The recent rash of celebrity breakups, from Fergie and Josh Duhamel to Anna Faris and Chris Pratt, has kept the question of where and how to find lasting love fresh in our minds. White flag raised, they claim they “fell out love” or that they “didn’t have what it takes” in the first place, as if being in a romantic relationship with someone just clicks or it doesn’t. But I think, sadly, a lot of couples give up on love too soon.
The truth is, happy couples are not born, they are made. I would argue that the most valuable relationship skills, the ones that make the biggest impact on our level of satisfaction, are ones that take us a lifetime to perfect. Here are three totally learnable skills that will give your relationship a head start.
Saying ‘I’m Sorry’
We already know that nobody is perfect. Which means we are going to mess up more than once and at some point, maybe even hurt the person we love deeply. So the question is not whether we can avoid hurting our partner, but rather, whether or not we have the humility to apologize when we hurt our partner and do it well.
The happiest couples, and the happiest people, we know are the ones who have learned to be humble toward others, to recognize their flaws and take steps to make amends for them. I know I'm not alone when I say this is no easy feat. Most of us are wired to jump to the defense and cling to our pride when we are in the wrong, leading to relationship behaviors that hurt our chances of happiness if we don't work against them. Defensiveness, or blaming the other person, is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, described by marriage researcher and author Dr. John Gottman as behaviors that are toxic to a relationship. It's a self-defense mechanism that is innate for most of us, but it can be unlearned by fist acknowledging it and then practicing a good apology (which we outline here).
Communicating What You Want
You might be tempted to laugh this skill off as something we all learn in preschool, but ask any marriage counselor and they will tell you that this all-important relationship skill is a mystery to many couples. In fact Zach Brittle, Co-founder of ForBetter.com, argues that learning to ask for what you want is the relationship is the single most important skill for newlyweds to learn.
Why is this so hard? Because too often we assume we know the answer already and in many cases we fear the way our partner will respond. Not only that, according to Brittle, in most cases we just don't know how to ask. But that's okay, we can learn.
Our biggest error is that we express wants with demands, rather than desires. As Brittle explains, "Demand is rigid. Self-centered. Unforgiving. Demand takes your partnership out of the equation." Desires are inclusive because they are centered around things that you both value, like equality, freedom, trust, joy, peace, and adventure. Read more here to begin learning this skill.
Being a good listener—especially when you disagree with the perspective of the other person—is really hard, but it's a skill you have to master if you want to be happy in your relationship. You may be a pro at nodding your head and silently disagree or even just letting your partner vent. But only active listening builds intimacy, love, and trust.
What is involved in active listening? A lot of not talking, for starters. But the hardest requirement of active listening is to withhold judgment while your partner is speaking. This means you aren't crafting the perfect counter-argument and you aren't even thinking about what advice you will give. You are just empathizing with your partners emotions. Putting yourself in their shoes. This certainly does not come naturally for most people, but it's a skill that will make love last. Find out more here.