How to win at relationships

26th April, 2017   |    By Xin   |    13 min read

Relationships. They are what bind societies, and in many cases what allows the survival and continuation of the human race. Love has cost trillions of dollars, sent millions to their death in wars and literally changed the face of the earth. It’s no understatement to say that good relationships are a pivotal dimension of the human condition. Yet crucial as they are, why are so many people so bad at them?

Think of someone in a romantic relationship. It might be yourself, your parents or your friends. Do you think the relationship is healthy? Do the people in it spend more time criticising or complimenting each other? Do they yell every day or always talk affectionately and gently? Do they ignore and put each other down, or really listen truly respect what the other has to say?

Looking around at the people in my own life, it hurts me to admit that not everyone is as loving to one another as they should be, for whatever reasons. Human beings can be spiteful, selfish or just plain ignorant, and it can hurt those closest to them. I also look at my own intimate relationship and am so grateful, almost every day of my life, to be with someone so kind, respectful, loving and beautiful. Being with my lifemate is like eating the most amazing strawberry shortcake, all the time, without it ever losing its flavour or making you fat. And, using the metaphor of the cake, I wanted to share with you some of the ingredients that make our relationship so very, very tasty. Most of it will seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how uncommon it is for people to follow it. I’d also like to add that everyone is different, and I’ve seen relationships based on bickering and teasing that have lasted decades and ended very happily. But as a general rule, here are some of the ways to make your relationship sweeter, healthier and just plain awesome.

Ingredient one: Love

Obviously this is the big one. Having a relationship without love is like a cake without sugar of any kind- it’ll be bland at the best and poisonous at the worst. Yes, in olden days women would be married to men (it was very rarely the other way round) to secure alliances, for fortune or status, but the Western world has changed and we are encouraged to pursue individual happiness. There is some argument that familial duty is more important than pursuing dreams, but generally it is accepted that no one should have to stay in a position (or indeed, a relationship) that makes them unhappy. And the glue of any happy relationship is love.

I’d like to take this opportunity to share a little science with you. There are many different ways to understand love and we could spend all day discussing which the best model to use is, but I’m going to cut to the chase and share the simplest in terms of romance. Elaine Hatfield (a famed professor of psychology in Hawaii) distinguishes two types of love: short term passionate love, and longer term companionate love.

Passionate love

Passionate love that intense, overwhelming infatuation that kicks off the start of a new romantic interest. The racing heart, the butterflies in the stomach, the showing off, the crazy monkey sex, the desire to be with the object of your affection 24/7… These are all characteristics of passionate love, fuelled by a crazy dose of endorphins, “the love hormone”, released into your bloodstream to make you completely smitten. Logic and reason are swept away by passion and excitement, and nothing could ever be as important as being with the object of your affection. But the important thing to realise is that passionate love does not last forever. It tends to be measured in months rather than years, but many people make the mistake of making decisions (such as getting engaged or moving in) based on the assumption they’ll always be crazy passionate about their partner. It can be quite disillusioning to discover that six months down the track they’re actually with an ordinary human being with the usual amount of faults and annoyances. Again, there are exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking the passion will burn bright and hot like sparklers on the cake before dying out and leaving… what? If you’re lucky, you’ll find companionate love instead of magnesium oxide, or whatever sparklers are made of.

Companionate love

Companionate love is the kind of love that lasts forever; it is what allows elderly couples to hold hands in the park and marriages to survive incredible strain. It is not based on passion, but on deep affection and extensive familiarity with a loved one. It is appreciative, tolerant, encouraging, respectful and enduring. The sex may not always be as crazed or simian, but it tends to be more meaningful and satisfying. Although not as exciting as passionate love, the quiet satisfaction and contentment provide an entirely different sense of fulfillment that is worth pursuing. Not everyone is ready for long term relationships, and some people never will be (which is totally okay, as long as they’re happy), but without companionate love a close relationship can transform into two people sharing the same space, often out of convenience. Although enduring, even love can fade with time, and it takes work to maintain a relationship. But in my opinion, it is unquestionably worth every effort.

Ingredient two: Honest communication

Honesty is like flour: the cake will literally fall apart without it. It is the foundation for trust, and trust is the foundation for love. Each of us has felt the cold stab of betrayal, and it’s easy to see how the pain of being hurt by someone we’ve let so close to our hearts can destroy everything. Infidelity, for example, has ruined more than one civilisation- just look at Troy.

But it’s more than just being honest (though it cannot be understated how important that is). I’d wager, without any kind of scientific method, that 90% of all conflicts are due to miscommunication. Think of a fight you’ve had in your life where you’ve been really defensive about something, or really offensive about something, only to discover it was all a misunderstanding and that guy wasn’t actually hitting on your girlfriend, he’s just her long lost cousin or something. If only you’d taken the time to ask her, you might have avoided that long, shameful journey to the hospital to apologise for breaking his nose. Talk. Talk often, and honestly, about everything. Especially the hard stuff. If it embarrasses you, if you think it’ll cause problems, if you’re scared of how your partner might react it’s more important than ever to air it before it starts to fester. Keeping a secret, especially a hurtful one, can eat you inside out, and you can save both yourself and them the pain of them discovering it on their own if you just have the courage to bring it up early. And, chances are, things will turn out much better than you imagined, if only you take the time to understand how your partner feels, and just as importantly, they take the time to do the same for you.

Ingredient three: Respect

Respect is kind of like the egg in the cake: it keeps everything together, and it makes everything slightly distasteful without it. No two human beings share the same view- it’s part of the miracle of our infinitely complex brains. Given our inherent differences, we must learn accept that we do not always see eye-to-eye, and more importantly, to treat each other respectfully when this happens. I’m going to throw a crazy idea our there: you are always right. And so is your partner. And so is your mother, so stop giving her so much grief. It is absolutely impossible to believe that you are wrong about something- seriously! Even if you think you’re wrong, what you’re actually thinking is “I’m right about thinking I’m wrong.” Once you realise that everyone believes they’re right all the time it’s easy to see how arguing is pointless. My girlfriend and I once argued about where I parked the car- I was positive it was over there on the right, but she was certain it was up there on the left. It didn’t matter who was right- we both believed it to be ourselves- and we argued and we argued until I realised that all we were achieving was discord, so we just went left and it turns out that’s where I parked after all.

No two people are ever going to agree all the time. But it’s so important that in those circumstances where we disagree we can respect that the other person is no less “right” than we are. A different opinion from your own does not make it wrong- it makes it different, and there is nothing inherently wrong in that. Treating people like they’re stupid, incorrect, ugly, insufficient, or less-than-you will not win you any endearment. If you truly want to be in a happy relationship, you must not disrespect or put down your partner. We absolutely must strive with every action to affirm the goodness of our loved one, which we can choose to see at any time as easily as we might see their faults.

Ingredient four: Laughter

Laughter to a relationship is like the strawberries on a cake: it is light-hearted and sweet to the tongue. You must have fun with your partner! Yes, there is a deep sense of satisfaction from sitting home on a Saturday night to read and give each other massages, but that’s not to say you can’t tell (and listen to) terrible jokes, go out dancing, chase each other around the house just for the hell of it… A relationship that doesn’t have the ingredient of laughter runs the risk of becoming stagnant, banal and routine. This is the danger of many long term relationships- getting so comfortable all the fun has drained away. Do what you can to shake this up: be spontaneous and surprising, in the bedroom, at his workplace, everywhere.

Ingredient five: The Mystery

The universe is complex. People, more so. We fall in love for the stupidest and the best of reasons. We might find ourselves completely and hopelessly in love with the Romeos and Juliet’s of the world- people who, by all rights, we should despise and avoid like the plague. No one really understands why we fall in love, nor do I think we need to. It is the mystery ingredient in the cake that no one really gets- sometimes when you bake a cake more than once, you’ll use the same ingredients with the same method in the same kitchen and it’ll turn out completely different to every other cake you’ve ever made. I’ve just come to accept that love is a mystery, and sometimes we just have to roll with it if we ever want any kind of peace with life.

I know it seems to completely go against everything I’ve said in the above paragraph, but it’s still important to find the right person. We may not be able to choose who we feel attraction to, but we can choose how to act upon those feelings. Some relationships are disasters waiting to happen- I have seen with my own eyes what happens when the passion fades and a couple wakes up one morning and realises they can’t stand each other, but they can’t separate because now they have a baby and they can’t decide whether they love being with the baby more than they love hating one another. I believe that we are all very, very complex jigsaw pieces, with thousands of different edges that are always changing as we grow. Sometimes we meet an individual who we connect to so perfectly it’s like all the edges line up, perhaps not perfectly, but so damn close that that person is worth holding on to and never letting go. And sometimes we (or our loved ones) change, slowly but surely, so much that a relationship that was once perfect is now in need of some adjustment.

Now for the taste test

At the end of the day, it’s your cake too. Even if you’re sharing it, you still have to eat it, so it’s really worth putting the effort in to make it a good one. It’s important to honour your self, your individuality, as well as accepting that you’re part of an “us”.  Do your utmost to be the best damn person you can be, because as important as relationships are, none of them last forever. Whether distance, time, or death, we are all individuals who come together, and you’ll never be able to escape the one relationship that matters most: your relationship with your self. Always do your best to be loving, respectful, honest and funny in every relationship (especially but not exclusively romantic ones) that matters to you, including the one you have with yourself.

It must also be said that not every relationship is meant to be, and they all require maintenance. Like in the Sims, if you don’t spend enough time and effort really working on being close to your loved ones you can drift apart. Sometimes, despite your greatest efforts, you can have the freshest ingredients and the best kitchen ever but the cake doesn’t turn out quite like you imagined it. Having said that, I daresay that even the most horrendous failed strawberry shortcake still tastes a notch better than one without sugar, flour, eggs, or strawberries.

This article is not a definitive recipe as much as it is a general guideline. We all like our cakes a little differently, so work out with your loved one what part of your cake doesn’t taste as good as it should, and add a little more sugar here or crack an egg there as needed. I hope this post has been helpful, and I wish each and every one of you the most delectable of pastries.

Thanks to Xin for this great post.

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Check out all the stories in this Safety, Pleasure, Respect relationship series

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