Like many things in life—cleaning your house, maintaining your car, even raising your kids—there are a few fundamental skills that, once mastered, life becomes easier. You’re not rattled so quickly, can mentally turn crises into problems, and develop a solid core of competence that increases your self-esteem and helps you feel confident.
Relationships are no different. Yes, there’s plenty of information out there, and if you get into the weeds, you’ll probably find about 300 things to worry about and have to do right. But you don’t need to worry about those 300. Here’s a shorter list: Five core skills that, like handling the house, car, and kids, can make your life a bit easier:
Control Your Anger
If you have that 0-60 temper, blow up at the drop of a hat, or even do that slow burn/fed-up, periodic but damaging explosion every once in a while, you need at some point to learn to rein it in . This isn’t about just relationships but running your life. If you can’t, not only will you hurt your relationships and, with that, your life, but you can easily develop a me-against-the-world stance where the only problem is other people who make you angry rather than you— a lonely and anxious life.
If this is a struggle for you, tackle it—with therapy, medication, meditation, something.
See Control as Anxiety
Yes, some folks are controlling to be controlling. For them, it’s about power and manipulation and using others as objects to get what they want, but for most, control is tied to anxiety. You constantly feel micromanaged by your boss, but likely she’s a worrier who is always looking ahead at possible worst-case scenarios. The control can feel more suffocating when you are living with someone, or even worse if this has been going on for years.
Control as anxiety means that the other person gets anxious, and their automatic response is to get you to do what they want you to do. If they can, and you do, they are less anxious. To help you feel less like the ten-year-old under the thumb of an obsessive parent, substitute the control you feel for their problem with anxiety.
Next, instead of snapping and saying, “Get off my back!”, say, “Tell me what you’re worried about.” That’s the driver; that’s what puts the problem back in their court. But you need to practice saying this calmly: Think less about you feeling like a victim and more about the other struggling.
Look for the Problem Under the Problem
You feel your partner drinks too much or is too rigid or lazy, driving you crazy. At this point, the problem is yours, not theirs. For them, what you consider a problem is for them likely a solution to another underlying problem—that drinking helps them deal with stress, that rigid is about structure that reduces anxiety—or lazy is in the eye of the beholder and is about different priorities or view of how to live your life.
Rather than complaining or trying to micromanage all the time, stop and ask about the problem under the problem: I’m feeling upset about _______; how do you think about differently; help me understand better why you do what you. By doing this, you change the conversation, avoid slipping into a power struggle, and have an opportunity to find better ways of either seeing the issue differently or together solving the problem in a better way.
Find the Moral of the Story
You have a big argument on Saturday night. You both got out of control. Part 1 is learning to control that anger, but part 2 is circling back. Don’t just make up and sweep the argument under the rug. Instead, figure out the moral of the argument. Usually, this means solving the problem that caused the argument and then figuring out why it got so out of control.
This is about learning what pushes each of your buttons. Like cleaning the house, fixing the car, or raising the kids, learning how to run your relationship is a process of trial and error. It’s okay to make mistakes, but it’s not okay not to learn the lessons the mistakes are teaching you.
Work Towards Win-Win Compromises
If you want to have control, if you want to be right, live alone. But if you live with someone, you need to learn to make compromises. Compromise is associated with caving in. Win-win compromises are about each being clear about what is important–#1, not a list of 30—getting it on the table, and then negotiating an agreement that considers each’s needs so that neither feels like a victim or martyr.
This is hard to do on your feet—better to think about it and then come together and discuss it. If the process gets emotional or stuck, back off, regroup, and try again. If still stuck, get help—a session of mediation, counseling, or therapy.
The theme here is stepping back, not getting in the weeds of the problem of the week, but instead looking at bigger patterns and ways of having sane, problem-solving conversations. Life skills, like cooking, the car, or the kids, get better with practice. But once you got them, you’ve got them.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.