New Twists on Classic Relationship Advice

I recently went to an outdoor wedding at a golf course set in an idyllic area surrounded by trees. The young couple toasted pink champagne (the bride’s fave), and we clapped as they shared their first dance to “At Last”. You could smell lavender from the bushes decorating the perimeter of the club house. If you ignore the mosquitos and sweat dripping down our backs, it was just like a movie. Today, I am sharing new twists on classic relationship advice.

Because that’s the thing – from an early age, we are taught in movies, books, sitcoms (What are sitcoms, right?), and society at large that women should desire to get married. Old school Disney movies predominantly include the female character enthralled with the prince. Even though animated movies have evolved in many regards, Frozen’s Anna leaps at Prince Hans’ proposal for marriage after knowing him for 85 seconds because as humans, we are relational and taught to embrace marriage.

As I wished the newlyweds well, I remembered a bridal shower game I once played. Attendees were instructed to share our relationship advice on an index card for the bride. I knew the bride would receive traditional wedding advice, like Don’t go to bed angry and Always kiss goodnight, so I chose to put my own twist on some classics.

Wallah! Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! I included my list below! Plus, an extra thousand words. I didn’t have time to write a soliloquy at the bridal shower.

Discuss expectations – None of us exists in a bubble. We grow up in a family with specific dynamics, and so did our partner. When we enter a relationship, we have to somehow figure out how to merge those dynamics and effectively communicate. We intellectually know we literally come from different backgrounds, but it still comes as a surprise sometimes how these variances play out in the relationship. My suggestion: Discuss expectations.

This is a broad topic because you don’t necessarily know what you need to discuss until all of a sudden something becomes an issue. Vague, right? My husband, Kevin, and I celebrated our 10-year wedding anniversary this year. The year I moved in with him, I was caught off guard when he would sleep on the couch several times a week. Huh. While I’m not an early bird, I’m not as much of a night owl as my husband, either. I didn’t expect him to go to bed when I did, but I assumed that we would sleep together each night.

So, I repeatedly brought it up to him, and he would repeatedly reassure me that it didn’t mean anything. I like complete darkness and silence when I’m trying to fall asleep, but Kevin prefers to fall asleep while watching television. This is why he slept on the couch with such frequency: He was trying to be considerate of my needs by watching television in another room, but would become tired and fall asleep.

My worry as a newlywed was that this MEANT SOMETHING and Didn’t all couples sleep together? The latter was my expectation going into the marriage, but it doesn’t mean the same thing to him. That’s only one of the examples I could share with you, but when you are butting heads with your significant other, default to this: Do you have different expectations, and how can you rectify the situation?

A great way to move past the hurt behind expectations is to ask yourself what meaning you are attributing to the offense. For example, when I was “hurt” that Kevin slept downstairs, I thought it meant that there was something wrong with our marriage. Over time, I understood it was not a reflection of anything, but this is a reminder that anytime you are upset and can’t see pass the pain, ask yourself or your partner, What does this mean to you? Keep following up with that question until it makes sense.

5 Love LanguagesThe 5 Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman was published over 25 years ago, but it remains a staple in relationship advice. Consider that for a minute. Though the society is different in many ways than the 1990s, Chapman’s words still ring true. The world might change, but we as people are developmentally the same.

Here’s another example: As a high school counselor, I frequently talk with teens about their issues with social media. Technology will forever change at a rapid pace and give us more capabilities and conveniences. Teens have access to skyping with others across the world and can learn and collaborate in ways that weren’t possible five years ago.

What goes up, must come down. Teenagers are still teenagers. They have access to technology, but aren’t fully equipped to handle the mental and emotional consequences. Developmentally, they remain the same in many ways.

Similarly, even though society’s perceptions of and treatment toward relationships have changed, we as people are the same. We still crave love, relationships, and safety, if not permanence. All of this supports the relevance of The 5 Love Languages in 2019. Chapman organizes how people receive and give love into five categories: receiving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation (me), acts of service (Kevin), and physical touch. Someone should inform him that he left off my son’s love language – ninja fighting.

Notice that Kevin and I don’t share the same love language. Here’s what I want you to take away from this section. When people discuss The 5 Love Languages, they often focus on the first part – how people receive love, but what’s equally as important is the second aspect – how they give love. They go together like warm chocolate chip cookies and milk. People tend to give love in the same way they receive love because that’s what they would like to be shown them.

You and your partner don’t have to be mirrors of each other for a successful relationship, but it’s important to understand each other’s preferences. My husband is an “acts of service” person. He receives love when I do something that helps him, but it took me years (read: until now) to understand that. He prefers to have the kitchen cleaned before falling asleep, including no dishes in the sink and the counters wiped.

I don’t share the same preferences. I don’t mind if dishes are in the sink overnight, as long as they aren’t left resting on the couch, in our bedroom, etc. For the longest time, I would just think WHAT is the big deal with leaving dishes in the sink? Why does he care? What helped me understand that maybe I should put the dishes in the dishwasher or wipe the counters more often as an act of service for him was the fact that he does so many acts of service for me.

Hang with me; I know this sounds a little complicated. Remember how I said we show love how we want to receive it? Kevin goes out of his way to consider me and our children. He tries to make our days as easy as possible and therefore commits acts of service on a super regular basis. It was the regularity of his consideration toward me that made me finally grasp the depth of how he receives love. Get it? He was showing me what he needed by demonstrating the acts for me. Now I’m trying to be more conscious of little actions I can take to show him my love. It only took me 15 years.

Does any of this resonate with you? Think about your partner and how he or she shows love. It might be your love language, but it’s more than likely his/hers. Just as you need to be aware of how they receive love, they need to be aware of your preference, too. What is your love language? Find out at 5lovelanguages.com/quizzes/

You can’t change other people – You often hear “people don’t change,” but some of you might have still entered marriage hoping that your partner will do exactly that. Maybe you had hoped that your significant other would play less video games, clean more, or start exercising with you.

People can change. And here’s how I know that: I haven’t had sugar in 348 days. I am a recovering binger and sugar addict and used to gorge on Culver’s and Baskin Robbins. It was not uncommon for me to order a Concrete Mixer with extra (duh) cookie dough and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and a two-scoop hot fudge sundae with, again, cookie dough and peanut butter chocolate ice cream, in that order. I would do this in the isolation of my car on the way to pick up my kiddos after work. While I was eating, I would zone out and destress from the chaotic day or sometimes, it was out of boredom. Regardless, afterward I would always feel ashamed and disgusted with myself. Those moments of despair would lead me to eating more to comfort myself, and the cycle would continue.

Today, I am not tempted to eat sugar. I don’t have cravings, and don’t feel deprived at parties or holidays. That’s how I know people can change. Here’s the catch: I didn’t try changing my family and make them get on board. I chose to do this as my own lifestyle change because of my relationship with sugar. So, I disagree with the maxim that “people don’t change.” People certainly can change, but only if they want to. If someone had pressured me into trying to eliminate sugar, I would have likely resisted their efforts and doubled down on my consumption. Anyone relate? You can’t convince a partner to do something without them believing in it, too. Any changes they make will be temporary.

My twist is this: You can’t change other people, but you can change yourself. That’s it, friend. As hard as this is to accept, you can only control your own actions. You can hope that your partner will change, but you can’t affect that. You can only do you. And at the end of the day, that’s your responsibility. You have to live your life as the best version of yourself, and maybe that sparkle will start to rub off on others. If not, you have to come to terms with that, too.

One year I sponsored the Peer Mediation club at my high school. This club encourages students to resolve their conflicts with each other with the help of trained peer mediators. My team’s favorite quote that year was a prolific line from Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” You can’t change other people, but you can lead by example. You do you, friend, because that’s powerful stuff.

The Four Horsemen – I love, love, love Dr. Gottman’s research on how couples argue. He asserts that how people fight is a huge indicator of their long-term success as a union. He identified four fighting styles that can doom a relationship because of their toxic effects. Gottman’s four include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

Arguing with the one person in the world who is supposed to love us the most makes us inherently vulnerable. This vulnerability can make people react in a variety of ways. Some plead and act conciliatory. Some criticize their partner. They might put them down and belittle them. They might criticize their partner’s cooking, way they parent, how they dress, or habits/traits that are unrelated to the fight.

Others, though, might react with derision and contempt. They might snarl and say horrible things to their supposed loved one. Have you heard alcohol referred to as a “truth serum?” That’s kind of how contempt works in an argument. If a partner feels attacked, and vulnerable like I mentioned, some take this opportunity to unleash with their true thoughts, and out pours contempt. Therefore, these comments are often difficult to heal from because the partner purposely chooses sore spots to exploit.

Aren’t you feeling sad reading this? I feel sad writing it because that kind of pain doesn’t just go away. You might try to move past it and make up as a couple, but people don’t forget comments made with contempt. Years ago, I bonded with a boyfriend’s mom. For whatever reason, he was threatened by this (red flag, hello), and in anger he once told me to “get my own mom.” This was especially hurtful because he knew my relationship with my mom was suffering at the time. This exchange happened almost 20 years ago, and I still remember it. This supports why Gottman included contempt in his four categories: Contempt is hard to come back from.

Defensiveness is what it sounds like: The person goes into defense mode and focuses on the details, tries to turn the situation around on their partner, and picks apart the story. Instead of reflecting and accepting their part in the situation, they defend. No growth can happen if the person allows him or herself to remain in defense mode.

I used to be guilty of the last category, stonewalling. This is when someone shuts down, and at the extreme, ignores their partner. I never ignored a partner, but I would often shut down. I grew up with an alcoholic parent, never learned healthy arguing behaviors, and tried to remain hidden in times of duress. I carried this over into relationships. When fearful of being abandoned or critiqued, I would turn inward and try to protect myself like I did as a child. While I understand that response, again, it doesn’t allow for growth. After therapy and a healthy marriage, I no longer do that, but it was challenging to overcome past hurts.

My takeaway on the four horsemen is this: In the heat of the moment, we can be so fearful and raw that we initially want to react in one of the aforementioned ways. Instead, though, remember you are on the same team, and turn toward your partner. Don’t isolate yourself. Don’t pull away. Don’t lash out. Move toward.

Deep breath. I know we covered some tough topics today, friend. Please comment below or email me with what resonated with you, your experience with any of these twists, or any insight you want to share. Now go hug your lovie!

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