviour.
Keeping contribution uppermost in our minds does not mean we don’t express our perspective and emotions, but it does allow us greater choice in how and when we express our emotions. Contribution serves as a filter through which to see the situation and opens opportunities to grow our relationships. Selfishness only closes us to opportunities. If you can understand yourself in the moment; desire a quality outcome from a difficult situation; don’t think any less of your partner; and search for the basic issue causing the concern; then opportunities will always present themselves to grow your relationship, even from major arguments and disagreements.
People destroy the quality of their relationships by saying things that define their partner, rather than focusing on the particular issues at hand. “You didn’t do what I asked you to do, and you agreed to do it. What’s wrong with you? You’re a loser”… defining your partner like this causes emotional scarring which may take years, if ever, to heal. Comments like these often smoulder for some time before they ignite to threaten a relationship.
People who maintain good relationships find words and gestures that help their partner through the issues without resorting to belittling words…“Help me understand what prevented you from getting done what I asked, and you agreed to do, because I know it’s not like you to forget this”.
Our inner landscape of the world we experience, defines the meanings with which we filter our sense perceptions of the world. Often these are never expressed or even known, but nevertheless they guide our behaviour and thoughts. For example, a husband may assume his wife didn’t finish cleaning the kitchen after dinner because she was deliberately trying to annoy him. He linked the situation with an earlier event where she did a similar action that annoyed him. But his wife may simply have planned to return to the cleaning after making a phone call to her sister.
In another example, a woman’s boyfriend is running late to meet her for a much-anticipated movie, and based on how she has internally defined his character from past let-downs, she assumes that he doesn’t value her enough to show up on time—even after she took the trouble to buy the tickets online and shift things around her work to make sure that she was on time. But her boyfriend was running late because, on a romantic thought, he stopped by a store to pick up a gift for their special night out. He turns up late, cheeky smile on his face, slightly apologetic yet excited, but instead of making her night memorable like he intended, he receives a verbal broadside in front of the other moviegoers in the theatre foyer. In both examples, the parties didn’t pause to consider their partner’s possible point of view.
The skill to put to one side for a moment any negative meanings that may surface around your partner’s actions and perceived intentions, can turn a potential conflict into a delight of partnership. The ability to appreciate a quality intent by your partner, even if it’s executed poorly, can add to your own happiness.
Contribution through our five social survival traits
Most people think that practicing contribution is often about small acts of generosity, like buying each other little gifts or making a cup of tea every now and then. While these are examples of one type of contribution, complete contribution comes through the five social survival traits that are encoded in our behavioural genes. The five traits are:
1. using our eyes to reflect our true thoughts;
2. using our voice to express our needs, wants desires, beliefs, rules, meanings;
3. using our body language to present our equality and sharing;
4. using our limbs to do all manner things for the other person;
5. using our brains to maintain and improve the quality and predictability of our life by providing options to balance risk with stagnancy.
The demands of our technological-civil lives forces us to focus more on the material than the spiritual, and for those people who do not understand this, it tends to eat away at their precious times for romance and intimacy. These demands unendingly pressure couples to allocate less time to contribute to their own personal growth through their relationships. In marriages where couples are distracted by these modern pressures, the levels of relationship satisfaction drop dramatically after just a few years together. However, couples who have enduring relationships, have found ways to continually balance the material demands with their need to fulfill their spiritual growth.
To further understand how contribution can grow your personal relationships and discover tools to maintain solid, intimate relationships, come along to my Harmonious Relationships Course. This course is ideal for anyone wanting to strengthen their relationships, and for those who feel their relationship is failing and they desire to reignite the love and bond.