In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of developing and articulating a set of shared relationship values. Values are the concepts, qualities, or ideals that we're just not willing to forget or forgo. When a pair of people recognize, share, and talk about important values, hard decisions get easier, more trust emerges, and a sense of teamwork develops. But all that goodness doesn’t show up automatically, we have to work at it, intentionally. It is all too easy to forget our values and stray from them.
A few months ago, Kelly and I spent a morning choosing and honing our current relationship values. They are:
So now we set aside every Wednesday night as Enrichment Night. We still sit on the couch, but we leave Netflix off and instead spend time going over our spending and savings goals. (We use a program called You Need a Budget and we recommend it highly.) Part of that budgeting work includes deciding how to distribute our charitable and political donations (an action that helps us live into another value of Giving). If we finish the financial work, we enrich our relationship further by either playing a card game or watching educational videos.
I admit there are many Wednesday nights that we both wish we could just watch another episode of Queer Eye and call it a night. But because this new habit is linked clearly to a relationship value, we acknowledge its importance and give ourselves to it.
The regular habit of Enrichment night means that we never neglect our finances (which we know is one area that lots of couples fight over) and it means we are supporting each other in being our best selves, most aligned with our lofty values. We encourage all of you to establish concrete habits tied to your values, whether or not you are in a relationship.
What is one habit you will try one that will engage your values? If one of your values is health, will you walk everyday? If your relationship values include intimacy, will you make a practice of breathing together? If a value is beauty, will you commit to going to a museum or gallery every month?
Let us know in the comments what habit you aim to create.
APOLOGIZE FOR THE RIGHT REASON
We are born to screw up. No matter how careful and conscious we are, our clumsy attempts to meet our own needs will combine with our low-grade selfishness and distractibility to cause harm, anger, or frustration for the people around us.
And, because we want to get out of trouble, minimize the damage, and move on, we apologize. We say, “I’m sorry.” We may even do so sincerely. But we notice that the words that we were trained to use from toddler-hood don’t have the magical power we thought they did. The other person is still angry, arms crossed. So we try again with emphasis, “Jeez! I said I was sorry!” Still no good. Partner, sister, or BFF is still hurt and withdrawn.
I’ve made some mistakes in my relationships. I’ve been inattentive, messy, forgetful, and, occasionally, mean or nasty. And I know how quickly I want to get out of the doghouse and back in the good graces. I want to minimize my bad behavior, make it clear that it doesn’t represent me and move on to forgiveness and forgetting as soon as possible. So I apologize quickly.
But I’ve learned how hollow and ineffective apologies are when they come out of my needs to escape shame and blame. All of the apologies that are motivated by my needs are centered on the wrong person. They almost always start with the word “I” and then go on to ask for more emotional work from the person I hurt. “Please understand my intentions, please trust me not to do that again, please forgive ME.”
Fortunately, I’ve found what really works is to apologize with a focus on the person I hurt, attention to their experience and needs, and a determination to lean in and support them. And if you can do the same, even a little bit more, your relationship will repair more quickly, will contain more trust, and be more resilient.
Next time you mess up and realize you hurt or angered someone you care about, go ahead and notice any feelings of shame, guilt, or embarrassment that come up. Notice any impatience or anxiety that arises. Those feelings make sense - no one except a sociopathic narcissist wants to cause pain or mistrust. Go ahead and validate your own feelings but keep them to yourself. Take a deep breath and ignore them. If you can’t manage this step, go for a walk, talk to a friendly third party, or journal until the intensity of your own defensiveness or fear has lessened.
When you are ready to apologize for the right reason - because you want to understand and be present for the one you hurt - go ahead and give it a try. Then focus on the feelings and needs of the person you hurt. Do your best to make a guess about what happened and how it landed on your friend, sibling or lover. “I’m guessing you’re feeling really X because I did Y. Is that right?”
Your guess might be wrong… you might think your sister is mad because you forgot her birthday when she’s actually really scared about how you swing your niece around the living room. It doesn’t matter that much… In most cases your guess will show your intentions to be present for her and her experience.
When you feel like you understand what is really going on for the other, then you can apologize. “It sounds like it really frightens you when I swing little Josie around the living room. You’re scared I’m going to let go and you imagine her hurtling through the window into the cactus outside. I get it. It would be terrible if Josie got hurt. Thank you for telling me how you feel. I am so sorry what I did scared you. I’ll stop swinging Josie inside.”
Notice that the apology came last, after you made it really clear you understand your sister and her concerns. It doesn’t matter whether you intended to scare her, whether you're sure you have a firm grip on Josie, or whether you think the window is thick enough to prevent Josie from ending up the cactus bed. What matters is that your sister now knows that you know her, that you don’t want her to be scared, and that you are on her side again.
Next time you mess up, do your best to apologize not because you want to get out of your shame, but because you want to understand the other person and want repair the relationship by leaning in and empathizing. Don’t forget to breathe.
Dig Up and Share Your Values
Here's another way we use to make our relationship rock solid
-> Find, dig up, unearth, articulate, your shared relationship values. Values are the concepts, qualities, or ideals that we're just not willing to forget or forgo.
The relationship values we are working on are:
We know we have more thoughtful work to do to always
What are your relationship values? If you are single, do you have other non-romantic relationships that have bedrock values underneath?
Once the initial attraction, the ZING of a new romance fades, what can keep a relationship together? How do we prevent time, and the successive revelation of our mutual flaws, from driving us slowly apart?
I initially fell in love with Kelly’s creative spark, her nimble hands as she made art, and in the way she smelled. And while all those gifts remain, those superficial attributes are not enough to maintain a marriage or long term relationship.
Early on, though, Kelly and I stumbled onto an important element that keeps our relationship fresh, invigorating, and meaningful - a shared project that serves others. When we met, I was the executive director of a youth mentoring program. Kelly jumped in and worked with me to develop this young organization's two premier fundraising events. We so enjoyed working together and, for Kelly, it was a unique opportunity to use her talents to support a cause. Our partnership on these projects continued for six more years. A year after our last musical fundraiser, participants and audience members are reposting pictures and reminiscing about those uplifting moments.
When it came time to seal the deal and get married, Kelly and I decided to create an event that was about more than just ourselves. We felt strongly that a wedding can have deeply spiritual, psychological, emotional impacts on all participants and serve as a ritual to knit a community together. We worked for months, producing hand-made decorations, canning jams and syrups as give-aways, designing the temporary wedding structure, and printing invitations. We made sure to involve others in the preparation and execution of the shindig, too. Kelly’s best friend did the flowers. Another friend catered. Part of the entertainment during the reception was an open mic for music, poetry, and story. Six years later, our friends and family still tell us it was the most memorable wedding they’ve ever attended.
And now, after leaving the nonprofit world, Kelly and I are still dedicated to collaborating on projects that serve others. We co-host a weekly podcast dedicated to individual and community growth. We run a growing Facebook group to support more growth and engagement. Kelly produces “emotional support” sock monsters and I facilitate their give-away. Even though we are both introverts, our relationship remains deeply committed to engaging in the community.
Lots of research indicates that happy couples are the ones that find ways to:
Kelly and I found that collaborative projects, especially those aimed at serving others, are perfect ways to cover all those “best practices.” The projects we choose involve lots of talking, exploration and novelty. And, because of their period (weekly, monthly, yearly) nature, there are lots of opportunities to celebrate success and praise one another. Creative collaborations are powerful to do together because service brings out the best in humans. Working together on these projects means that Kelly and I get to see the best, most engaged, most uplifted versions of each other. That’s attractive!
Those long-term relationships that raise kids have a built-in “service project.” Although many couples argue over child rearing and experience lots of stress when the children are young, they find intense satisfaction and relationship happiness as the children grow older. They know they are in a relationship that is bigger than each of them and their usual small selfishness.
For those of us without kids, or for couples whose kids have flown the nest, finding or creating a project that serves the community can bolster happiness and shared commitment. Here are some brainstormed suggestions:
What other ideas do you have for projects that serve and can be accomplished as a couple? Please leave them in the comments.