I don’t really think that anyone, unless they are sociopaths or competing on reality television, goes into a relationship expecting or wanting it to fail. I think we look at others with hope and intrigue. We enter friendships, parenting, romantic love, or any relationship, with a kind of prayer in our heart: Let this relationship last. Let this relationship be true. Let this relationship be good.
And yet, day after day, countless friendships are ruined, marriages end, and connections crumble. This is detrimental to our well-being and to our very lives.
So, I decided to go on a quest to discover what makes relationships really work. I searched the internet and pulled books off of our shelves at home. I contacted the people who had the longest and most successful relationships I knew. Here are a few things I learned.
1. Be happy, first.
When I was a kid, all I asked for one Christmas was a cool new interactive toy. This toy was going to solve all my problems. And I would be happy, so happy, I promised my parents. Fast-forward to two months after Christmas as I held my father’s hammer in my hands. I moved slowly toward my Furby, who had started to malfunction so badly that he would wake me up in the middle of the night randomly speaking in his Furbian language.
My Furby had started to give me such bad nightmares, and I was too embarrassed to ask my parents to turn him off since I had told them how happy I would be with him, so I decided Furby had to die. I smashed my Furby on the head over and over and heard his phrases start to sound less like an alien language and more like a garbage disposal.
The Furby chatter got worse. It didn’t stop. Furby was now gurgling sounds in jumbled and frequent intervals, as if begging for his own life. I panicked, ran downstairs, and stuffed my disfigured Furby into the cupboard.
My parents discovered the malfunctioning Furby the next day at breakfast and had a lot of questions for me. Luckily, they didn’t get too upset. I think they realized what I hadn’t yet: We often look at a material item in life and believe it will bring us joy. But like a child with a faddish toy, we outgrow it all too often. In the long run, things can never really make us happy. Only we really can make ourselves happy.
And I believe this applies to our relationships as well. Sometimes we enter a relationship and look at it as a thing. We think, "Finally! This person will make me happy! This thing will fix my problems.”
In other words, we Furby it.
When we realize we aren’t being fulfilled by the other person in the way we expected, we subconsciously take a hammer to our relationship and start to smash it away.
If we want our relationships to be as successful as possible, we must come to them already filled, already happy to begin with.
2. Create rituals together.
Humans come together through shared practices. It’s a well-known fact. And though the word ritual tends to conjure up images of witches and cults, people actually use rituals every day to connect and reinforce their well-being.
In a relationship, you create a new world. You fashion a new template to live by, together. Having healthy rituals and routines, like exercising or eating dinner together, is absolutely essential in helping to reinforce relationships in a positive way.
My husband and I do this dorky thing every time he comes home. It’s so small, but it has a huge impact on us: When one of us enters the door, we run around singing, “My hunny’s home! My hunny’s home! My hunny’s really home!”
It sounds dumb, and it is, but we love it. I don’t even remember when or how or why the ritual really got created in the first place, but I know this small song and dance really adds a rich symphony to our everyday lives.
My parents did the same thing for me growing up, too. Every time one of our family members entered the house they had a special song sung, just for them. Mine was: “Her name is Mandy. She likes candy. And she eats it whenever she can.” (And it was true, by the way.)
But why do these ritualistic songs spark something in my heart? Why do these weird words give me the world? It’s the same reason I look forward to certain holidays every year. I can’t wait for the traditions, the rituals. The things that come only at a certain time, in a very special way, that I get to savor with the people I love so very much.
3. Smile often.
In her book Happiness For Two, Alexandra Stoddard explains that a simple smile is a powerful gift that we can start every interaction with. If we give a smile without needing one in return, we are more open and ready to connect with others.
Like the orphans in Annie sing: “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”
Make smiling a permanent part of what you bring to the world and your relationships. It invites the world, and others, in.
4. Put your cell phone away.
When Jonathan Chew and I met one of our idols, Evan Carmichael, we were shocked to learn he didn’t own a cell phone.
“How do you live? What if there was an emergency and someone couldn’t get ahold of you?” We asked, with dropped jaws.
Evan smiled and said something to the effect of: “First off, if someone really needed to get ahold of you they will find a way. But bad things really don’t happen as often as we think they might. And you know, it’s funny. My wife didn’t like me having a cell phone at first, but now she loves it because when I’m with her, she gets my full attention entirely.”
I don’t think Jonathan Chew and I could ever live without our phones, so I think the better principle for us here would just be to turn them off when we’re together.
But I think it’s an amazing principle: The world can wait. A more important world is in front of you instead.