The Relationship Long Game: Building a Wall of Virtue and 4 Relationship Habits to Avoid
“Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.” -Navy Seals
I’m currently dealing with a lot of uncertainty and stress in my life. And during this period, as expected, I’m not operating from a ‘high-functioning- place, instead I’m more prone to anger, frustration and impatience.
And this got me thinking about how we deal with the difficult times in our lives, especially in our relationships.
Specifically, I started thinking about our relationship habits.
Relationship habits are the day to day language we use and the behaviors we engage in when interacting with our loved ones.
And they apply to every single relationship we have in our life.
As with everything in life, it’s easy to have excellent, compassionate communication and behavior — to rise above bad relationship habits — during good times. When you’re on top of the world it’s easy to support and listen to and empathize with your partner.
But what happens during stressful, difficult times? During conflict?
We’ve all been there — an angry fight that leaves you wishing you never said that, or did that.
Because during stressful situations or conflict — like the quote above says — we fall back to the level of our training (our habits).
We fall back to the relationship habits we’ve been cultivating throughout the relationship.
This post is about raising the level of our training.
It’s about building better relationship habits so that the next time there is a situation of pressure or conflict, you (and the relationship) can rise above.
This post is based (almost entirely) on an amazing lecture by Rabbi Mordecai Finley.
Relationship Habits and the Relationship Long Game
At the end of the day, what we’re after in this world — and what ultimately generate happiness and fulfillment in our lives — are bonds of compassion, love and intimacy.
These bonds (relationships) are priceless and they demand nurturing and protecting.
And yet we often behave in certain ways that erode these bonds, day in and day out.
Over time we develop relationship habits. These are the consistent and regular patterns of behavior and include how we communicate with one another, how we show and receive love, how we care for the other.
- Good relationship habits build up a stronger, more loving partnership — these need to be constantly and deliberately practiced and developed.
- Bad relationship habits destroy these bonds of trust and intimacy and damage our relationships over time — these need to identified and minimized.
Bad relationship habits, over time, can destroy relationships. Period.
Now for those of us that are in the relationship long game — not just for a few years but for a lifetime — it’s important to weed out these bad habits ASAP.
*Remember, this applies to ALL the relationships in your life (not just romantic) that you care about strengthening and protecting.
Weeding out Bad Relationship Habits — The 4Cs
According to Rabbi Finley, the most damaging relationship habits, and the ones we need to weed out, are the 4Cs (these are also based on Dr. John Gottman’s ‘four predictors of divorce’).
The 4Cs are:
1. Criticizing: turning a behavior (something your partner did) into a statement about his or her character (the type of person he or she is).
You’re so lazy, You’re so forgetful, You always act so selfish, etc.
2. Complaining: expressing dissatisfaction or annoyance with a situation/person.
You didn’t do the dishes, You missed a spot when you cleaned the floor, You’re too loud on the phone, etc.
Obviously sometimes we want to complain, but it’s when we get in the habit of noticing and remarking on the bad things more than the good things, that it becomes destructive.
3. Condemning (including accusing, blaming, labeling, comparing, insulting, contemptuous gestures):
You’re such an idiot/moron for forgetting to get milk. What kind of idiot would do that? etc.
Condemning involves seeing your partner as beneath you, rather than as an equal. If you constantly feel smarter than, better than, or more sensitive than your significant other, you’re not only less likely see his or her opinions as valid, but, more important, you’re far less willing to try to put yourself in his or her shoes to try to see a situation from his or her perspective.
4. Escalating Conflict: Engaging in protracted conflict that results in yelling, insulting, passive aggressive and other hurtful behavior.
Conflict is ok, disagreeing is natural. Escalating conflict, on the other hand, is conflict that is less about solving a problem and more about proving a point, assigning blame, hurting the other, punishing the other, etc.
Why are these bad relationship habits?
Because these are actions of the ego mind and are meant to hurt and punish, not to build and create.
And, over time, these actions and behavior lead to anger, to distrust, to resentment, insecurity and other tensions in a relationship.These actions break down bonds of intimacy, trust and love. It’s subtle at first, but they are toxic to any relationship.
Moreover, they never really solve anything, at least not for very long.
And remember — shit will hit the fan, over and over again — and unless you have your habits in check, your relationship will keep taking big hits and suffer in the long-term.
So how do we protect and strengthen our relationships?
Building a Wall of Virtue
We tend to forget that we’re in the relationship long game. That we’re building something that we want to last. That we have the power to dictate the terms of our relationship.
According to Rabbi Finley, this is where the Wall of Virtue comes in.
The Wall of Virtue is a mental model for the kind of relationship you want to have.
It’s a decision to build a ‘wall’ between you and your partner/the outside world, which dictates the terms of your relationship.
It’s deciding which relationship habits are acceptable, and which aren’t. And then deliberately working to reduce the ones that aren’t.
- Behind the Wall = relationship habits I DON’T want to express. Specifically deciding not to criticize, complain, condemn or engage in escalating conflict with my partner. *you can put anything else you want back here to, i.e. gossip, comparing, etc.
- Beyond the Wall = relationship habits I DO want to express
Rabbi Finley teaches that the Wall of Virtue is about how you want yourself to act, not how you want the OTHER person to act.
It’s a treatise with yourself. It’s decision that YOU will not engage in certain behaviors, no matter what the other side does.
Not because you’re ‘not allowed’ but because you decide that you care more about building a stronger relationship, long-term, than having a ‘quick win’ or proving a point, short-term.
Be more creative, and let your higher self take charge
According to Rabbi Finley, building a Wall of Virtue doesn’t mean you don’t FEEL the 4Cs, it just means you have the wisdom and self-control to CHOOSE not to express yourself in that way.
It means that you choose to find a different way to say what you need to say.
And it’s hard, you may be thinking, ‘well how the hell do I get people to do what I want?’ And this is the ego talking.
Because your instinct is to reach out to attack others. This is the default mind. This is the easiest thing to do.
Note: This may seem crazy — but you don’t need to articulate everything you feel, all the time. This doesn’t mean you’re numbing your feelings and pretending to be happy, it means you’re acting mature.
So what’s the answer? Be more creative. Work to find a better way to say what you need to say. It’s not easy and it requires energy, for example:
- Instead of ‘you didn’t do x right’ — comment on something positive first, then later on you can comment/ask about the thing that wasn’t done well. Or you can just say nothing and let is slide.
- Instead of immediately jumping to ‘you never do x, you’re always so x’ — rephrase it to ‘sometimes I feel that’ or just don’t say anything and let slide.
When you cut your ego off from the 4Cs, you’re essentially making way for your higher functioning self to take over. For your higher functioning self to create a better relationship reality.
- Say these words out loud — ‘I will not criticize, condemn or complain and I will strive to minimize conflict in my life.’
- Observe your relationship habits. Do you have a tendency to engage in the 4Cs? What triggers this? Why?
- Next time try to build up your Wall of Virtue. Try to control yourself, to communicate in a different way. If you fail, it’s ok. Just try again next time. It’s all good, these things take a lot of time.
- Share and discuss this model with your partner, lover, colleague, family member, etc. It’s easier to practice the model once both partners are aware of and committed to it.
- Practice, practice, practice. Remember this is training yourself and your ego to operate on a higher wavelength.