Author, speaker and pioneer in personal transformation, Dr. Ken Druck, and his partner, Lisette Omoss, reveal their guidelines for fostering a healthy relationship.
We’ve both grown up on the job, learning from our relationships. To make our new love everything we wanted it to be, we had to take the next step. Learning how to take care of “the baby,” as we call it, is how we did it.
Ken: At age 46, I found myself alone for the first time since age 19. I’d learned a lot about being in a long-term relationship, but was completely unprepared for being single, dating or starting another intimate relationship. It didn’t take me long to realize I had to go back to school, which meant getting to know myself and the women I was seeing a lot better.
Each relationship since my divorce had taught me something about what it means to succeed in an intimate, exclusive relationship. I got to know my strengths and weaknesses, and worked hard to develop the qualities like trustworthiness, honesty, integrity, respect, playfulness, selflessness and humility that I was looking for in a partner. After shedding some bad habits, defense mechanisms and insecurities I’d picked up along the way, I was ready to put everything I’d learned to use. That’s when Lisette came into my life.
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Lisette: I had spent the first 40 years of my life trying to be the perfect wife, mother, daughter and sister, and win everybody’s approval. A terrible tragedy, the death of my niece, Erin, compelled me to wake up and stop living for everyone else. Reading what Erin had written about the things she wanted to accomplish, gave me the strength and courage to be more honest with myself and others. Putting this into practice was far more challenging than I expected. The biggest obstacle, as it turned out, was my own fear.
Ever since childhood, I’d avoided conflict. When I got upset at someone, or they got upset with me, I’d shut down. It was my protection and, needless to say, it didn’t keep me from getting hurt. Nor did it help any of my relationships. When I decided to say how I really felt, my husband tried to be supportive but this was clearly a problem for him. I made every attempt to reach him and get our marriage back on track, but it wasn’t to be.
Ken and I met after Erin’s accident when the Jenna Druck Center, a non-profit foundation he named for his daughter, Jenna, was there to help my family. Several years later, after both of our relationships had ended, Ken and I became good friends. In time, our affection and enjoyment of being together inspired us to take the next step. Sure enough, we fell in love.
The Baby is Born
We had both found what we were looking for in a partner and were ready to bring the best we had to our relationship. It was time to step up our game. That meant being fully committed, with no safety nets or back doors. One night, we came up with a name for our relationship. We called it “The Baby.” It was young, vulnerable, fragile and precious, and needed love, care and protection to grow strong. We would need to live up to that standard, or risk repeating past patterns of failure. Nothing was more important!
We’ve been together for several years now. We think of ourselves as a work in progress and work diligently on bringing out the best in each other and ourselves. Here’s what we’ve learned:
1. Do What’s Necessary to Build Trust and Commitment
Ken: Great people and relationships call us to higher ground. They ask nothing less than our best. This means 100% honesty and integrity. Even when it means owning up to a part of ourselves we’re not proud of — and cleaning up our act. I had difficulty admitting that I’d become a bit of a flirt over the years. My boundaries with women had become too relaxed. Friendliness created the appearance that I was available, when I wasn’t. And while my ego was getting fed, I was unknowingly disrespecting my partner and putting my relationship at risk.
Lisette has always been an attractive woman. Friendly, funny, warm and personable. But she was in denial about how much attention she was getting from men. And acting somewhat naive. Several men had fallen in love with her without her really being aware — until it became a problem. She was unwittingly putting herself and her relationships at risk as well.
Both of these things presented serious problems for the baby. We knew it had to change. Both of us had to clean up our acts, tighten our boundaries and become more aware of our surroundings. Little by little, we did! Setting clear parameters for what was OK and not OK when it came to being respectful deepened our trust and commitment. Taking care of the baby means trusting one another to be honest, respectful and faithful 100% of the time.
2. The Daily Care and Feeding of The Baby
Every baby needs and deserves great care and attention. This meant considering the other person’s feelings with the highest regard and learning to treat them with the utmost sensitivity. Since we’re all different, there’s no cookie cutter approach where one size fits all. And it’s not enough to tell ourselves we have good intentions, so our partner should be satisfied with the way we’re treating them. We have to get to know them.
For us, this meant upgrading our sensitivity software and tuning in to how the other person was feeling. Learning to ask the other felt, say what we wanted, draw each other out and clarify where we stood gave our relationship the attention in needed to flourish.
Both of us agreed. No surprises. No secrets. Everything out on the table where we could “process” it and deepen our understanding of one another. Even if it might set off a reaction. Avoiding unsettling issues might be easier in the short term but the debt eventually comes due. Nothing is more important than communication. Bringing things up instead of hiding, denying, repressing and avoiding them is critical. So is making it safe for the other person to talk openly without fear of running into a wall of defensiveness, insecurity, excuses and/or justifications. We needed to really listen to one another and talk more openly about our innermost desires. This meant there could be no judgment, sarcasm or hijacking of an issue from the other.
Lisette: One night, I asked Ken if he’d like me to read him a section of a new book that I (and many of my girlfriends) were reading called Fifty Shades of Grey. This led to a fun conversation about how we’d like to be more adventurous. And we have! I took a chance and it paid off sweetly.
3. Daily Check-Ins to Stay Connected
Check-ins are the connective tissue of a good relationship. Airing out about the day’s “best and worst,” “high and low” moments, or the things we liked about the day, opens up a fresh line of communication. Like a line of credit, we know it’s there to fall back on and tap into when we need it. Plus, it’s more effective than mind-reading. Assuming our partner knows how we are or what we want is a recipe for disaster. An open line of communication provides a safe and familiar place to reconnect and ask for what we need no matter what state we’re in.
Check-ins set the tone for our relationship. We’re all one step away from either falling asleep alone or cuddled in each other’s arms. Saying how we feel and what we need sets the table for showing our partner we love, appreciate and count them as one of our blessings.
4. Make Continuous Improvements
Our relationship is a work in progress. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be great. Neither do we. Growth and improvement come from getting to know one another better, setting new boundaries, solidifying our agreements, discovering new horizons and making time for the baby. Strong relationships require a strong work ethic, as well as a willingness to learn, change, sacrifice and create win-win scenarios.
5. Learn The Art of Forgiveness
We’re all going to screw up, make mistakes, regress, fall short and have lapses in our sensitivity to our partner. We’d better learn how to apologize and forgive. Allowing our partner to restore their good faith and trustworthiness when they screw up, and dealing with screw up’s constructively, made us stronger and fortified our agreements – all critical to taking care of the baby.
6. Playtime, Play Dates and a Strong Play Ethic
Making time to play or explore new things are essential to keeping the baby happy. Whether it’s sitting out on the deck at sunset, going to concerts, plays, lectures or walks, the baby needs fun and lightheartedness to thrive. Pushing the “refresh” button can be as simple as a cooking a delicious dinner together, sleeping late on the weekend, volunteering together, setting aside a date night, taking salsa lessons or hiking a beautiful mountain trail.
7. Care Under Duress
We’ve both had surgery in the past year. One of us had to take care of the other. Being stubborn, staunchly self-reliant and used to taking care of ourselves, this took some getting used to. Both of us are learning how to sit still and allow ourselves to be taken care of. We both still squirm but we’re slowly learning what it means to be a gracious receiver.
Love alone doesn’t make for a successful relationship. New couples that operate on a clear, solid standard of care will grow and flourish. Putting the other person’s well-being right up there with our own builds love, trust and confidence. Relationships are a journey. Each one, different and unfolding. Jot down a few things you can do to strengthen your relationship. Share with your partner your thoughts about how you could take better care of “the baby.” And get help from a third party, like a couples counselor, if necessary. Taking care of the baby may not always be easy, but it’s an investment that will pay off richly.
Ken Druck, Ph.D., founder of The Jenna Druck Center in San Diego, is a renowned resilience expert, organizational consultant, and award-winning author of several books including, The Real Rules of Life (Hay House). Follow Ken’s blog or find him on Facebook.