This week’s column, I confess, is slightly pointless because I am going to make suggestions on how to improve your relationship with your partner. It is not slightly pointless because the advice is bad. It is because knowing what to do and doing it are very different things. If I were to list the greatest asset any couple could have, it would be the ability to change. And if I were to list the rarest attribute that marriages – or people – possess, it would be exactly the same thing.
However, as a cheery optimist, I am going to go ahead anyway.Some of the advice is screamingly obvious, but that doesn’t make it invalid – in fact, it is the obvious things to which we most frequently tend to give insufficient attention.
1. Find something you both like doing and do it together. As we become increasingly atomised within the family unit, through a combination of technology and lack of time, the experience of a one-to-one, face-to-face relationship is increasingly rare. Either we are too busy or we would rather do something by ourselves. In the past, the family was forced together by necessity – shared chores, shared space, shared leisure activities. To make a positive choice to spend time with one another not only helps to build a partnership – it makes a statement. It asserts that you are not just there to be functional, chore performers, money-making machines, childcarers. You are human beings above and beyond your roles.
2. Watch more TV. Computers isolate, but watching TV together bonds. Just tune into Gogglebox to see what a positive experience it can be. It almost never happens in our house any more – because now family members are free to make individual choices about their entertainment. And as is so often the case in politics, what is individually rational is collectively destructive.
3. Don’t interrupt. Interrupting someone before they have finished saying what they want to say is the strategy of choice for those who do not have sufficient belief in their own viewpoint to allow it to be challenged. This is true in many arenas of human activity, but never more so than in relationships. Let your partner have their say, even if they don’t do the same for you and what they say is provocative and inaccurate. Somebody has to set an example.
4. Try to make an effort to look nice occasionally. Yes, it’s good to throw off the mask you have to wear outside the home and relax. It’s also good to let your partner know you care enough about them not to become a slob with a personal hygiene problem, just because you can get away with it.
5. Abandon your project to turn your partner into a different person. It isn’t going to work. If you want them to change, understand that you can’t change a personality, only behaviours. But it is a slow process that can only happen in small steps. Be practical. People can change the way they act (not who they are), but it requires a lot of patience and commitment.
6. Notice. I am very bad at this. Spotting the signals that my partner sends out without her voicing them defeats me time and again. So by the time she does give voice, she is already irritated with me for being so obtuse. This does not mean you have to be psychic – only that you are thinking about the other person and trying to understand their needs.
7. The children are incredibly important. But so is your relationship.
8. Don’t say “you always” or “you never”. It’s never true, always.
9. Use recreational drugs as and when necessary. Booze, dope, prescription painkillers, Viagra. It may not enrich a relationship, but it does help to anaesthetise you against some of its most painful side-effects.
10. Be kind. The simplest, hardest and most effective strategy of all.