The end of the year is just a month away, which means that we’ll soon be celebrating the beginning of 2015! Like many of you, I’ll be entering the New Year with a number of hopes and expectations. I’ll also be armed with a handful of resolutions that I’ve decided are critical to making the most of the 2015, and the bulk of those resolutions are related to self-improvement and finding a healthy relationship. For those of us who are single and don’t want to be, the promise of a new relationship in the New Year is really powerful; we tend to like the idea of starting off with a clean slate, and – ideally – forgetting whatever wasn’t right about the years and relationships that came before.
Instead of hoping for a new relationship, it might actually make more sense to focus on finding a better relationship. It can be really easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a different relationship will be better by default, but that’s really not the case. In fact, it’s important to remember that your “new” girlfriend or boyfriend is probably someone else’s old girlfriend or boyfriend, which means that he or she has been trained and programmed by the habits, expectations, and communication style of someone else. Unless your new beau was just dumped by your identical twin – and the two of you have identical tastes and preferences – the new significant presence in your life is going to require some adjustments (for both of you) in order to make your relationship work just right. Otherwise, we’re all stuck in a sort of “Goldilocks paradox” where we’re waiting for a complete stranger to behave and communicate in a way that’s tailor made just for us, even if we didn’t do any of the work to make that happen. If you’re ever had clothing made to measure, you know the satisfaction of having just the right fit; you also know that getting the right fit takes time, effort, and a lot of patience.
It’s really important to keep this in mind, especially in the early stages of dating. Amy and I often hear complaints like “he kisses me too aggressively,” or “she calls me too often,” or “he picks restaurants that don’t have anything on the menu that I like to eat.” And people seem to think these complaints are truly valid reasons to end a relationship (or to keep one from getting off the ground). The truth is that each of these is an opportunity for change and communication; none of these root behaviors is problematic (you want a guy to kiss you, a woman to call you, and a man to pick restaurants) but you have to communicate what does (and doesn’t) work for you. You have to give people information if you want them to change. If you want them to change AND stick around, then you also need to give them incentive.
A really common mistake people make when communicating their wants and wishes is to tell their dates that they’re doing something wrong. The truth is that no adult likes being scolded, and very few behaviors are actually “wrong,” but that doesn’t stop women from saying “you kiss me the wrong way,” or “you grope me like a teenager.” And men have no qualms about telling women they aren’t appreciative enough, that they send mixed signals, or expect too much communication too early.
When we don’t like someone’s behavior, we try to make it their problem, even if the problem is really ours. If you want a positive outcome, you need to communicate positively by saying things like “I like it when you…” or “I’d love it if we could….” People are generally happy to make changes that incite enthusiasm, but they’re unwilling to make those same changes when those requests are worded as criticisms or demands. Words of encouragement and guidance lead to growth; words of criticism lead to resistance and avoidance. If you want to establish something full of respect and love and potential, make sure you’re delivering the message you intend in the most positive and considerate way.
In fact, we just casually date coached a 55+ year old client who felt frustrated by the lack of consistent communication coming from the leading man in her life. We told her to express to him encouraging words about how much she adores his company and with that comes a desire to want to hear from him more regularly. Instead of chastising him, she used this very subtle technique that worked wonders. We spoke to her yesterday and she said “It worked! He now checks in with me more regularly and when he’s out of town, he calls me which is great!” We love seeing something like this be so very simple yet so completely effective.
With a bit of luck, the New Year will indeed bring with it a new (and better) relationship. And as you focus on communicating with someone new, you might also want to try out a bit of that strategy with someone old – yourself. Try not to focus on what you see as flaws and failures, and put the emphasis instead on where you can grow and improve. We can never undo the mistakes and missteps of our past, but we can work to avoid them in the future. And we can be more positive people as a result. Your relationships can only be as healthy as you are, so if you’re hoping to see big changes in your life (and your love life), don’t be afraid to ask yourself how much of that change should come from within; maybe the “better relationship” you’re looking for is simply a better relationship with yourself!