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Radical decency challenges us to be our best in all that we do.
We must bring respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness, and justice into all areas of living.
When we build our lives around a romantic partnership, the philosophy’s challenges and amazing rewards begin right there.
Here are key lessons I’ve learned as a long-time couple’s therapist and a husband of 37 years (and counting):
1. Intimacy is the goal.
Most of us give far too little thought to this basic question: what is the goal of a romantic partnership? When we do, the answer isn’t complicated. It’s intimacy. For each of us to feel warmly seen and embraced.
But strategic relationships with co-workers, salespeople, the guy in the next car over dominate our lives. And in these relationships the goal is, quite rightly, to get things done. So the boss convenes a staff meeting at 1 p.m. to discuss an issue and a vigorous discussion ensues. Now, at 2:59, she makes her decision and the rest of the staff falls in line.
An intimate relationship is different. A husband and wife sit down at 1 p.m. to discuss where to send their daughter to school. Now, at 2:59, there is no meeting of the minds. What happens? The decision is deferred. The couple keeps talking.
Far too often, however, we treat our intimate relationships like strategic ones, judging each others’ choices, feeling annoyed when things aren’t done our way. But the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with isn’t lazy or incompetent. While she does things differently, her way is almost always good enough.
When you and your partner interact, focus on loving each other and not doing things the “right” way. Hard as it is to admit, at times, there just isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way to do the laundry, pay the bills, or discipline a snarky teenager.
2. It’s a win-win.
We tend to think of love as an active sport. How am I loving my partner? And when it goes well, we feel great.
Focusing on this aspect of the relationship, however, we too easily forget that the exact same equation is at work for our partner as well. When his efforts to love you go well, he has that same great feeling.
If being a great lover feels so great (right up there with being loved), don’t we have an obligation to set our partner up to have that feeling?
Shouldn’t we be asking for what we want, so our partner has a vivid roadmap for more effectively loving us?
But you may ask, isn’t this an invitation to be selfish? It is, but only if your “ask” turns into a “demand.” So, say what pleases you but in an invitational way. Then let him know how good it feels when he does it.
He’ll feel great and will be incentivized to do a lot more of it in the future.
Done right, romantic love is truly a win-win.
3. Lean into bids.
You’re staring at your computer and your partner says, “Look at that beautiful sunset.” Far too often, we—at best—glance up from the computer and say, “Yeah, that’s great,” and return to Facebook. But what if, instead, we closed the computer, turned to face the window and our partner, paused to take in the sunset, and said, “Wow, you’re right, I love it.”
When our partner speaks to us, it’s a bid for attention—for a loving moment. Making a habit of “leaning into bids” (the second option) and not away from them (the first) might not seem like a big deal, but it is.
Want to improve your relationship? Make it a habit.
4. What we’re fighting about is not what we’re fighting about.
But now, despite dutiful attention to the first three guidelines, things break down. Just like that, you’re in the middle of a fight and a single thought dominates: “Who is this jerk?”
The key in these moments is to remember that they make complete sense. Why? Because fight/flight, our brain’s auxiliary system for dealing with imminent danger has clicked in. And since your partner is the most important person in your life, he’s also the most dangerous.
Your fight isn’t about the dirty dishes. Instead, it’s about something far more primal: your fear of not being loved and appreciated by the person you depend upon most in life.
So when breakdowns occur, remember that, notwithstanding his harsh words, you are in fact the love of his life. And instead of trying to prove your worth by “winning” the argument, patiently listen to his momentary rant knowing that by doing so, you are in turn easing his fear of not being loved by you.
5. Focus on what you can do right—not on what your partner is doing wrong.
We live in a world in which judgment and criticism are the norms. But in our intimate relationships, this mindset is just so counterproductive.
Yes, I am an expert on all the ways my partner could be better. But guess what? Telling her, repeatedly, only provokes an equally thorough dissertation about my shortcomings.
When did things start to get better for me and my wife?
When we each started focusing on what we could do better. We have learned, with a lot of practice, to manage our reactivity when the other’s choice disappoints or hurts us, moving instead into understanding, empathy, acceptance, and support.
Since our fight/flight brains are always lurking, doing this is hard work. And notice, importantly, that we’ve both embraced this shift in approach. With this guideline, as with all the others, the challenging climb toward a more radically decent relationship is made so much easier when you both do the work.
A romantic relationship is tough. But we do it because done right, it is one of life’s greatest gifts.
I wish you all the best on this perilous, wondrous journey.