I think relationships get better with age, and mine certainly has. If I knew in my 20s what I know now, I would have avoided abundant heartache. But that's the journey, and you acquire astounding wisdom in the process. At least I did. This is what I know about love today:
I would never be in a relationship with someone who mistreated me.
Much earlier in my life I spent too much time involved with men who were bad for me on so many levels. Thankfully, one particular breakup was a catalyst for me to wake up and change my ways. I realized I had some issues that needed attending to if I were to ever have a healthy relationship, something I wanted. I threw myself into therapy and made some major modifications in my life. After that, I never let anyone mistreat me again.
You have to love yourself first.
This may sound trite, but it's absolutely true. If you want to be in a healthy relationship (and frankly, why should anyone be in a relationship that isn't healthy?) you have to feel great about yourself. When you love yourself you can create a wonderful life for yourself, and this will give you amazing self-confidence. Then, if you so desire to be in a relationship, you're coming from a place of wholeness and strength. This mindset will attract better caliber men; plus you won't dare get involved in a relationship that isn't in your best interest.
Don't rely on a man to be complete.
I often feel that we women expect too much from our love relationships. It helps to understand from the start that women and men are fundamentally different. We think differently, we emote differently, we play differently. Your boyfriend or husband won't necessarily "complete you" or be your best friend, and that's perfectly okay. Love, friendship, and emotional wholeness can (and should) come from a variety of sources. If you put it all on him he's bound to disappoint, and then you may lose a relationship that has great potential.
Be clear about monogamy.
Being in a relationship carries many different definitions and implications, yet the desire that your partner remain sexually faithful seems to be nearly universal. Yet, remaining monogamous, especially in long relationships, is indeed a challenge. If you want to be in a monogamous relationship, do all that you can to make sure that you remain faithful to your partner. In turn, if you desire that your partner remain faithful to you, make that clear to him. Aim to have open dialogues around this hot button issue, such as saying to your partner, "What will we do if we find ourselves attracted to others at some point in time?" Although these conversations can initially feel awkward, they are easier than dealing with the devastation of an affair.
Be careful with nagging.
My grandmother and mother were world class nags, and from time to time, I'm embarrassed to admit, I find myself behaving just like them. Nagging is a relationship killer. More women nag than men, and it's a problem. Nagging generally stems from feeling like we're not heard, so we repeat ourselves again, and again. Men hate nagging, so try not to do it. Find a more effective way to communicate your feelings to your partner. My nagging has definitely improved over time. I hope my husband agrees!
Express gratitude and say thank you.
This is a huge lesson I'm happy to share with others. Many of us take our relationships for granted and that is a huge mistake. We all like to feel valued and appreciated. I try to say thank you to my husband every day. I am grateful that he makes a sandwich for me when I go to my office, and I always thank him for that. John Gottman, a fabulous couple's researcher, claims that a healthy couple needs five positive interactions to one negative interaction. Saying thank you is certainly positive.
Give it up. Say yes to sex.
Just like everything else in life, your sex drive and your sex life will have ups and downs. That is perfectly normal. However, a huge mistake that many long-term couples make is to get lazy with sex. Sex can help keep a relationship stay alive and the lack of sex can burn it out. If you can see your partner as a source of pleasure, that is very positive. It's important to have sex, and even better to have great sex. Do your part to feel sexy and stay sexy. I work out six to seven days a week. I'm 52 years old, and I still feel extremely sexy.
This was a hard lesson for me to learn. When I was younger I would get defensive if a lover accused me of something I did or said that upset him. I had to always be right or to get my say in. Eventually I realized that my behavior was ineffectual. I came to understand that I had a hard time being open to my flaws because I was criticized often during my upbringing. None of us are perfect in our relationships. We are all evolving and changing, and to err is perfectly human. When someone we love points out a behavior that needs changing, that's a tremendous opportunity for us to grow. You should say thank you to that person.
If you are afraid of your partner, that is not love.
Even today, with all we know about healthy relationships, too many women get involved in emotionally and physically abusive ones. If you are involved with someone who threatens, yells, calls you names, forces you to have sex, and physically harms you, even once, get out, and then get some help for yourself.
There is no place for suspicion or jealousy in a relationship.
Healthy relationships are built on honesty and mutual trust. If someone is behaving controlling or is untrusting in a relationship, the root causes of that behavior is generally buried deep within. More often than not it originates with having a parent who wasn't trustworthy. It's important to acknowledge if you are behaving this way (or if you are dating someone who is) so you can get to work making the self-repair. People who are confident and have good self-worth are not jealous at all. Relationships where jealousy leads the way are doomed to fail.
Rachel A. Sussman, LCSWTherapist, relationship expert, author of "The Breakup Bible: The Smart Woman?s Guide to Healing from a Breakup and Divorce."
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