Relationships don’t come with a manual
An excerpt from Sneha Shah’s book, ‘What Shape Are You?’
“Some things are considered as part of the natural progression of life. One of them is finding love and being part of a committed relationship.
While this is a wonderful milestone, the ability to sustain a healthy relationship is a different kind of challenge altogether. Nothing really prepares you for it, much like what is said about parenthood. Your expectations rarely match the reality of everyday living. Dealing with a person who has a different personality, dissimilar life experiences, unconscious beliefs, early traumas, psychological patterns and conditioning tests your patience, empathy and awareness on a daily basis (do you know your partner’s love language?).
Many of my clients tell me that they wished there was a dos and don’ts manual for creating healthy relationships. While loving another person is such a dynamic and potent experience, and one that cannot be captured in an instruction manual, I have put together a list of some dos and don’ts that could, in my experience of working with clients who come from diverse backgrounds and with very different expectations, help you manage your relationships better.
Shaan and Maya had been living together for five years when they came to meet me. I began our session by asking them, ‘So what brings you here today?’ This question was met with complete silence. A couple of minutes later, Shaan said, ‘We have reached our wits’ end with the relationship. Nothing seems to work. We argue for hours and it’s taking a toll on our life in a big way. I don’t think we can carry on like this.’
Maya instantly retorted, ‘Don’t speak for me! While you may have reached your wits’ end, I know that I have been really trying hard to make this relationship work. Even seeking therapy was my idea. What have YOU done to make this work?’ she yelled.
Turning to me, she continued, ‘He refuses to understand what I need or make any changes. It’s so frustrating. We argue for hours, but I feel like I am up against a wall. Nothing seems to get through to him. He is extremely adamant and insensitive. I am willing to walk a mile to make this relationship work, but he is not willing to even take a small step!’
Shaan sat there in resentful silence. Over the course of five sessions, I watched Shaan and Maya make some classic mistakes that erode a relationship, irrespective of which personality shape you are. They did this without realising that these mistakes were not helping them meet their needs and were instead shutting the other person down.
Here is a list of things you never do when communicating with your partner:
1. Being Too Critical
The number one destructive habit is using criticism to get your way. Criticism is a violent act and is designed to slay the other person. It is most often packaged in ‘you always’ or ‘you never’ statements. Criticism is aimed at a person’s character, not their defensiveness and leads to a cycle of conflict that is hard to escape.
Every time Maya criticised him, Shaan refused to engage in an open conversation. He would attack her back in an attempt to shut her down and gain the upper hand. This led to a vicious cycle of mudslinging, withdrawal, anger and helplessness.
In our conversations, I taught them how to take responsibility for what they really desire in the relationship. It could be as simple as starting your sentences with ‘I wish’ or ‘I would like if you …’ instead of ‘you never’. These small things made a big difference.
2. Shouting to Be Heard
The second destructive habit is yelling to get the other person to listen to you. Every relationship has its ups and downs. But screaming and yelling when things aren’t going your way induces a primal ‘fight or flight’ response in your partner.
In her frustration, Maya tended to raise her voice. She was desperate to be heard, but it was counterproductive. Shaan reacted defensively or critically when yelled at. That defensiveness triggered more frustration in Maya, and she reacted by lashing out. Without knowing what to do or how to respond differently, the cycle kept repeating, and both partners suffered and struggled. Shaan said that he was filled with dread every time Maya wanted to ‘talk’.
To break this cycle, I urged Maya to verbally acknowledge her willingness to break the pattern. It sounded something like this: ‘The last time we discussed this I did not react effectively. I am going to try some new behaviours. I’m starting to feel like I want to yell, my frustration is building. I would like to stop for a few minutes so that I can get calm again.’ This transformed Shaan’s reaction as well and he became more open to listening without getting defensive.
3. Being Brutally Honest
The third thing that erodes communication in a relationship is brutal honesty. Being open and honest is a virtue and essential for authentic communication. Trust, which is the foundation of a healthy relationship, is also built on honesty.
Brutal honesty, on the other hand, is when someone says exactly what they think, unfiltered, no matter whom it hurts. In a relationship, when you take pride in being honest even at the cost of kindness and compassion, it can be incredibly hurtful to the people around you. It can cause your partner to go into their shell and, therefore, cause the relationship to erode. This is especially true between Triangles and Circles. Triangles believe in giving it straight, hurting Circles very deeply in the bargain.
Honesty that is delivered with a bit of compassion and kindness fosters better dialogue and leads to stronger, healthier relationships. So, if you have something to say, make an effort to do so kindly, with your partner’s feelings in mind, especially if you are with a Circle or a Rectangle.
In the relationship I mentioned earlier, Shaan prided himself on being honest and direct. He believed that sometimes tough love was important. Being authentic and calling a spade a spade was his mantra. Maya felt demeaned and cornered as she listened to his scathing views and opinions. What followed were hours of arguments where Maya tried to defend her point of view. These usually ended in tears. The conversations they were having led nowhere and just heightened their feelings of helplessness and resentment.
In our sessions, we spoke about the fact that being honest has nothing to do with being angry, hurtful, mean or ‘letting off steam’. Even though those emotions are not related to honesty, for some reason, we make the connection between them.
Being honest is about being more clear, more specific and more authentic. This means that you don’t have to raise your voice to show how honest you are being. You do need to be more mindful about stating your views as your own (and not the general truth) in a compassionate way and then being open to another perspective.
4. Not Trying to Repair Matters When Things Go Wrong
Conflicts are inevitable in relationships, and their roots lie in our personality differences. In the quest to get our needs met, we may sometimes end up hurting our partners. Those traumas accumulate over time and threaten to insidiously damage the relationship. But is it possible to completely avoid conflicts? The answer is no. Regardless, conflicts are not the problem. It’s how you deal with it and what you do after a conflict that matters. As long as couples are willing to admit responsibility for their part in the problem and realise their partnership is more important than the issue at hand, they will keep growing in their relationship.
The goal is to understand what went wrong, be willing to listen with an open heart and make your next conversation more constructive. This willingness to repair any hurts or wounds creates a closer emotional bond between two people.
Shaan and Maya learnt to repair their minor emotional injuries, and avoided creating baggage of unresolved anger or pain. What matters the most to them is to make an attempt to reconnect and repair after a tough conversation. Otherwise, a couple can end up with layers of pain and resentment from years of unresolved conflicts.
A couple once asked me, ‘You have told us everything we mustn’t do. So what do we do then? Here is a brief list of things you must do when communicating with your partner:
1. Respect Each Other Despite All Your Differences
Learn to respect your Box mate’s solid dependability, the Triangle’s ambition, the Circle’s sensitivity, the Squiggle’s creativity and the Rectangle’s courage.
As you fall in with the daily routine of a relationship, it becomes easy to forget your partner’s inherent strengths and focus solely on limitations. In lasting, healthy relationships, partners value each other and the gifts they bring to the bond. Even differences are expressed with dignity and compassion. If you hope to be respected, give that same respect to your partner, day in and day out.
2. Express Appreciation
One of the great maladies of strained relationships is the lack of expressed appreciation and affection. While Circles do this naturally, the other shapes may need some reminding. All of us have been guilty of taking our partners for granted at times. If you can regularly remind yourself how lucky you are and how valuable your partner is—and tell them so—your relationship will go the distance.
Partners who share a healthy relationship regularly appreciate each other. Recognise what your partner is doing and let them know that you’re thankful for it. Every day.
3. Learn to Let Go of Old Hurts and Grudges
Squiggles are good at moving on; Boxes are not. We are all different people, and our differences are bound to trigger our partners. A Box partner’s logical approach to problem-solving can trigger an emotional Circle, just as a Triangle can get annoyed with the Squiggle who has a strong mind of their own.
Despite all your awareness of differences, there will be times when you feel hurt in the relationship. The key is to forgive, let go of grudges and start over each day. While this is easier said than done, letting go is crucial to the long-term health of the relationship. The past resentments you hold on to work as poison that will erode the very core of your bond.
4. Strive to Stay Calmer During Disagreements
What damages a relationship the most in the course of disagreements is how quickly arguments turn nasty. Extensive research conducted by relationship expert Dr John Gottman has shown that couples who become hostile very quickly during disagreements are far more likely to break up. Nobody wants to live in a war zone or feel like they are constantly walking through a minefield.
Interestingly, when a partner makes a deliberate effort to remain just a little calmer during a tense conversation, they usually find it easier to communicate. Despite that, there will be times when arguments spiral out of control. It’s important to know when to stop and take time out, so that you can cool down and recover before you go back to the conversation. It is easier to take a pause before communication breaks down than to repair the hurt from a discussion after it has gone bad. Our brain is built to remember the nasty things that were said, so be mindful of your words and your tone, and the impression it can leave on your partner.
5. Consciously Nurture Your Bond, Every Day
In the routine of daily life, it’s easy for everyday tasks to take precedence over building a bond with your partner. When someone puts a lot of their attention and energy into their relationship regardless of the million other things they have to do, it doesn’t go unnoticed. Triangles cherish the warm support of Circles and Squiggles love the small, thoughtful things that Boxes do to show their love and care. A Rectangle is forever grateful to have a Circle partner who acts as their cheerleader. When done mindfully, acts of love can build an immensely strong and meaningful connection.
Understanding each other’s needs and preferences, ensuring your partner feels heard and understood and practising small acts of kindness every day can help build a strong bond even when life’s stressors get in the way. “
Excerpted with permission from ‘What Shape Are You? by Sneha Shah, published by Westland, February 2023.
Sneha Shah’s What Shape Are You? is available at your local bookstore and online here.