It’s Not Personal

For February, the Month of Love, I’d like to discuss a big part of my work: helping couples improve their relationships. Every relationship can be improved, of course; none are perfect. However, when the main issue is a lack of understanding, rather than something deeper like resentment or betrayal, a little bit of effort can quickly result in a major improvement in the relationship.

I created a concept called “The Relationshipping Stairway” that takes couples from conflict to appreciation in five steps, and Understanding is the third one. I find that when couples learn to understand their partner, challenges are no longer viewed as something to take personally. Instead of battling each other, you and your partner battle the problem together.

Relationships involve three separate entities: two individuals and the relationship they share. In the beginning of relationships, both individuals often prioritize the needs of their relationship over their own individual needs. This is critical for the health of the relationship, but no one can do that 100% of the time. However, if we follow the 80/20 rule—prioritizing your relationship over your own needs 80% of the time—you will have a healthy relationship.

Misunderstandings are often taken personally, and when that happens, the desire to prioritize the relationship is greatly reduced. There are several common misunderstandings in relationships that are based on differences in personality or values, but these can be turned into acceptance, or even appreciation, when understood. We’ll look at introversion/extroversion, basic needs, and love languages.

Introversion and Extroversion

This is a personality trait that exists along a continuum. The defining question is this: When your energy is depleted, how do you recharge—with others or alone? If you recharge with others, you’re more of an extrovert. If you recharge alone, you’re more of an introvert.

If you and your partner are on opposite ends of this spectrum, you will have several differences that can be misunderstood and taken personally. Extroverted people are social, outgoing, energetic, enthusiastic, talkative, assertive, adventurous, easily distracted, quick with their responses and decision-making, expressive emotionally, and optimistic. Alternatively, introverts are reserved, reflective, good listeners, thoughtful decision-makers, independent, detail-oriented, sensitive to external stimuli, and more reserved in their emotional expression. They prefer solitude and avoid small talk when socializing.

It’s unlikely for a person to be at one extreme end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum, but you may be able to see patterns that dictate which side is more dominant for you or your partner. With this knowledge, you can develop an understanding of what your partner needs, and be more accepting and willing to provide it. One couple I worked work decided that the extrovert needed to develop more outside interests and the introvert needed some alone time to do solo hikes.

Basic Needs:

Every human has five basic needs, but these needs show up differently in different individuals. Some of those differences complement the other, while others can create misunderstandings. For the purposes of this article, I will discuss the ones that cause some of most common conflicts: strong Safety & Security/weaker Safety & Security, strong Freedom/strong Connection, and two strong Significance people.

If one partner has a high Safety & Security need and the other has a low one, you may have conflict over finances, spontaneity, and the future. One is a spender and the other is a saver. One is spontaneous and the other is a planner. One lives in the moment while the other plans for the future. Once you understand these differences are not personal but simply the way your partner is, you can begin to create solutions that honor both of your priorities, ultimately addressing what the relationship needs.

If one is Freedom-dominant and the other is Connection-dominate, the solution could be similar to the introvert-extrovert example above.

When you are both driven by Significance, you might try to power over each other. Each of you wants to be right, have the last word, and accomplish your objectives. The solution for the high-Significance couple is to strictly define which of them is responsible for what aspects of their life together, and while they can and should consult with each other on decision-making, the final say will rest with the person in charge of that area. When you have trouble agreeing on the division of these areas, you could decide to take turns for an agreed-upon period of time.

Love Languages

Gary Chapman discovered that individuals have five love languages, and while most people can appreciate all of them, there’s typically one that most strongly helps the individual feel loved—there could be a primary and secondary love language. When you learn to speak your partner’s love language, they will be able to experience the love that you are expressing, which will ultimately improve your relationship. You can learn more about The 5 Love Languages here.

The goal is always for increased understanding, the elimination of hurt feelings that come when you take these things personally, and a solution to the problem—not a change in what the other person needs. People need what they need. Their behavior isn’t being done to you; it’s being done for them.

Once you reach understanding, you can advance to acceptance and, finally, appreciation. This is more fully explained in my book, Secrets of Happy Couples.

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