The Modern Survival Guide #115
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. That’s an important caveat for this article in particular, because when I start talking about a “positive relationship,” it is absolutely inevitable that my own personal biases and opinions will creep in. You might disagree, and that’s fine. But I hope that most of these points will be widely applicable, because a romantic relationship is one of the greatest joys in life — if the relationship is positive.
Having a positive romantic relationship with another person is one of the most wonderful things we can do while we’re on this planet. Forging that connection, experiencing deep personal and physical intimacy… these are things that make life worth living, and they should be prized as such. Having a bad romantic relationship is one of the worst things we can experience, though, and most of us have had at least one. The tricky part is that it mostly seems like we’re unaware we’re in bad relationships until they’re over.
So let’s see if we can make things a little more objective.
When I’m talking about a positive relationship, I’m not talking about a fling. I’m talking about what you do when you and another person (or people, as the case may be) decide that you want a solid, long-term, grownup romantic relationship that is good for all involved parties. A positive relationship gives meaning and joy to your lives, provides support in times of trial, and establishes a partnership. It’s a hard thing to achieve and easy to screw up, but nonetheless very desirable for most people.
There are a few things that I think happen in most positive romantic relationships. I don’t think it’s necessary for every relationship to hit all of these points all the time… but I do think every positive relationship should hit at least some of them, should do so consistently, and should cycle through the whole list even if not all of them are happening at the same time. And there are a few points that are absolutely, positively, no-kidding necessary.
The Signs of a Positive Relationship
Let’s break this down: I think there are at least eight signs that most of us can easily recognize to know that we are (or are not) in a positive relationship. These are, in no particular order:
- Affirming your love
- Giving attention to your partner
- Avoiding intentional harm
- Prioritizing the relationship
- Choosing truth
- Practicing joint decision-making
- Granting space
- Giving trust
I’m not saying these are the only signs, but these are the ones that stick out to me. There are obvious and non-obvious points to make about each of these, so let’s go through them one by one.
Affirming Your Love
Have you read the book “The Five Love Languages?” If not, it’s worth a read. As with most things that are written to apply to large numbers of people (yes, including this article) you should take it with a grain of salt, but the core premise of the book is an invaluable insight: people express love in different ways. Some people give gifts, some people say words of love, some people express love through physical affection, some people perform acts of support and service, etc.
There’s an equally valid insight to be gained here, which is that not everyone performs all of these actions all of the time. The corollary to that is that not everyone perceives each of these actions as an affirmation of love.
So my advice, for what it’s worth, is twofold: first, if you love someone, affirm your love to them in as many different ways as possible. Do not let your own personal discomfort lead to your partner being unsure that you care for them. If you are uncomfortable saying that you love someone, do it anyway. If you are uncomfortable giving gifts, do it anyway. Go out of your comfort zone. Being an adult is about doing uncomfortable things for the greater good, and as the line goes in “The Incredibles,” this is one of the greatest good things you’re going to get.
And second, if you’re wondering whether someone loves you, think about the way they treat you. Are they doing things for you? Do they say they love you? Are they helping you out? Do they hug you? Do they kiss you? Do they make time for you? One of these by itself might not mean much, but multiple love languages taken together is usually a strong indication of a genuine love by the other party.
If you and your partner are expressing your love for each other, that’s a good sign.
Giving Attention to Your Partner
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, a disclaimer: love does not conquer all. Never, ever let anyone tell you otherwise. There are plenty of failed relationships out there where both parties loved each other just fine… it was just everything else that didn’t work.
So let’s talk about some of those other things. One of them, by no means the least, is the necessity of giving your partner attention. That means taking time out of your busy day to talk to them, listen to them, spend time with them, have fun with them, experience physical intimacy with them (whatever that means for you), do things for them, and generally remind them that you care about them.
Relationships do not survive in the absence of attention. This is one of the big reasons why long-distance relationships are so hard, and one of the big reasons why long-term relationships sometimes founder on the rocks of complacency. A romantic relationship requires attention, or it dies.
If you and your partner are giving each other attention, that’s a good sign.
Avoiding Intentional Harm
This is a necessary precondition of a good relationship — that none of the involved parties actively spend time deliberately harming the other.
This isn’t to say you won’t hurt each other. There is no human relationship where neither side has ever hurt the other. But it does mean that you don’t do so intentionally, you make restitution for past harm, and you actively avoid causing harm as a choice — physical, emotional, whatever. This is not sufficient to ensure a relationship is good, but it is absolutely necessary.
And folks: if your partner beats you, it’s not a good relationship. I don’t care if they love you and you love them. I don’t care if they provide for you. I don’t care if they’re good with your kids. Good people don’t hit the people they love. If they beat you, leave. Here are some resources to help with that.
If you and your partner actively avoid harming each other, that’s a good sign.
Prioritizing the Relationship
This one is simple but, again, its neglect is the cause of many a breakup. Prioritizing the relationship simply means that it is treated as more important than most other things and should be given appropriate time, resources, and attention.
Take time to be with your partner. If you can’t take time, make time.
Take time and spend money to do the things that both of you want to do. If you can’t find anything that both of you want to do, that’s a bad sign.
Give the relationship attention. Think about it from time to time. Make plans based on it. Adjust other priorities based on it. Treat it as a central focus of your life, not a peripheral.
If you and your partner are prioritizing the relationship, that’s a good sign.
It’s virtually impossible to get through life without the little white lies. So let’s take that as our starting point. You are not going to be entirely truthful with your partner all the time, and that’s simply all there is to it. If nothing else, you’re going to have to lie to them at least a little bit to put together their surprise birthday party.
So with that out of the way, whenever possible, and especially for the big things, choose truth. Make a point of not lying to your partner, and do your best to follow that path.
And here’s a quick tip: if the lie you tell only benefits you, and you would get in trouble for telling the truth, then it’s probably about something big, it’s probably a problem with something you did, and it probably does not reflect well on you. Step one in avoiding lies is to not do things you might want to lie about. If that’s an issue for you, that’s not a great sign for the relationship.
If you and your partner make a point of being truthful with each other, that’s a good sign.
Practicing Joint Decision-Making
One of the core points about being in any kind of good relationship is that you aren’t alone. You have help. You have support. You have someone who likes you and who wants the best for you. You are part of a team.
But the thing about being part of a team is that what one person does will affect the other person too. When you’re sharing resources, sharing affection, sharing time, sharing all the things that go into a relationship — then decisions you make that divert resources, affection, or time immediately impact the other person. It’s not a hard thing to grasp, but a lot of people seem to forget this.
So practicing joint decision-making is usually a necessary requirement of a good relationship. The other person needs to know what you’re doing. They need to know where you want to spend money, where you want to take time. They need to agree with it, because it affects them. If they don’t agree with it, something has to give — either you don’t do the thing, they relent and agree you can do the thing, or you both agree that there’s something else you can do to make up for you doing the thing. And they need to do the same with you.
But generally speaking, if you do something that your partner disagrees with, and you keep doing that thing regardless of their wishes, that’s not a great sign.
If both you and your partner do make a point of consulting each other, agreeing to courses of action, and following through on them, that’s a good sign.
Sometimes we just need to be by ourselves for a while. All the introverts, can I get a “Hell yeah!” from you while you sit in the quiet, cozy confines of your favorite chair in your favorite room in your own home?
But seriously, sometimes we all need space. We all have moods. We all sometimes need to concentrate. We all sometimes just want to do our own thing for a while. And that is totally ok.
Being in a positive relationship with someone often means knowing when that person needs their own space, or asking them to give you a little space. This gets a bad rap in a lot of mainstream media, where “I need space” is synonymous with “I’m breaking up with you.” But in the real world, “I need a little space for the evening” is something that we should all be prepared to hear, and happy to oblige, because it means our partner trusts us enough to know that if they just need a minute, then we will give it to them.
This is of course a balancing act. If you need so much space that you aren’t paying attention to the relationship, that you aren’t meeting your partner’s needs… well, that’s a bad sign. And it’s not something where I can hand you a ruler and say “You need this much space, and not an inch more.” It’s one of the key things you have to figure out in consultation with your partner (remember the previous point on joint decision-making).
If you and your partner trust each other enough to ask for and receive some alone time, that’s usually a good sign.
Last but certainly not least, a positive relationship requires trust.
Let’s keep in mind one key factor here: trust is a choice, and should be based on behavior. As adults, we should not implicitly trust anyone. That kind of trust is for children and fools. We should extend our trust to the people who have demonstrated that they deserve it, and your partner should be one such person.
If your partner starts doing things that degrade your trust in them, that’s a bad sign. Sudden turnarounds in any of the items on this list are usually causes of a breakdown of trust. A partner who starts lying to you, for example, is going to impact your trust in them, and quickly.
It’s equally possible to lose trust in the relationship as a whole, and that’s more often a combination of things that both you and your partner are doing. If neither of you are making time, if neither of you are affirming affection, if both of you start disregarding the marks of a positive relationship… then slowly but surely your trust in the institution you have built will crumble.
To trust someone is to believe that they will act a certain way and to have that belief affirmed. If you trust your partner, and your partner trusts you, that’s a very good sign indeed.
Making Positive Choices
It has been said that love is a choice, and I think that’s very true. To have a positive relationship that sustains love, you are required to make deliberate positive choices about the relationship, every day, all the time. And to know that you’re in a positive relationship, you should be able to see these choices being made, and have some degree of trust that you and your partner will keep making these choices in the future.
Relationships are hard. Being connected to another person can be challenging. Marriage is work. The point is that nothing in this life that is good just happens. It’s all down to stuff that we do. Be prepared to do the stuff.
If you’re affirming your love for your partner, if you’re giving them attention, if you’re shielding them from harm, if you’re prioritizing the relationship, if you’re choosing to tell the truth, if you’re making decisions together, if you’re giving them space to be them, and if you’re granting them your trust… well, you’re probably in a pretty good place. Provided, of course, that they are doing the same for you.