Growing up, I never saw my parents fight. Not even once. There were a couple of times they’d grumble and growl at one another, but that was usually because it was past Mom’s bedtime or Dad was hungry. And until I reached adulthood, I thought their relationship was entirely typical.
That was until I started dating.
It was then when I was introduced to a wide spectrum of communication styles and behaviors, some of which were entirely alien to me. I remember the first time an ex and I fought, I felt shellshocked. In a situation where someone was suddenly red-faced and screaming bloody murder at me, my instantaneous response was anger. And as it turned out, anger didn’t really help diffuse that fight or the underlying tension in our soon-to-fail relationship.
Thankfully, not all of the people I dated in my twenties were like that, but it did take a few more experiences, some long talks with Mom, and some navel-gazing for me to realize why the only marriage model I’d ever known is such a happy one. I’ve decided to try and boil these observations down into three points that I’ll list below.
1. Open and “Safe” Communication
The most consequential behavior I’ve learned from my parents is having open communication and, to use my mom’s words, to talk “at the right place, at the right time.” This not only means being honest, but creating physical and mental spaces for dialogue where you can let your partner know how you feel, or where they also feel comfortable sharing their feelings with you.
Honest communication is essentially showing vulnerability and trust in your partner. It refers to the ability to express what’s on your mind, or (importantly) willingness to listen to your partner. When I think about “honest communication,” what I often imagine are tense topics; however, that’s not the case at all. I think positive emotions are a part of the picture, too, such as showing appreciation for something that your partner has done, or just verbally expressing that you love them. As a practice, it truly pays off in that it continuously strengthens key aspects of your relationship (e.g., faith, trust, commitment).
Another important part of this behavior is picking times and spaces to facilitate conversations. For example, if I want to have a talk with my partner, I will try to initiate that talk in an environment that we enjoy, where we’re both comfortable, and where there is intimacy, such as our living room. I’d pick a time to talk like after dinner, when we’re both content and relaxed. Note that this doesn’t have to be a serious talk. It could be about our day, or how they felt about work. What matters is that it's in a space where we’re both at ease.
The environment is also significant because it can affect your emotional state in the moment. Your feelings when the conversation happens can significantly alter how you receive information and the language you use. Think about it this way: if you’re going to talk about something heavy — say, about an offensive conversation you had the night before — wouldn’t you rather be in a private place where you’re not considering your appearance in front of strangers? If you had that conversation in a restaurant, maybe the public nature of the conversation would embarrass you both, or make your partner irritated if you were the one who initiated it— and with that, the emotional “safeness” of your talk would melt away. Speaking alone would remove the performance aspect of the conversation, and likely make it easier to speak honestly.
Now, I know all of this is easier said than done. Sometimes it’s onerous to talk about your feelings. Maybe you’re insecure about something in your relationship, or struggle expressing yourself. Maybe your emotional needs are not being satisfied, or you’re afraid that what you say could damage your bond. Maybe you don’t fully trust your partner, or feel as though they (or you) are not emotionally mature enough for talks. There are tons of reasons why people aren’t open books with their significant others.
However, it seems nearly impossible to have a healthy, long-term relationship without there being a place for open and safe communication. Even though my parents put this skill into practice throughout my entire life, I didn’t pick it up overnight. It took baby steps and repeated failures in the past, but the efforts paid off in that the connection I have with my partner is trusting and safe. I think incrementally working toward open dialogue is a great step for those worried about their romantic future.
2. Letting Negative Emotions Pass Before Talking
I know there’s this garbage norm in our society that men “aren’t supposed to show emotions,” but I am certainly a person that experiences emotions forcefully. When I feel happy, I’m elated. When I’m sad, it feels crushing, etcetera. This isn’t a personality flaw, of course, but it means that when I’m confronted with tough situations, sometimes my emotions overwhelm my judgment. And boy, did I used to be bad at recognizing this.
I think it’s pretty common knowledge that, in the heat of inflamed passions, we often say silly things we don’t really mean, whether it’s “I love you,” as teenagers after a single date, or much nastier sentiments. I can think of some gems I uttered in the past when I felt betrayed: “you’re the worst person I’ve ever met,” “what did I ever see in you,” and a long stream of ad hominems and expletives that I’m not going to list here. Now, whether or not that person deserved to hear those words is beyond the point. (And yes, that was one person who got an earful.) The point is that my outburst was immature and my words were meant as poisonous barbs rather than measured expressions of how I felt or questions regarding their behavior.
Maybe it feels wrong to hold your tongue when you’re hurt or furious, but I think it’s best to let those emotions pass peacefully through different means than with words. I’ve found that when I’ve removed myself from a situation where I’m about to erupt, I’ve been able to later return to have a level-headed conversation. When those negative feelings are overwhelming the rational part of your mind, it’s really hard to ask yourself questions like: why am I really angry, or why is my partner angry with me? Are there any underlying causes? Am I missing any information?
Those kinds of questions come to me once I’m away from the stimulus, and usually arise while I’m doing other things. For me, running and lifting weights have always been the best ways to let go of anger or sadness. Physically removing myself from the space where I was experiencing negative emotions helps, too. Identifying ways to relieve yourself of negativity is really important for keeping things civil with your partner, even if you’ve had something terrible occur between you, such as infidelity.
If your partner doesn’t understand why you’re stepping away from a tense conversation, you can express your reasoning. I’d say something like, “I need some space to calm down first,” as a way to let my partner know that I’m not willing to keep the conversation going at that time. Returning to the first point of this article, the conversation may go better if revisited in a different space, at a different time, and with a different mindset.
3. Keeping Perspective and Assume Good Intentions
Perhaps the most cogent-yet-overlooked lesson I’ve learned from my parents is that at the end of the day, you and your partner should assume good intentions of one another. Even if there are miscommunications or mismatching expectations, moments of explosive emotions, or diverging wants or needs, you should be able to take solace in the fact that you want what’s best for one another, and that your motivations are coming from a place of love.
For example, when my partner is giving me feedback that at first seems pointed or negative, I remind myself of their motivations. Sometimes I even clarify that point with follow-up questions, like “I’m not sure why you’re telling me this. Can you help me understand?” And when I’m expressing something critical to my partner, I try to let them know my reasoning, too. Like most things in a relationship, intent is a two-way street.
Now, in saying this, I’m not suggesting that anyone is perfect and that our intentions are always good. What I am trying to say is that since our partners often know us best, it is easy to interpret concerns as attacks on our wounds, or as digs at our self-esteem. I try to keep in mind that my partner and I are together because we love each other. If I felt as though I couldn’t assume good intentions from my partner, then I should probably reconsider us being together. But, thankfully, I don’t think this is the case for most relationships.
While I’m certainly not a psychiatrist or a health professional, I’ve observed that the lessons I’ve learned from my parents’ marriage have really helped me maintain a healthy connection with my partner. Like my parents, my partner and I aren’t perfect, but we’ve never had a single fight and lead a happy life together. In any event, I think that this is achievable for most relationships, so I hope you found these observations beneficial.