You need help with your relationship? Allow me to help. My qualifications? Well, frankly, I have none. No MAs or PhDs; no time spent in the psychoanalytical trenches, dodging emotional flak. All I offer is a reservoir of experience. I'm a veteran of a 22-year relationship, a man who has managed to navigate the choppy waters of separation (a two-year "hiatus" early in the game), parenthood (four years and counting) and, perhaps most critically, several successive seasons of lousy network television, during which time my girlfriend and I were forced into conversation much more frequently than usual.
Far be it from me to hold my own relationship up as some sort of ideal. That kind of cocksure arrogance can come back to haunt you like a bad breakfast sausage, and before you know it, I'll be writing The Guy’s Guide to Spousal Support and Custody Agreements. But here's what I do know: the older I get, the less I'm convinced that any relationship is fully and completely functional. And this is even more true today. Men, this ain't your father's relationship. This is a new time, an era when uncharted challenges erupt as regularly as the face of a 15-year-old fry cook. Onward!
In much the same way that countries or great religions invest in defining myths, so, too, can the average couple use their imaginative skills to construct a fable that, when the going gets tough, can be used to remind them of why they wound up together in the first place. Here's ours. At the end of our first date, we went back to her place. As we were getting romantic, one of us blurted, "I think this could be the start of something good." Bam! It could have been a deal-killer – a fairly serious dedication, so early on? – but it was our turn-the-corner moment. In that passing instant both of us could see ourselves as a couple forever, or at least until a romantic dinner consisted of two glasses of Metamucil and a bowl of stewed prunes.
So there you have it. Our creation myth. It's not particularly exciting, but it serves a purpose. Would have been cooler if there were gunfire and a car chase. Oh, well. Pass the prunes.
Page 1 of 4 -- Learn all about conflict and conflict resolution on page 2
Conflict and conflict resolution
Although it's likely that your loved one will devote the majority of her free time to feeding you peeled grapes while you recline on a velvet divan, for those occasional times when things don't go super swell, you'd best learn some strategies. Some people think that conflict resolution is easy; others, like myself, view it more akin to imposing peace on the Middle East. Were it only that simple. Child-care issues. Career demands for both partners that cut into time with each other and with family. The classic juggling act that most of us are performing means that potential friction points are greatly increased. "Weren't you supposed to pick up Debbie from gymnastics?" "I thought you said you'd drop off the dry cleaning?" "You're going to L.A.? Tomorrow?! You didn't write it on the calendar!!" So how to deal with conflict? Some broad-stroke advice:
Life is not an arm-wrestling match
Today, there are (allegedly) no gender roles: men cook and clean; women pull down the big salary and the high-pressure office gig. But old habits die hard, and in many homes women feel that they are stuck doing more. If this is how your loved one feels, it's likely she'll exhibit an interest in telling you about these feelings. Never mind that, since you work from home, during your "lunch break" you folded three loads of kids' clothes, emptied the dishwasher and liberated the stainless-steel appliances from the scourge of greasy handprints. Apparently, though, you still have ample room to up your game. Aside from blowing an artery, there are two ways to deal with this.
One is to write down everything you do that contributes to the smooth running of the household. Make sure you include cleaning the barbecue, cutting the lawn, watering her plants, changing the litter box for her kitten, picking up her clothes and, of course, cleaning the stainless-steel appliances. (Pointing out that she has never actually done this herself is a nice touch.) After finishing, present her with a list as long as a full toilet paper roll. Cross your arms. Smile thinly. Victory is yours!
Except it isn't, because her list will be just as long. (Um, when was the last time you planned a full week of meals, dude?) A better way is to write down everything that has to be done between the two of you and then, if it's unbalanced, re-designate the tasks. You'll see how much she has to do, while she'll take a look at your daily workload. Often it’s revelatory for both. Result: empathy. And the aversion of full-scale war.
Page 2 of 4The past is the past
An excellent way to ensure that you're headed for years of quiet solitude surrounded by many cats is to dredge up the past to punish your partner in the present. Often, even context goes out the proverbial window.
Setting: a nice, suburban home. Man comes in from outside, throws his coat on the floor. He wobbles toward the bedroom. Upon entering, his wife clicks on the light.
HER: It's 3 o'clock in the morning!
HIM: Don't be ridiculous. It's…2:56.
HER: I can't stand it when you stay out all night!
HIM: Hey, remember that time you got tipsy at my office party and told my boss I thought he was a controlling jerk? That was pretty funny.
Deal with the residue once and for all, then put it away. It's over. We're all human. Move on. Next.
I won! I won!
For years I found the fastest way to escalate an argument was to give in to my own competitive desire to come out on top. I am a stubborn person by nature, one who, in a disagreement, is capable of stooping to low-blow tactics in order to "win." It took me many, many years to realize this simple fact: in most arguments, no one wins. (Add to this my blind stupidity in trying to prevail when my girlfriend was in the throes of PMS, and you can pretty much figure out what kind of moron I'm capable of being.)
This is not to say you shouldn't argue. Arguments help move your domestic agenda along by raising issues that are on their way to festering. (From sexual dysfunction to parenting issues, guys often tend to bury what bugs them.) But by framing disagreements in ways that aren't "zero sum," you can reap progress rather than pain. Apologize if you're wrong, stand your ground if you truly believe you're right. But remember: pride goeth before the fall, and the fall goeth hand-in-hand with lawyer bills and restricted child visitation rights.
You've mastered the art of conflict resolution. Now, you'll need to devote some time to tackling a few general maintenance strategies to make sure your daily life hums along. An analogy: a relationship is like a car. You have to put fuel in it and tune it up occasionally. Of course, no car lasts forever. And it's true many people like to have more than one car. Some are car collectors, and have many, many cars. Forget the car analogy.
As honest as possible, under the circumstances
Most times, you can and should be entirely honest. A coupling built on half-truths and deceptions does nobody any favours in the long run, and if your relationship can't handle a regular dose of candour, then perhaps it's time to reassess. But whatever its theoretical merits, unvarnished honesty can be a rather blunt instrument – especially when used in the heat of battle. (Been there.) But even the small stuff can benefit from the judicious use of the truth.
Here's a cliché: Your partner comes home with a new outfit. She models it for you and asks how it looks. Now, maybe you're not André Leon Talley of Vogue magazine, but you know when she looks like a funhouse mirror version of herself – the small, squat funhouse mirror, not the tall, thin one. What to do? You can:
(a) Tell her she looks amazing.
(b) Tell her just exactly how fat it makes her butt look.
(c) Tell her you’re not crazy about it.
Go with (c). First, because it's true, but more importantly because it's truthful and not hurtful. In other words, you're being diplomatic. So as a general rule, talk honestly but soften the hardest edges; let compassion reign. (And trust me: if she really likes the outfit, she'll convince herself you have no idea what's fashionable, anyway.)
Page 3 of 4Separation anxiety
After becoming a parent, a strange paradox occurs. On the one hand, you spend a lot more time with your partner; on the other, you spend a lot less time with her doing the stuff you want. Because sitters are scarce and expensive, often one parent will stay in and look after the child while the other will go out on the town. After a while, you realize that although both of you are managing to have a social life (you alternate nights), you're having a social life that doesn't include each other. Although this is fine if you're Andy Capp, it's pretty much poison for a relationship.
The solution: budget for one night out a week with your partner. Go for dinner, or a show, or a jog – whatever you used to do together before your life changed. (That said, try to maintain one night a week to getting away from each other, too. You are two people, not conjoined twins.)
But even without children, some couples, by choice or habit, end up leading lives that fail to intersect in important ways. Some indications include completely separate financial plans, separate vacations, separate TVs and having fantastic, mind-blowing sex – separately, with someone other than your spouse.
A relationship must include a set of aspirations toward which both partners can strive. Goals must be shared and futures must be planned for. Really, it's much like any decent business partnership. Think Conrad Black and David Radler. On second thought...
Keeping it fresh
A friend of mine is a "surprise guy." He likes giving surprise gifts and planning surprise parties. He buys flowers for his wife because he wants to. Most women I know love him; most men I know have a different take. Although he's my friend, on occasion, I hate him, too, since by comparison he makes me look like an unfeeling cad. But I'd be a stupid unfeeling cad if I didn't realize that the payout from his actions is that his three-decade-long relationship is still fresh – or at least as fresh as any can be after so much time on the shelf.
One of the things that has kept my relationship fresh is that we still refer to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. We didn't have anything against marriage; we just never got around to it, and by the time we had moved in together and then had a kid, tying the knot would have seemed, oh, just a little after-the-fact. And so, even though we're two decades into our life together, we still call each other "boyfriend" and "girlfriend." They're just words, of course, but words have power. For more than 20 years, we have effectively been dating. And we'll likely continue to do so – until one of us keels over, right into their bowl of stewed prunes.
What else can I say? Be kind to each other. Hold hands on occasion. Light a candle once in a while. Learn the art of massage. And never forget three little words that can ensure the health of a relationship over and above all else: get…a…dishwasher.
Read more: 10 ideas for 90-minute dates.
This story was originally titled "The Guy's Guide to Relationships," from the February 2008 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!
Page 4 of 4