It’s Valentine’s Day! And to celebrate relationships of all kinds, here is a quick six-step guide to creating a secure foundation for a relationship:
Step one: be purposeful. Relationships do not come into existence by magic. They are created whenever two or more people interact. So be deliberate and purposeful with what you create. Ask yourself questions like; what do I need from this relationship? What works well for me? What do I need from the other person or people? What do I find challenging? What are my expectations?
This is not selfish – it is simply bringing out into the open the thoughts and feelings that you are already carrying with you into the relationship space. If each and every person asks questions like this, and shares their perspective, you can start to work out what kinds of behaviours will work, and the relationship can grow on the sure footing of respect and understanding.
Step two: get a balance between give and take. We all know what it is like when we feel we are doing too much in a relationship and the other is not pulling their weight. Why am I always working late while they are out enjoying themselves? Why don’t they ever do the cleaning? Why are we always visiting their family but never mine?
When the relationship dynamics are out of balance, resentments build up and they quietly destroy the relationship. Because this is often a slow burn process, by the time the resentment comes out it is done. So get balance. This does not mean that each party does the same amount of each thing as the other. It does mean that each part to the relationship does what they happily can.
Step three: check in with each other, regularly. Create a safe space where it is understood that you can bring your feelings without judgment, and where you will be listened to. This stops things festering, lets you put baggage down rather than carry it around, and it creates an environment of mutual respect and support. You can create a special ritual around your check-in: a walk, a meal, a massage, whatever feels comfortable.
Step four: avoid the four horsemen. Dr John Gottman’s research discovered four behaviours that are particularly destructive in relationships; he likened them to the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. They are contempt, stonewalling, criticism and defensiveness.
Everyone displays them at some time or another, but relationships that display them regularly are more likely to fail unless something is done about them. We all know what it is like to be expressing our feelings to someone and have them roll their eyes in response (contempt). So do something about it. The Gottman Institute website is a good place to start.
Step five: be firm with boundaries. This is a challenge for a lot of people. But without firm boundaries few of the other steps will be effective. Take step two (balancing give and take). If you do not have firm boundaries on what you give in a relationship – if you cannot say “No” – you are likely to end up giving too much and feeling resentful.
This is not the other person’s responsibility, it is yours – only you can set and protect your boundaries. And in doing so you influence the behaviour of the other, and you allow the relationship to settle into a healthy dynamic. So boundaries give certainty and predictability to relationships. They are essential to preserving autonomy, identity and roles. Above all, they are a gift to the other in the relationship because they support a healthy understanding of our position and they hold everyone in their right place.
Step six: be daring and have fun! Well functioning relationships are cool. They give us unrivalled opportunities for growth and self-expression, and to share the joys of life. The more we put in, the more we get back. Be brave. Have fun!
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Zita Tulyahikayo and James Pereira QC are coaches and co-founders of the Libra Partnership, offering coaching and other performance enhancing services to lawyers, barristers, law firms and chambers.
The full Loving Legal Life series can be found here.