Seven months ago, I met my long-distance boyfriend for the first time in a foreign country. But right on the cusp of our budding relationship, the world descended into a crisis.
We have been stranded together ever since.
It felt like a page taken out of a romance novel. But unlike any of my favorite love stories, ours, in particular, hasn’t been easy to navigate at all.
To say that it has been life-changing is an understatement.
Imagine meeting someone you have just been talking to over text messages and video calls, and then suddenly being forced to stay together in the same space for 24 hours each day.
All of a sudden, I was living with another human being so entirely different and separate from me.
It has been a whirlwind of experiences all crammed into a seven-month period that I’ve lost count of the times we were on the verge of giving up.
After all, our culture has predicated our notion of love and relationships as one of compatibility from our already existing traits or personal interests.
Hence the stream of advice and prescriptions we often hear are mainly techniques or strategies that talk about how to best improve the relationship in service of the self or the other.
However, a recent study has disproved this idea.
“It suggests that the person we choose is not nearly as important as the relationship we build. The dynamic that you build with someone — the shared norms, the in-jokes, the shared experiences — is so much more than the separate individuals who make up that relationship.”
Therefore, our relationships should transcend our individualities and should instead focus on the quality of the relationship we create with our partners over time.
It is in the mutual creation of experiences, or what I love to call — the beauty and magic of the journey — that long-term happiness is truly fostered.
But how do you build the quality of your relationship when the journey itself can prove to be difficult?
Determining a Shared Purpose
At its core, relationships should be built not on physical or even emotional interests, but rather on a deeper, less visible, and less behavioral aspect. Dr. Douglas Labier coined this as the spiritual core.
What he referred to as spiritual has nothing to do with sharing a religion or a philosophy, but rather on your shared purpose and life goals as a couple.
Of course, this is separate from the goals you set for yourself.
For instance, because of our unique circumstance, our relationship was forced to advance in places that wouldn’t have been possible early on in the relationship.
This meant that for the last few months, we have been completely reevaluating and reflecting not only as individuals but also as a couple as well.
We talked about what our goals were together, and how to cultivate values that would benefit our relationship. We had to determine how to align with each other, lest we get so overwhelmed to the point of losing our relationship.
For my partner and me, we were solely driven to build the relationship because we shared the goal of wanting to experience the world.
According to Dr. Labier, none of your other shared interests matter if your spiritual core isn’t in sync with each other.
But once you identify that, it becomes easier to navigate the other aspects of the relationship. For example, your shared goals become great reminders whenever conflicts arise.
Letting Go of Self-Interests
It is unsurprising then that sharing a purpose or goal with your partner should also equate to letting go of your self-interests. After all, the idea behind building quality in a relationship rests on mutuality, not on individuality.
Therefore, instead of aiming to serve yourself, create enlightened interests that serve the relationship. In other words, it is adopting the mindset that the happier your partner is, the happier you’re going to be.
A study found that couples who were interested in making their partners happier experienced greater pleasure and fulfillment in their own lives. They were able to inextricably link their well-being to the health of their relationship.
This can be manifested through mutual support and a willingness to compromise. But admittedly, this is also difficult to do since human beings tend to be selfish.
In particular, sometimes I have trouble following a work routine every day. If you were to ask me, I am more concerned with staying in bed all day and filling myself up with junk, especially since the pandemic happened.
But this is only because I forget that my self-interests can be detrimental not only to our future goals as a couple but also to our survival in another country.
This is why it helps when you approach the relationship with a sense of privilege, rather than a right, or even a sense of obligation. It will be easier to let go of your self-interests when you know the value of your relationship.
Living in Gratitude
After all these months, I have only recently noticed that whenever we expressed a word of thanks to each other, our overall mood improves for the rest of the day.
I remember having one of the most fruitful conversations I have ever had with my partner. Out of the blue, he asked me why I share no response every time he uttered “bless you” after I sneeze.
Now to be fair, that is not customary from where I’m from. But my partner thought it was always odd that I never say anything back. Once, he even joked innocently that it might be because I wasn’t grateful at all.
However, that moment stuck with me. I have realized that I never want to let a day pass by where my partner thinks that I do not appreciate him.
Ever since then, I have practiced gratitude, not only after I sneeze, but also with everything that he does every day.
Suffice it to say, it has done wonders in our daily life. This is because the tendency to live in gratitude is a self-reinforcing experience that gradually spills over to the other areas of your life as well.
Furthermore, it even holds enough power to maintain positive and supportive connections that can also serve as a buffer whenever negativity arises.
Managing Responsibility During Conflicts
Disagreements will always emerge from our glaring differences. They are unavoidable yet necessary.
Whenever you disagree, it becomes difficult to empathize, and thereafter, easy to paint your partner as a threat to your happiness.
Therefore, you often forget, that they are also experiencing the same thing as you, although filtered by their biases and perceptions. In their point of view, you are a threat to their happiness.
When you think of it this way, it can be simple enough to accept that disagreements can also become opportunities for growth and learning.
Instead of tearing each other down that further adds negativity to the situation, research has shown the importance of regulating your emotions.
Admittedly, I am the more stubborn one in the relationship. My partner, however, can de-escalate his emotions as fast as he can escalate them.
This helps us in the way that whenever he brings himself to calm down, he can immediately approach me with compassion. In turn, this softens me to the point of having an honest and productive conversation.
Emotion regulation also entails that you should be aware of your part of the conflict, and thereby, should show your willingness to do better.
When you learn to regulate your emotions, it doesn’t mean that you forget or even sidestep disagreements. But it helps reach resolutions faster.
The Power of Small Gestures
He said that small actions can eventually impact you in a very big way. It is just in the manner of taking them consistently.
I believe that this can be applied in relationships too. There is unbelievable power in the small gestures you make for your partner.
For instance, every time my partner goes out on his daily runs, he picks up something for me on his way home. It could be a bottle of orange juice or a pack of Oreo.
They are sweet and simple, but also might not seem like anything at the moment. However, they add up over time that unconsciously, I grow more and more in love with him every single day.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be small material things only.
A study has shown that people feel they receive more love through the little actions as well — a smile; a touch; even a supportive comment.
Most especially during these trying times, it is important to remember that love is just as profound in the small things as it is in the grand things.
Have you ever wondered why some relationships that looked so promising dissolve as fast as they began? Even more so, that other couples who seem so hopelessly mismatched have grown stronger?
This is because the truth of the matter is that every relationship, no matter how matched or mismatched, has every potential to flourish.
Success and happiness in relationships are not based on who you choose to be with, but on the capacity and willingness to build the relationship together.
So next time, unless necessary, do not be deterred just because they do not like the same movies or food as you.
Who knows, they might just be willing to go through a pandemic with you in a foreign country.