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How to make your relationship the best thing in your life

By The Stateman
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Chocolates, flowers, stuffed toys, and expensive restaurant meals are all meant to say, "I love you.” Radio programs on pick-up lines and TV shows of lovely young couples at a restaurant feeding each other let us know that these people are in love.

But what happens when the restaurant meal is over? What do you talk about after the first pick-up line?

If Valentine's Day is about love and romance, what really is love?

Here are some thoughts on love from a social worker and someone who loves and is in love with her husband:

Love is a way that we relate to people who are significant in our lives. They are parents, brothers and sisters, friends, children, wives, husbands, boyfriends, and girlfriends.

Most of the qualities of love are the same for all these relationships while others are specific to particular relationships. Couple relationships have the unique opportunity in our lives to provide us with companionship, to make our lives richer, and to build a place where we find strength, energy and fulfillment.

Television dramas often revolve around relationships. In such programs and movies, however, the limitations of the storyline become apparent once the struggle to be together is overcome. Once the couple has become a couple.

But what then? What do couples do? How do they show they love each other? What does daily living look like for two people who are in love?

As you read this article, think about the one you love and how you are able to live your love. Are there issues of jealousy? Of abuse? Of fatigue? Of miscommunication?

Think about your own relationship and whether you feel it strengthens or weakens you.

There are five main characteristics of healthy relationships: respect, trust, compromise, commitment and joy. Each of these elements is pivotal in keeping a long term relationship healthy and strong.

Respect

Who we are is the product of many years of growing and innumerable influences in our environments. As adults, the likelihood that there is going to be dramatic changes in who we are is small.

Of course we continue learning, our values can shift, and our lives can change with new jobs, illness, or a move to a new place. But one of the main keys to loving relationships is respecting the other person, who she is, and not trying to change her to suit our needs or wishes.

Unfortunately, couples often come together thinking they will be able to bend the other person to their own needs. This contradicts the loving relationship since it denies the other the right to be himself, to fulfill his own passions. Those people who try to change their partner are often frustrated or, in the worst case, abusive.

One of the most important things about relationships isn"t that there is an absence of conflict but how conflict is dealt with. Most couples will find themselves in conflict situations from time to time.

Disagreeing or miscommunicating is part of being human, but loving couples try to get through the conflict by listening to one another, by talking it out, by sharing and forgiving. Respecting your partner and her right to have her own opinion is never more important than during a fight.

That doesn't mean you have to give in, but that fighting doesn't have to be adversarial, that as a twosome you can talk it out and remember that you are working on your relationship together. Think of conflict as a dance rather than a war; you are both trying to move to each other, find the rhythm, and learn. Remember too that a relationship should be about building each other up, not tearing each other down.

Finally, each of us has basic rights. Rights to work and to rest, to laugh and to go about freely. To have friends and to love our families. To eat and to play.

Relationships that deny the rights of one or both of the partners are in danger because they go against our fundamental needs. It is important to remember, for example, that women have the right to make decisions about their own well-being and that men have the right to be vulnerable.

Controlling each other disrespects parts of who we are. And each of us has the right to live, free from fear and free from abuse.

Abusive relationships undo the careful respect that couples must build. Abuse, whether sexual, physical or verbal, can never be part of a healthy relationship.

Trust

Of course, having your boyfriend go out with a group of friends until late requires that you trust him. Having your wife spend an evening talking with an old male friend means you must trust her too. Trust involves being faithful to your partner, not being jealous, and telling the truth.

Faithfulness is a key to building and sustaining trust. It is not only about sexual faithfulness, but also the way we talk about our partners to our friends, the ways we represent them, and the way we carry them in our hearts.

A husband who complains to people that his wife is a nag is being unfaithful to his relationship with her because he is pulling her down in the community. While it's important to share relationship difficulties with friends and family, there is a fine line between talking and dishonouring.

Jealousy is a difficult part of any relationship. Jealousy can be sexual or it can entail envy about who earns more money, who has more friends, who is smarter, etc.

Jealousy can happen at any junction in a couple's life together but often signals low trust and insecurity. Couples with severe jealousy issues should devote a lot of time to working out their issues and maybe even seek outside help. Unchecked jealousy can lead to severe relationship problems.

Finally, trust also involves telling your partner the truth. Whether they are small lies about how you spent the afternoon or big lies about who you spent your afternoon with, lies always undermine the strength of relationships.

Truth telling is an act of trust and should be received as such. If your partner tells you something that you don't like to hear, she needs to trust that you will receive the information with care and caution.

We need to trust that our partners are honest and have our best interests at heart.

Compromise

Similar to respecting the person our partner is, relationships are a constant negotiation of compromise. You want fufu, he wants pizza. You want to live in the village, she wants to be in the city. You want two children, he wants four.

Couples must constantly make decisions about their lives and the life of their family.

Sometimes decisions are made by the one seen to have more knowledge in a particular area. For example, if a wife has a lot of money sense, she might make better decisions about how to budget the family's resources. Still, before buying a car, she should consult with her husband about their family finances. Although they each bring different strengths to the fore, couples can make decisions together and make compromises when necessary.

Compromises involve putting yourself in the shoes of the other person, of listening to their point of view, and trying to find a middle ground that satisfies the needs and wants of both.

There are times when a middle ground is impossible. A couple doesn't have enough resources to have a home in the village and the city. So a decision must be made.

Compromises are part of every relationship. The critical element is that both partners are active in making compromises.

If a husband always gets his way and his wife must be the one to bend to his wishes, he isn't doing his job in putting himself in her shoes and thinking about her needs. Even in situations where a man impregnates a woman, he must make thoughtful compromises to support his child and his child's mother. He may have to compromise purchases he wants for himself to support these other people.

By making difficult compromises, we show the other person that we love them.

Commitment

The road of a couple will always have its ups and downs. Life is full of unexpected events - illness, loss of a job, unexpected pregnancies, moves to other cities or countries.

There is no end to all the possible things that come down the line in a long relationship. Commitment means that you stick with it and work together as a team to get through the rough patches. It means looking forward to the future and trying to get there together.

Commitment also means forgiveness. Sometimes we slip up, make mistakes, say the wrong things.

It is unfair to expect perfection from ourselves or from our partners. Loving your mate and being committed to her means that you can forgive her when she makes a poor decision, says the wrong thing, offends you.

Oftentimes couples unintentionally injure one another. Forgiveness also means being willing to appreciate that what has transpired wasn't meant to hurt you.

Finally, sexual fidelity is one of the cornerstones of commitment. Extramarital sexual relations bring a whole host of problems: risks of illness, deceit, abuse of trust, and abuse of power.

When a boyfriend has access to more money than his partner and spends large parts of the day travelling to and from work, he has more financial and temporal power to shape his life. If he cheats on his girlfriend who thinks he's at work or that he doesn't have the money for extra costs, he is abusing this power and her trust.

Commitment means that you promise to be true not just now but also down the road.

Of course many relationships reach a crossroads where they know it's time to break up. Infidelity, abuse and controlling behaviours are all common reasons why couples don't last. In such cases, the promise of commitment has been broken by also breaking the promises of respect, trust and compromise.

Joy

With time and growing familiarity, the things we once loved about our partner can become either commonplace or even frustrating. One of the key parts of happy, healthy relationships is the presence of ongoing joy in being together. Sometimes this requires active effort by both partners to find the beautiful things about the other and ways to celebrate the other person's uniqueness.

What we see as romance in the media is the manifestation of this joy. We are happy to be together, we genuinely like who the other person is, and we count ourselves lucky to have a partner like ours.

We show our love by buying gifts or doing sweet things. This romance is the spontaneous way we show our joy in the other.

Romance shouldn't be about wooing your potential girlfriend, for instance. Let her discover who you are and like who you are; this will be the most important when the fine clothes and dinners are done.

Joyfulness also means that we take joy in our sexual relationship with our partner. Healthy sexual relationships involve a lot of trust, communication, and sharing.

Both men and women should have a say in their sexual life, should be heard and should be respected. It is important that women and men own their own bodies and being married, for instance, does not make one spouse the proprietor of the other's body.

Every now and again you have the good luck of meeting a couple who have been married for decades and when they look at each other, their eyes still smile. Loving the other makes everything in life sweeter.

Relationships founded on respect, trust, compromise, commitment and joy stand the best chance of lasting and of continuously fulfilling both partners.

Relationships are not easy, and like most good things in life, require a fare share of work. But in the end, a good, solid relationship can be the best thing in life.