This article was written by Australia Counselling member Vivian Baruch.
What sets our good relationships with close and intimate partners apart from those we have with our more casual acquaintances is the quality of the emotional connection we share. Emotions are core to human interactions. Without the ability to understand, use and respond to our own as well as others’ emotions in a healthy way, impaired social interactions and communications result.
There are some basic principles in a healthy relationship which underpin the mnemonic CODE, which stands for Compassion, Openness, Depth and Equality. Developing these emotional qualities requires focusing on compassion, openness, depth and equality towards ourselves as well as our partners, it’s not an either or deal. By focusing on applying these first to ourselves, we’re in a much better position to practice treating others in the same way.
Cultivating the CODE in your relationship requires sustained effort, especially after the initial honeymoon phase wears off. There’s always the risk that one or the other of you may not try as hard as you did at the beginning of the relationship. But if creating a conscious, loving, co-committed and evolving relationship is important for you, focusing on the CODE will be of great value.
Mutual compassion is necessary, because when either one of you is tired, stressed, sick or under the temporary influence of a mood, caring for yourself at the same time as caring for your partner helps you remember that the development of compassion is an ongoing process. Practicing compassion for yourself and your partner helps you pay attention to your own emotions, which may warn you that you’re walking on eggshells, or are attempting to avoid issues. Noticing your own emotions and using them as information, gives you the courage to raise issues in a caring way without causing unnecessary harm to yourself, your partner, or the relationship.
Compassion is a blend of many of the qualities comprising love. Having compassion for yourself is the basis for developing compassion for others. Genuinely helping others means learning to act for the benefit of others without interference from your own agendas.
Compassion begins with loving-kindness, which means friendliness toward yourself and inevitably leads to friendliness towards others. It also implies trusting yourself—trusting that you have what it takes to know yourself thoroughly and completely without feeling despair, without turning against yourself because of what you see. The more you trust yourself, the less need you have to close down to others. Even though others may evoke strong emotions in you, you don’t withdraw. Based on this ability to stay centred and open, you achieve the capacity to relate to others in truly compassionate ways.
It’s common for people to have a distorted view of what friendliness, warmth and self-compassion really mean. We all know that we need to take care of ourselves, but how many of us really know how to do this? When we begin to develop compassion for ourselves— unconditional acceptance of ourselves—then we’re really taking care of ourselves in ways that pays off. We feel more at ease with our own bodies and minds and more comfortable in the world. As our kindness for ourselves grows, so does our kindness for other people.
In order to be open with others in a healthy way you first have to be open with yourself. It’s important to become increasingly comfortable with who you are. You do this by familiarising yourself with and becoming mindful of your ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. You’ll soon see that there’s much variety and fluctuation in these parts of yourself because nothing is stable and permanent.
This knowledge will help you to be open to the ideas and opinions of your partner, a skill which takes time to develop. You don’t need to open up right away and tell your deepest secrets at the start of your relationship. After spending sufficient time together, you’ll learn more about your partner, their likes and dislikes, their strengths and quirks of personality. When you know them better and your mutual interactions have shown that trust has been earned, only then should you begin revealing any skeletons you may have in your closet.
Another aspect of being open is telling the truth. It may feel uncomfortable at first, especially telling a truth that could possibly make your partner upset. In the long-run your partner will respect the fact that you told the truth and it will be beneficial to you as a couple. Openness requires saying what your real opinion is on a matter. It takes courage to think about what you are going to say, and to ask yourself: “Will it make her/him feel an emotion? Are there positive/negative consequences?”
If you disagree with your partner, clearly state your reasons for disagreeing. Don’t try to force your opinion on your partner, try to respect their differences. Every couple has its disagreements, this is normal. Explaining what you think and trying to show your partner your opinion in a respectful way may open them up to new ideas and help them to see your point of view.
Although it’s tempting to avoid any problems that come up, talking through situations not only helps you get over a problem more quickly, it also helps you bond as a couple. It gives you experiences which prove that you can get through problems. This is essential for a strong and healthy relationship. Leave time to just talk, talking is good for bonding.
A healthy relationship can be a universe within itself. Though still connected with the world around it, the relationship can supply each of you with a deepening home base from which to grow together. You can increase the depth of the relationship by the things you do together. Both of you can foster relationship depth by developing the various dimensions of your relationship, by cultivating intellectual and emotional rapport, by harmonising values and by honouring your commitment to each other.
When you expand the range of activities and interests that you share, you expand the depth of your relationship. Each of you must have a say in what you do and whom you see. The more variety you have in your life together, the more dimension you provide the relationship. A deep relationship is fresh and alive, interesting and vital, no matter how long you’ve been together. The variety can range from relaxing activities like sitting together in nature to engaging in new hobbies to reading some of the same books. The fire of the first months will not blaze forever, so cultivate mutual interests.
Depth in a lasting relationship is not sensational, but subtle. And it’s the appreciation of the subtleties that can move the relationship beyond the excitement of infatuation into deeper and deeper connection. By cultivating mutually respected values, you will instil integrity and depth into your relationship. Real values are personal, ethical, compassion-based and philosophical. Keep sharing your thoughts, feelings and values, bounce ideas off each other, think about your beliefs and be prepared to debate so that your beliefs can mature.
Another way to achieve depth is through commitment. Being committed to each other means that both of you have decided that your relationship is a priority. Neither of you is in it as matter of convenience, but because of devotion to each other. Your relationship will inevitably be tested by a variety of life stressors, but with commitment and loyalty, your relationship can weather any storm. Loyalty means that you’re there for each other when it counts. When either one of you is challenged by others, you know that your partner is there to support you. Your principal allegiance is to each other because you’re a team.
Equality sets a strong, level foundation on which your relationship is built. Rooting your relationship in equality enhances the likelihood of it being successful for both of you. In an egalitarian relationship, decisions which affect both of you are made together. This is done by asking for each other’s input and listening to each other’s ideas. Each of you bring unique attributes, abilities, talents and sensitivities and drawing on these qualities will enhance the process and outcome of your relationship. Equality also involves respecting each other’s rights for attention, support, time, space and comfort. Because you’re different, you will necessarily have different needs in these areas. Working together to create understanding and learning to negotiate about these is important so that you both feel your needs are respected.
Part of the process of enhancing equality in your relationship is that you assume mutual responsibilities for such things as decision-making, household tasks, pets, finances and kids. This is done by allowing the other to express themselves freely without interruptions or put downs, by asking and not making demands, and also with an awareness that power is shared equally so that no one is the boss of the other. If one of you has more skill in one area, it’s fine to mutually decide that the skilled one take more responsibility in that area. To do this well, transparency is required, so that in putting forward your preferences you trust that the other will complete their agreed-upon responsibilities.
Settle for nothing less than the CODE in your relationship and make sure that both of you share an appreciation of its principles. Both partners need to participate to make a healthy, thriving relationship.
To find about more about the author, Sydney and Blue Mountains relationship counsellor Vivian Baruch, please visit her counselling listing.
If you’re looking for a relationship, marriage or couples counsellor in other city such as Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra or country areas of Australia, visit our marriage and/or relationship issues page to see counsellors and psychologists that are in your local area.
photo by Kirstea (flickr).