How many relationships do you see around you that you would actually want to be in? For most of us, we can count the number on one hand. An even better question might be, “Am I in the kind of relationship I would want my own child to be in someday?” If you want to top that and move into the area of upping your chances to have an exceptional relationship, you will ask yourself, “Am I being the kind of partner I would want my child to have someday?”
As a therapist who has worked with couples for more than a decade now, I see a disturbing trend on the rise. We are settling for mediocrity in ourselves as partners while expecting our partners to be exceptional, asking more of them than we do from ourselves. If you are thinking to yourself, “Could this be me? Am I being an exceptional or mediocre partner?,” please keep reading. because there are three simple traits that genuinely happy and fulfilled couples seem to have in common. If you are looking to take your relationship to the next level, consider raising your personal standards in any of the following ways, remembering that if you want a better relationship, it begins with looking at one’s own self first and foremost.
1. Exceptional partners have a good idea about what makes it difficult to have themselves for a partner, and they feel a sense of appreciation and respect for the challenges their own personality presents for their partner. They work hard to keep these attributes in check and not let them get out of control. Mediocre partners are rather hazy about their own shortcomings as a partner but can easily enough rattle off a long list of their partner’s flaws.
It is easy enough for most people to list off a handful of traits that make it difficult to have their significant other for a partner, but when the question is turned back on oneself—”What makes it difficult to have MYSELF for a partner?”—the exceptional partner demonstrates a rare willingness to identify his or her own shortcomings and backs this up with a steady commitment to managing and keeping his or her own difficult traits and imperfections in check so that they don’t impact the partner in unfair ways.
Whenever I work with a new couple, I always eventually get to that question because it helps me understand how to best help them. The old saying, “We can see everyone but ourselves when we enter a room,” applies to relationships, too. It’s normal to not know the answer to this question, but the willingness to be open and want to know the answer is everything. As the research from the world-renowned Gottman Institute has found in Seattle, Washington, female partners in particular need to know that their opinions and feedback truly matter to their partners. This is actively demonstrated by listening with the sincere intent to understand the other’s feelings and positions and find common ground and areas for compromise and by validating your partner’s stance without necessarily agreeing with it.
2. Exceptional partners understand that while they are not responsible for their partner’s happiness, contributing to their partner’s happiness is nonetheless a top priority. Mediocre partners, in contrast, are primarily focused on their own gratification first, and while they too can be thoughtful, thoughtfulness is not a daily habit.
Years ago, I placed a beautiful canopy bed up for sale. A couple arrived to purchase it. As they dismantled the bed piece by piece, there was an attitude of playfulness and a sense of mutual joy they took in one another that was striking in its rarity. “What’s your secret?” I asked them. They shared that the secret of their successful marriage was that every morning they ask themselves, “What might I do today to let my partner feel loved?” Exceptional partners make it a habit to be exceptionally thoughtful. They seem to recognize that life is short and seek out ways on a regular basis to express their love. For these couples, love is indeed not just a feeling but an active verb.
3. Exceptional partners ask a lot of themselves and not more nor less of their partners. Mediocre partners, on the other hand, have the balance tipped in the opposite direction. They either are asking more of their partner than they are of themselves or sacrificing their needs regularly in order to serve everyone else, leading to chronic feelings of depletion and often bitterness and not feeling appreciated.
It is often said that we should ask more from ourselves than others because this is the one thing that is in our control. However, this advice has its limits when it comes to the person we spend our lifetime beside day in and day out. Exceptional partners consider themselves a work in progress and make a habit of expressing their needs and desires in a direct yet respectful way. They insist on both treating their partner well while also being treated well in return. In other words, they invest heavily in the success of the relationship and expect their partner to bring this same level of consideration and commitment.
Mediocrity in our relationships may be our conditioned norm, but we can move into the exceptional this very moment by expanding our commitment to ask more of ourselves, appreciating our partner in ever deepening ways, and becoming voluntary stewards of one another’s joy.
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