How to maintain a happy relationship, according to Paul McKenna
A lot of people think of a relationship as a destination: “I just want to be in a relationship.” But what is really happening is that you are constantly in the process of relating to people. And that process of relating is never static.
I remember in the 80s I went to an Anita Baker concert and she said, “I’m so happy to be in a relationship – and I work at it every day.” I thought, “Work at it every day? I thought a relationship was just bliss!” And of course, it isn’t. Life has ups and downs. There are dynamics, changes and you’re on a journey. How is that journey together? It’s hopefully amazing.
I’ve explored relationships in my new book 7 Things That Make Or Break A Relationship and what was a revelation to me was learning how people prefer to think in one of three modalities: visual, audio and kinaesthetic (as in ‘feeling’). If I’m in a relationship with someone who is visual, they like to see things such as a bunch of flowers, a present or an act of service. My wife is visual. When I take her a cup of tea in the morning, it’s as if I’ve got her a Rolls Royce – “Oh my god! How lovely!”
Whereas with someone like me, I like to hear it. “I love you.” “I miss you.” “I really care about you.” And so on.
With kinaesthetic people, you have to reassure them with touch – words alone are not sufficient.
When you look at how people think, it tells you what certain people will enjoy more. My wife isn’t “red carpet at 30,000ft”. She’d prefer to stay at home and watch Netflix. I am very lucky to be married to a grounded lady.
While we are all different, if you’ve been in a happy relationship for a while, you will probably have shared values. I might be outgoing, comfortable networking and a happy public speaker. My wife isn’t. And yet our values match.
People go, “Opposites attract.” They might in terms of style, but when it comes to values they’ll have to be shared. Typically, it’s five to 10 things per couple. It might be something obvious like kindness. If you’ve gone out with someone who’s unkind, you might have thought, “I can’t put up with this any longer.” And you realise that he or she isn’t for you. Fundamental values are the bedrock.
How you disagree has a strong impact on the relationship, too. I used to think that you just argue until the other person gives up. What a stupid way to think! What my wife has taught me is this phrase: “Let’s agree to disagree.” And that just kills it. I’d go, “Yeah, all right.” How can you disagree with that? Unless you’re some kind of arse.
Sometimes, if we’ve had a couple of drinks and get into a heated discussion, we’ll go, “Hang on. Let’s talk about this tomorrow. We’ll look at it differently.” And then tomorrow we’d say, “I’m sorry if I got a bit upset.” “No, I’m sorry…”
One person might go: “Let’s go on holiday.” “Oh, I don’t know about that.” And then: “Why are you always so negative?” People move from a simple back-and-forth about a holiday and then on to a personal criticism: “Why are you always so negative?” Not even, “Why are you negative?” But “always”. The language of permanence.
If you look at the model for conflict resolution it’s all about addressing the other person’s un-met needs. Thus, if someone says, “I’d really like to go on holiday this year,” the other person might say, “So you’d like a break or vacation?”
You can talk through what the reservations might be: cost, inconvenience or something else. Since I’ve discovered this there have been fewer arguments. Not just in my marriage but relationships generally. I’m not saying I never have a dispute, but I just say, “What do you need?” Before, I used to immediately go to battle stations.
When I got married I sat down with my wife and said: “What do you need from me as a husband?” Some of it was really simple stuff, such as “I like it when I hold your hand walking down the street.” Being a bloke, I never realised that and had to learn.
I will also share a tip that isn’t in the book – this is a new one for you! This comes from the 80/20 rule by the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. He found that 80 per cent of the peas came from 20 per cent of the pods. So he wondered, being an economist, if this was true in other areas. And it was! For example, 20 per cent of a computer carries out 80 per cent of the work. And 80 per cent of the money you make comes from 20 per cent of your efforts.
Now, 80 per cent of the fun you have will come from the 20 per cent of the things you do together. Isolate those and identify where the fun is and where the trouble is. As the saying goes, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” You are the expert on pulling from your mind the things that make you happier.
And remember – happiness is an inside job: rather than getting other people to change, you change you and the world changes.
7 Things That Make Or Break A Relationship by Paul McKenna (Bantam Press, £14.99) is out on 13 February. Change Your Life tours the UK from 6 March. For more information go to paulmckenna.com