Full text of Dr. Andrea & Jonathan Taylor-Cummings’ talk: 4 Habits of ALL Successful Relationships at TEDxSquareMile conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Jonathan Taylor-Cummings: Have you ever stopped to think, why is it that only very few people have an amazing relationship? Did they just get lucky? Are they the chosen ones, perhaps? I think seriously, most of us would agree, wouldn’t we? That great relationships take work.
The problem is, more often than not, we have no idea what to work on. Well, over the last 20 plus years now, working with countless couples, we’ve observed that all successful relationships, every one of them, exhibit four simple, yet fundamental habits which we want to share with you over the next 15 minutes or so.
The great news is that these are habits that we can all learn and develop. And when we do, we significantly increase our chances of having one of those amazing relationships. If we don’t, chances are you probably never will. Every failing relationship we’ve ever seen has lacked one or more of these habits. As we were reminded just recently over Sunday lunch.
Dr. Andrea Taylor-Cummings: And what a Sunday lunch that was! We invited, well, we met this couple socially, connected well with them because we shared similar city backgrounds. Let’s call them Rachel and Steve.
So, we invited them to have lunch with us, to discuss the business that Steve wanted to launch. But as we ate and chatted, we started sensing that Rachel wasn’t happy at all. So, I leaned across and I said, “Rachel, what do you think about this business idea?”
And her response said it all: “I know nothing about this and he never discusses anything with me.”
So, Jon and I just exchanged quick glances to say this is serious what we’re going there. And then suddenly, the thin wallpaper covering the cracks just started to peel off. And I’ll tumble the frustration and the disappointment and anger, and the fact that Steve was working away from home, more and more. And when he did come home on the weekends, he would sleep downstairs in the living room sofa.
And then Steve dropped the bomb. “You know that if it wasn’t for those two boys, I’d have left you a long time ago.”
Now, we do spicy food, but that was a bit more spice than we were planning for Sunday lunch.
Jonathan Taylor-Cummings: Precisely. Now, we’ll come back to Rachel and Steve story. But I guess you already know. The story is, by no means, unique.
Let me share some stats with you. With divorce rates around 40% in much of the developed world, and cohabiting couples breaking up at much higher rates of 60% to 70%, the stats tell us that around half, 50% of all long-term couples simply not going the distance.
Now, what that tells us? And don’t look around now, but either you or the person sitting right next to you is a Rachel or Steve. It is; that’s the reality.
Now, this emotional trauma is also spilling over and impacting our mental health. In the 2016 report, the Mental Health Foundation issued the stark warning that the absence of quality relationships is, get this, it’s killing us faster than obesity and lack of exercise. And all of this is having an impact on the next generation as well.
Research out of the Marriage Foundation has shown that the single biggest predictor of teenage mental health, let’s guess what? Family breakdown. Their research goes on to show that where couples separate, the children are 10 to 15 percent more likely to have mental health problems than where the couple stays together. These are big numbers.
Now, all of this goes to explain why the epicenter of mental health today is currently in our 16 to 24 year olds; that’s where it is. And of course, none of this is without cost.
Family breakdown in the UK, it’s costing us, UK taxpayers, a whopping 51 billion pounds a year. It’s a huge number. It’s almost half what it costs to run the entire National Health Service. Relationship breakdown is a huge problem.
Dr. Andrea Taylor-Cummings: It is. And to solve a problem of this scale, borrowing a phrase from medical science, what we need are better fences at the top of the cliffs rather than just more ambulances at the bottom. And in relationship land, these four habits are strong fences.
You see, all relationships go over a similar set of hurdles, triggered by life events. It could be setting up house together or having that first baby; or in a work context, being promoted to positions that involve or demand more time away from home. And so, these hurdles show up as unmet expectations, poor conflict resolution styles, trust and respect issues, and poor communication.
Outside of abusive relationships, success comes from being equipped to get over these hurdles smoothly, because stumbling at hurdle after hurdle just leads to frustration. And when people feel frustrated and stuck with nowhere way forward, they end up going their separate ways.
Our experience over the last 20 years confirms that mastering these four habits get you over the hurdle. It’s not about being perfect; we’re not perfect, but it is about being intentional in developing the habits. Shall we share the habits?
Dr. Andrea Taylor-Cummings: Okay.
Jonathan Taylor-Cummings: Absolutely. So, the first of the habits then, ‘Be curious, not critical’ helps you get over the hurdle of frustration that comes from unmet expectations. And we learned this one ourselves the hard way.
Our story goes all the way back to thirty years ago, when we first met at business school, when Andrea came to the UK to get her master’s and ended up getting her Mr. as well. And don’t let the current hairstyle fool you; that was me back then.
Anyway, a few years on, we set up in business together and it took us all of about three months before the wheel started to come off. Because very quickly we realized our different work styles were grating against each other.
Now… and because now we had all our eggs in one basket, the financial pressure was just huge on us. So, everything became a problem; even simple things. Now, for some couples, it’s the toilet seat up or down; for us, the single biggest predictor was the state of our desks. One was very organized, yeah? And one was more like organized chaos, shall we say.
And the challenge, the problems would happen, arguments when we had to swap desks to use the single desktop computer that we had. This is 25 years ago. But now, because we’re together 24/7, the problems will follow us home. So, many a night was spent in tension, you know, hugging the edge of the mattress rather than each other.
So, forget about any physical action, we weren’t even touching toes back then. We talked about wallpaper over the cracks. Now it was Einstein who said, ‘You cannot solve a problem with the same level of thinking that got you there.’
So, in desperation, we looked around, we said, “Yeah, how can we change these mindsets that we have?” And we came across a material that helped us understand that actually, our biggest source of frustration was really just our strengths; just unrecognized, unappreciated, and out of balance.
So, habit number one, ‘be curious, not critical’ is all about investing the time to understand how we’re wired differently, so that we can learn to play to our strengths rather than waste time and energy criticizing differences.
Dr. Andrea Taylor-Cummings: So, given these differences, habit number two, “Be careful, not crushing’ helps us get over the hurdle of poor conflict resolution styles. Our natural fight or flight responses are very me-centered; it’s about looking after me and my interests rather than being off-centered. So, we need to literally reprogram these automatic responses by developing the skills and habits that allow us to turn out better to conflict situations, to take care of each other through the process, to work towards genuine resolutions, no matter how angry we might be with each other.
One of the disciplines that we developed was to set ground rules, which are boundaries that would control our behavior in conflict situations, so that we didn’t keep falling at this hurdle over and over again. For example, we agreed we would never hit each other, we would never walk up the house in anger, and we would never threaten divorce just to be spiteful.
Let’s face it. We’re going to disappoint and frustrate each other from time to time. Anybody who says they never argue, either lack passion or they are lying through their teeth. But habit two ‘be careful, not crushing’ helps us learn how to work together, argue well, treat each other with care, and come out stronger together.
Jonathan Taylor-Cummings: For sure. And habit number three, ‘Ask, don’t assume’ helps you get over the hurdle of frustration that comes from mistrust and disrespect that can creep into relationships.
So, back to Rachel and Steve. It turns out their single biggest challenge was different perceptions of respect in their relationship. Although they came from the same cultural background, Steve had grown up with a very traditional mindset, and his expectation was that his wife would be like his mum and do for him like mum did for dad.
In fact more than that, he expected that Rachel will become best friends with his mom and learn how to be his ideal wife that way. Rachel, on the other hand, she’s thinking, ‘on what planet?’ because in her mind, they were never going to have a relationship that looked anything remotely like Steve’s mum and dads.
Now, recognizing that they needed additional information to reframe the challenges in their minds, we shared with them some material around mutual respect and how to agree roles and responsibilities in the different seasons of life. And we were blown away when, literally before the week was out, Steve sent me a text to say, ‘You know, thank you so much. This has really helped us unblock some challenges and have our real proper conversation in years.’
So, habit number three really is about getting good at having those courageous conversations that see us asking and discussing rather than assuming and stereotyping.
Dr. Andrea Taylor-Cummings: And that leads us neatly onto habit number four, ‘Connect, before you correct’ which is about learning how to communicate real value and appreciation, and holding back on our insatiable need to give constructive feedback.
When you live and work with somebody day-in day-out, it is so easy to take them for granted and just to be constantly on their back. But as the saying goes, ‘People go where they feel welcomed, but stay where they feel valued.’ So, we need to be deliberate about finding meaningful specific ways that build warmth in the relationship; and that can sometimes be simply breaking the routine.
For us, we’ve been known to disappear in the middle of the working day, to go to the movies after a period of intense workshop delivery. And 25 years on, we still take date night seriously, to keep the fun and the anticipation and the intimacy in the relationship.
Otherwise, we risk losing the magic and just become functional around the grind of work, and talking about children, and cooking, and laundry, and we signed up for more than that.
So habit number four, ‘Connect, before you correct.’ Oh no, let’s be real before I say that. If we get really good at connecting in our routine conversations, guaranteed you’ll be connecting in the bedroom as well.
So, number four, ‘Connect, before you correct’ is about, being deliberate about shifting that balance to connecting before we correct each other.
Now listen, we’re not sharing these habits just as nice to have. These four habits can literally save lives.
Let me share with you how Rachel and Steve story almost ended. We met up with them two weeks later for a coffee, and from their body language we could tell, they were in a much better place; they were holding hands, they were laughing, things were good.
But as they opened up and shared about the experience, we were rocked when Rachel, in describing her emotional laws, just paused and said, “You know, I found myself thinking that if Steve did go ahead with a divorce, I’d just write him a letter, tell him to look after the boys, and walk in front of a bus.”
But for a chance conversation with us and a bit of information, tragedy could have struck our friends right under our noses. And so, reality hit really hard that day. Relationship breakdown can literally kill us. We’re happy to report that Rachel and Steve continue to do well, but we asked ourselves the question: How many Rachel’s are we missing?
And with this growing concern over mental health and well-being, why is relationship equipping still left to chance?
Jonathan Taylor-Cummings: Exactly. We all invest in the things that we value: our education, our homes, our pensions even. So, what in the world is stopping us from investing in our relationships? What would the world look like if everyone was practicing these habits of being more curious than critical, more careful than crushing, of asking rather than assuming, and of connecting more than we correct?
Here’s the thing. When we all start developing and practicing these habits, not only do we significantly increase the chances of our relationships surviving but now, we begin to thrive as individuals, as families, as companies, as nations. And if we can each just take responsibility for developing these habits in our own relationships, together, maybe, just maybe, we’ll leave the world a better place for the generations to come.