Note: The experience and insights that form the basis of this post come from Pat Dixon, licensed family and marriage counselor for 30 years. This post is part of a multi-part series sharing her best advice for those seeking a lasting, happy romantic relationship.
I’m convinced there’s nothing more difficult than the first stage of the romance cycle, where you’re trying to find someone that’s single, attractive, interesting, and attracted to you. But I do think we often forget that interpersonal challenges don’t go away at the point of commitment; in fact, that’s kind of when the hard work begins.
Figuring out how to make it work (and if it’s worth it)
Once you’ve found someone you’re excited to date exclusively, it’s tempting (at least for me), to turn a blind eye to any frustrations or incompatibilities that I sense early on and just focus on how to make it work. I’ve looked so long for someone who gives a dang about me! I’m not about to give that up with nit picking.
But you should continue to evaluate your partner at this stage of romance (albeit graciously). That’s kind of the point of dating someone seriously – you’re getting to know someone well enough to understand if they’re a compatible life partner for you. The challenge in this stage is not securing a partner, but coming to understand if they’re the right one for you in the long term.
Pat (otherwise known as my grandma), shares her wisdom on how to approach this phase below.
Become aware of your similarities and differences, then negotiate them
As a counselor, my grandma would administer something called the Taylor-Johnson Personality test, which measured couples along various personality traits – things like rigidity vs. impulsiveness -- to see where they were alike and where they differed. That information was then used to form the basis of discussion and help the partners get to know one another on a deeper level. This self-awareness is critical to understanding compatibility at this stage in a relationship. If two people are self-aware, she says, they can talk about what’s important to them.
Homework for couples: Take the Taylor-Johnson, Insights Discovery (a personal favorite), Meyers-Briggs and/or 5 Love Languages personality tests and set aside an hour to discuss how your results relate to one another.
Another exercise she liked to walk couples through involved having them each describe their ideal relationship as if they were directing a love story film; what would be important to have in it? Sometimes, the partners would find that their love stories were similar and that they could build on that shared foundation. Others found out that their idealized versions were fairly different and that they’d need to openly explore compromise.
When differences exist here, it’s important for each partner to understand how strongly those needs are felt by the other. It can be as easy as rating them on a scale of 1-10. Often, a need is much more important to one person than the other. The person who rated it as less important may be willing to agree to go along with the request based on the importance to the other person. Over time, though, this should somewhat equal out.
Homework for couples: Describe your ideal relationship to your partner as if you were directing a love story film. Ask for them to do the same. Discuss where you might be able to compromise.
Be who you are, but respect the role of compromise
Can you be yourself with your SO, or are you modifying your behavior? Are you walking on eggshells so they don’t get upset? If you want to do something, do they go along with it, but criticize or become miserable? It probably doesn’t take a marriage counselor to tell you that any form of consistent behavior modification in your intimate relationships is unsustainable and unfair to both you and your partner.
So be who you are, says Pat. Don’t try to change yourself to impress the person. This doesn’t mean you can’t want to improve yourself and be willing to compromise on things. You should feel like you can always be yourself, even when yourself is expressing something the other person doesn't like. Some partners will do whatever the other wants, giving up their own needs, and Pat is firm in her assertion that this is unhealthy. Negotiating your differences is a necessary and healthy skill.
Homework for couples: Is there any behavior that you consistently edit around your partner? Try talking about this in a neutral setting to see if there’s an opportunity to own this part of your personality in the relationship.
Traveling can be a good indicator here; before a trip together, try asking your partner, “What's most important to you?” Figuring out how to do both is an indication of a healthy relationship. For instance, my grandma and Papa mostly align, but he will bring a book when they go shopping to stay entertained.
And know that it’s okay to opt out of something you really don’t want to do, for something you’ll find more enjoyable. In the end, both parties will be grateful that each could come back to the union feeling filled up and happy. It’s a healthy sign if partners can agree to not do everything together, says Pat. This allows for growth on both sides.
Homework for couples: Before a trip together, sit down with your partner to discuss each of your priorities for the experience. Plan your itinerary such that both person’s needs are met daily, even if that means building in solo time.
Travel is also great for the simple fact that you will spend enough time together to really get to know who they are; How do you handle the boring times together? What are their strengths/weaknesses? This will further help inform the areas of your relationship that will have ease or require negotiation.
The right person adds to your life (most of the time)
I think one of the hardest things to know in this stage of romance is whether we’re compromising too much. So I asked my grandma for a litmus test. She says the way that you know is simple:
“Being together should feel good, at least the majority of the time. You should be comfortable doing things on your own, but it’s especially nice when the other person is there. They add to your life, rather than subtract.”
Ahh. Something about that response is so simple and satisfying. It makes me feel confident that the next person I’m seriously involved with, I’ll know a little more about how to “know” if he’s the one.
For more resources on this topic, I’d recommend checking out the following helpful articles:
Mind-Body Green: 10 Essential Secrets To Making A Relationship Work