Most of us know that conflict management skills often determine the health of a relationship. In other words, the major difference between happy and unhappy couples often comes down to how they deal with inevitable tensions that may arise, and the occasional (and very normal) fight.
But I believe there's another factor that is equally (if not even more) important, and which is counterintuitive: putting lots of work into the relationship when we least feel like it.
Especially in the wellness space, there is a lot written about the importance of following our intuition. If we tap into our intuition, we will express our authentic selves, our inner truth — right? Well, sometimes. The intuition is a tricky, and sometimes deceptive, part of us.
Instincts, the intuition, can be an impostor; they can make us think something is true when it isn't. For example, when we first fall in love (which I call "The Merge" in my book Love Cycles), we may turn a blind eye to certain red flags in our partners, even though our friends may see them very clearly. Things which we want (even if they are not good for us) can mask as "that which I must have." When our feelings are hurt by someone we care about, our intuition may tell us to lash out blindly when this will cause harm and do even more damage.
Here comes the issue of establishing good will. A wise banker would tell us we need to deposit money into our savings account regularly, and regardless of what we think we must spend money on first. A good will "savings account" should be treated similarly. When we are experiencing emotional exhaustion or tension in our relationship, putting in the effort to communicate, show affection or compassion may be the last things we want to do. Yet it is during these times, when the relationship dips down into the red zone, that we need that overdraft protection most of all.
To make a practice of being kind and building good will doesn't mean abolishing boundaries, and offering our partners limitless availability and generosity. It doesn't mean we never say no, nor does it mean that we should accept mistreatment. It is possible for kindness to coexist with healthy, necessary boundaries.
At the same time, neither partner should deploy the nuclear weapons of hostile communication (such as sarcasm, blame, and bullying) in response to feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment and so on. Even if our instincts tell us to be nasty during hard times, this kind of hostility will not do anything except escalate the conflict. Sometimes, what we need to do most urgently during relationship troubles is put the brakes on the strength of our intuition.
Remember, feelings are very important in relationships — but they are not the only thing that will guarantee a healthy relationship. The positive actions we can take (sometimes!) to override our instincts also matter. If I can bring you a cup of tea in the morning, fill your car with gas, and make your birthday special even when I'm annoyed or stressed out, I'm funding the goodwill account of our relationship bank. This doesn't mean you should sublimate your needs or desires if you need to communicate something to your partner, but it's important to open yourself up to these kinds of gestures, and realize that your intuition isn't ALWAYS leading you in the right direction.
In our most intimate relationships, however, our instinctual response is often the opposite of what our partner needs, and it's here that our willingness to make a new, counterintuitive move is needed.
Every morning for 26 years my husband has brought me a latte. Some mornings he hands it to me with a smile and a kiss; other mornings he is in a hurry and businesslike as he places it beside my bed silently; then there are mornings where is not happy (with me or generally), and so he puts it on his side of the bed so I have to lean over to get it. Still, that latte comes, and it has become like a love note over many decades of being together, through many seasons. In the tougher seasons of our love story, that latte has warmed me even in the iciest of storms.
Think about the importance of challenging our instincts in another context, like exercise. Committing to an exercise program is easy when we're feeling energetic and inspired. But what really matters is what we do on those mornings, many (or even most!) mornings, when we are not feeling energetic and inspired, when the last thing we want to do is drag ourselves to the gym.
Well, relationships, too, are a kind of practice. When all is going well, most of us find it easy to be generous, kind, and affirmative. When we perceive our partner to be the cause of our trouble, however, we must learn to counter our natural urge to punish, withhold, and otherwise flip into self-protection mode. Once we've learned to be less defensive, we can begin to choose our responses to disappointment and fear rather than giving in to the instinctive fight, flee, or freeze response.
Particularly for those in the first throes of love, such conscious "bank deposits" may seem unnecessary. During the first stage, couples believe that nothing will pop their love bubble — ever. Yet to make such deposits continually, is vital. From the very beginning, we need to nourish the relationship and keep the "love account" out of the red so that it can withstand some of the trouble to come, when we begin to appraise each other with cooler eyes and hearts. When we've stored up goodwill, we can recover much more quickly from hurt and distress than when we're running on empty.