Last week my 2005 Saab 9-3 broke down. I was indignant. “How could my 12-year-old Swedish car with 110,000 miles on it break down? I can’t believe this!” My indignation turned to pensive sorrow as I watched my not-so-faithful Saab disappear into the sunset, on a flatbed truck. I waved goodbye, and wondered how I arrived in this sorry state.
I imagine my Saab now plays a little Saab harp in Saab heaven. My new Toyota Corolla cannot claim the panache of my former chariot. But it’s reliable.
Now the regrets come. “If only I had flushed the transmission fluid sooner. Why didn’t I do the 100,000-mile recommended service? Why did I buy a Saab?”
For some questions, there are no answers. But I’m man enough to admit I didn’t take care of the car as well as I could have. A few checkups with the mechanic wouldn’t have hurt; actually doing the scheduled maintenance could have helped. Listening to friends who said, “Don’t buy a Saab” could be part of the puzzle.
Luckily, my neglect of preventative maintenance means I simply get a new car. But not all things neglected are so easily replaced.
A man walked into my office this week with his face in his hands and his shoulders drooped nearly to the ground. Tears burst from his eyes. The first words from his mouth: “I’ve neglected my wife. She left me, and I know it’s because I haven’t been there for her.”
Things not so easily replaced.
It’s easy to look back and see what we should have done. It’s much harder to see what we should now be doing. Relationships are never passive, there’s always some doing involved.
So, if you don’t want your relationship taken away on a flatbed truck, consider this your relationship preventative maintenance schedule; the things you need to do for your relationship to thrive.
Identify Negative Patterns Early.
What would happen to your car if you waited six years to bring it to the shop? Well that’s exactly how long the average couple waits before they go to counseling, after a problem starts.
The human brain is capable of incredible feats; especially if you give it six years. The brain’s ability to deny, rationalize, ignore, blame or find excuses keeps many couples from addressing problems, for years—until crisis hits.
Sadly, by that time, the problems are entrenched and the resentment is deep. Both feel insurmountable.
Remember, negative patterns identified early are just speed bumps. But left too long, they become mountains. This doesn’t mean the mountain can’t be climbed, it just means it’s going to be harder. You can save yourself the stress of mountain climbing, if you address the problem when it’s only a speed bump.
Assess Your Quality Time Together.
One good measure of the health of your relationship is the quality of your time together. Do you enjoy your partner’s company? Do you laugh, dream and have fun together? Do you feel your time together is sacred space; that your partner is really with you, psychologically and emotionally?
When the answer to these questions is no, it’s like driving your car for six years without an oil change. The emotional corrosion eventually eats away at the engine of your relationship until it seizes.
Your recommended preventative maintenance is to take a serious look at the quality of your time together, and ask if it is stress inducing or stress reducing. If your time together creates more stress than it relieves, it might be time to take your relationship in for a checkup.
Consider your Conflict.
Conflict is a normal, expected and acceptable part of any relationship. However, it’s important to distinguish between wounding conflict and healing conflict.
Some good checkup questions to ask: Do our fights bring further pain or deeper understanding? Are our fights characterized by name-calling, accusation and contempt or empathy, curiosity and healing? Is one person always getting 100 percent of what they want—is there never compromise?
For some, their partner is a safe harbor in the storm. For others, their partner is the storm. Conflict shouldn’t feel like a struggle to survive the hurricane of your partner’s wrath. If it does, it’s time to make some changes.
Self-Check Before You Relationship-Check.
There are a lot of things we know about ourselves; there are even more things we don’t know about ourselves. There are things about ourselves we hide and things about ourselves hidden from us. Often, our spouses see the hidden things we don’t.
It takes humility to do an honest inventory of yourself; to look inside and admit the ways you contribute to the problems in your relationship. Do your behaviors throw gas on the fire? Are there better ways you could express yourself and your needs? Could you invest more time, energy and empathy into your relationship?
These are difficult questions to ask because the answers often lie in the parts we consciously, or unconsciously, keep hidden from ourselves. We must listen to the needs and complaints of our partners (as artlessly expressed as they sometimes are) to discover things about ourselves we may not know.
The easy way out is blame and accusation. The difficult way in is honesty, humility and empathy. Only one way leads to a fulfilling marriage.
These four relationship maintenance recommendations aren’t difficult. Each just requires an investment of time and energy.