Because I am both a couples mediator and divorce mediator, I am frequently asked about my most important advice for committed couples. My answer is simply to decrease the negative quality of a couple's interactions, below an important threshold.
In this article I’m going to make the case for an offshoot of the 80/20 Pareto Principle (i.e., 80% of effects come from 20% of causes). My version of this famous principle can serve as a test for whether you should commit to your love relationship, and it also works to help you sustain that relationship.
If you are in an intimate relationship, hopefully it feels easy much of the time, but I’m going to assume it seems challenging some of the time. Should you commit to working through the challenges together? How much challenge is too much to bear?
The 80/20 principle applied to love means that 80% of your feeling about your relationship comes from 20% of your interactions together. Accordingly, I offer the following proposition:
If time with your partner is at least 80% Easy, and at maximum 20% Challenge, then you have a relationship that is sustainable.
In great relationships the overall proportion of easy interactions is likely far higher than 80%. By contrast, if one out of every five interactions is challenging on a regular basis, that’s going to be a problem over the long haul. While any couple might experience temporary periods of challenging circumstances, folks hovering anywhere near 50/50, at least as a baseline percentage that is unlikely to change, are most likely already looking to move on.
If your instinct is that it should be possible to minimize challenge in your relationship to less than 20% of the time, I think you are probably right.
Here are three simple steps to help you exceed 80/20 in love.
Stop Talking While in Challenge
Step One is: when you are feeling challenged in the relationship, stop engaging with each other.
This may sound flippant, but the last thing you want to do is poison the well on a regular basis. If you are in a moment of Challenge, continuing to talk to each other is only too likely to be flinging venom around.
Stop as quickly as possible.
Katie often stops any bickering very quickly by simply stating: “I don’t want to talk to each other this way.” I can’t help but agree with her when she says that.
If we are finding ourselves in a challenging moment, maybe we just need to take a Time Out.
It’s important to note that a Time Out is very different from what our mentor Breck calls “withdrawing the relationship.” Withdrawing the relationship means taking love away. Even making an implicit threat that what’s at stake is the love relationship itself, is about the most hurtful thing you can do to an intimate partner. Unless you are at the very brink of breaking up, withdrawing the relationship is not a move you should allow yourself to make. E.g., you can’t storm out and drive away without communicating where you’re going and when you’ll be back, unless you aren’t coming back.
Hopefully your Time Out only lasts a few minutes, before you can come back into intimate connection again, and move to Step Two.
Engage Only While in Love
It may be possible to return from Time Out and resume talking about the issue that felt challenging. But resume engaging ONLY IF you both feel in love.
If you can both easily acknowledge that you love each other, right now, even while talking about the tough issue, that means it’s no longer so challenging. You’ve already come back across the border from Challenge World and returned to Easy World. You're in a state where you can probably feel that the love is the important thing, and that the relationship is much stronger than the challenging issue. And you have minimized the percentage of time when you are feeling challenged together.
Thus far, we’ve learned to stop talking when feeling challenged in the relationship. And we’ve learned to not start talking again until we feel in love again (and therefore no longer so challenged by whatever issue is up). And these steps might be all that’s needed to keep you well above 80/20 in love.
But sometimes an issue is so difficult that you can't return to it and simultaneously stay in effortless love with each other. That’s fine. Steps One and Two aren’t about avoiding the tough issues. But you don’t want to tackle challenging issues while you are feeling challenged in the relationship. And you don’t have to talk through the tough issues by yourselves.
If you can’t easily talk about tough issues from a loving place, skip to Step Three.
The Issues List
Step Three starts with simply making a note of the issue that you are having trouble working out easily.
Sometimes all that’s required is for one of the partners to journal privately about whatever is feeling challenging for him or her. Just getting thoughts out of your head, and deposited into a nice place where they can sit there and burn, means they aren’t burning a hole in your brain.
The legendary Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was known to channel resentments by keeping the names of people who he felt had wronged him on a piece of paper in a drawer. According to the lore, from time to time he would review these names and take pleasure when karma naturally caught up to these individuals. However, I imagine many of his resentments had in fact already evaporated from his consciousness by the time he checked the list. In the same way, tough issues often lose their sharpness a week later when you finally read back over your journal.
If not, and the issues still seem alive, make a list together and take the issues to your couples mentor or mediator.
Katie and I have what we call our Breck List. Anything we can’t easily talk through, we bring to our long-term mentor, Breck. His objective perspective is invaluable to help us navigate the tough content.
For some reason, there is an idea in our culture that, as couples, we should be able to work through tough issues without external support. This is bananas. We’ll take golf lessons to improve our swing, but we feel weird hiring someone to help us address relationship challenges.
A mediator, in particular, is trained to help people:
Make clean communications (for example, non-defensive, clear requests and boundaries);
Discover and reveal underlying needs and interests;
Explore options in a safe container with a witness present;
Evaluate solutions and develop win-win outcomes; and
Identify and memorialize commitments or agreements that can help avoid challenging interactions in the future.
There is no shame in seeking out guidance and assistance in working through relationship challenges, as needed. And a skilled mentor can help you drastically minimize the time you are feeling challenged in your relationship.
I hope the steps outlined in this article help you exceed 80% Easy, on average, in your long-term relationship.
And, if you like this kind of analytical thinking, you can apply the 80/20 mental model even further, to identify the 20% of things you do together that brings 80% of the ease and joy in your relationship. Then focus on doing more of those things!
To the health of your relationship.
John Hoelle is a family attorney and "couples mediator" who uses conflict-resolution techniques as a creative, practical, and even fun way to identify and clear away the toxic material that poisons what otherwise could be an extraordinary relationship. Learn more about Couples Mediation here.
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