Traveling with your partner for the first time.

While being your authentic self and showing up as the real you in relationships is the only way to find true contentment, that does not mean we get carte blanche to be unfiltered, self-centered and obnoxious. Why? Because if you want to have a healthy and thriving relationship while also being you, you have to practice a certain amount of relationship etiquette in order to get along and keep people in your life.

In the early stages of a relationship, we tread on fragile ground because the new duo hasn’t developed enough of a history of positive experiences, or legs, to weather a lot of mess ups. Most of us know this intuitively, and present our best selves in the beginning, and that is as it should be. Just make sure when you do this, your best self presents what you really think, feel and believe, presented gently, and considerately.
Ultimately new relationships will be tested, like when we travel together for the first time. I can’t count the times I have heard my single clients in budding relationships say something like, “Well, we’re going on our first trip this week, so we’ll see how that turns out.” Yes, traveling together is likely to present a microcosm of who the person really is – if they aren’t patient or if they’re moody or a slob, you’ll see it.

So, if you’re planning a trip with your new love and don’t want to blow it, here are some helpful tips:

1. Go with a humble attitude. When I think of humility in relationships, I think of a “What can I do for you?” attitude, as opposed to the “What can you do for me?” stance. If you really care about the person you are with, you really should desire to do all you can do to accommodate them and see that their needs are met. P.S. This is a stance that should be maintained throughout the relationship, whether traveling or not.

2. Go with the flow. If you want to wake at the crack of dawn and get going on a packed agenda and your partner wants to sleep in and take it easy, then be OK with you doing your thing, and them doing theirs while weaving in time together when it works. The worst thing you can do is negatively judge or scrutinize your new love because they aren’t like you. Relaxing and sleeping or packed agendas are just preferences and should not be viewed as bad things.

3. Forget about relationship mathematics. If you’re the type that sits around and counts how many accommodations you’ve made for your partner compared to how many they’ve made for you, and concluded that you are on the short end of the stick, forget about seething in resentment. Instead, adopt that servant’s attitude (See #1) and be happy that you could be such generous and loving partner. If you really need your partner to do more for you, simply ask them, gently and respectively, like, “Honey, may I make a request? Can we not go to that restaurant you picked tonight and just grab a sandwich somewhere? I’m kind of burned out on the big meals.” Think: Requests – not complaints or criticism.

4. Be aware of yourself. If you know you are a slob, be mindful of how that will affect another person’s sensibilities. Pay attention to your suitcase, your toiletries … don’t hog the counter, closet or floor space. Make sure you leave plenty of areas clear and clean for your partner. Wipe the counter after you make your mess, don’t leave gross things hanging around. And for those that are anal retentive and feel horror when one little thing is out of place, forget the idea that others will ever meet your standards. If you really need it to be a certain way, have a sense of humor about it, and make it that way so long as it’s OK with your partner, without resentment.

5. Control your mood. Yes, moods can be controlled most of the time. If you tend to have dark or stormy moods, just say it: “I am in a dark or stormy mood-mode. Please forgive me.” Then do everything in your power to return your best self back to the relationship – as soon as you can! In my own life, I give myself an hour. What you must not do is let it drag on for many hours or days.

6. Do not expect your partner to mind read. So many partners tell me their love “should know” what they need, and this is simply ridiculous. We have to train our loves how to love us by telling them what makes our heart sing. Over time, they catch on and become more intuitive, but in the beginning, you really need to spell out in detail what makes you feel loved and cared about, or if you have a want or need.

Couple’s therapists often use the term, “Being Relational.” Being relational means you are a person who knows how to bring your best self to a relationship consistently, who can speak up about their wants and needs respectfully, can receive requests and corrections gracefully, and who maintains an atmosphere of solidness and safety when it comes to commitment and communication, such as; “You can count on me to accept who you really are without fear of contempt or criticism.” This will free you up to be the real you. That’s how solid relationships are built.

Things people say that make therapists cringe.

One of the strangest things about becoming knowledgeable about psychological health and well-being is sitting by and listening to people in the media – and daily life – say things that you know will reinforce damaging themes and behaviors that people struggle with – things that keep them from becoming emotionally healthy. I have always wished to have a high-profile platform where I can set people straight and make a true and lasting difference in the way our culture thinks, talks and behaves, ways that are more supportive and compassionate to self and to others

With that in mind, here are things I often hear that make me cringe, followed by my comments on why it is screwed up, and what we can do to make it better. Please share.

  1. She is so selfless, she always puts others first. Meant as a compliment, I see it as discouraging people to not engage in healthy self-care. The insinuation is, if you put yourself first – on any level – it is a bad thing, and that simply is not true. Self-care should be at the top of every adult’s list … I mean Number one, as we have to bring our best self to ourselves and our relationships, and you can’t do that without self-awareness and seeing that your needs are met. Managing your mind, spirit and body health on a daily basis is absolutely necessary, and no one should feel badly about that. Think about it this way … you are responsible for your happiness, no one else is, so what are you going to do for you to get yourself the peace and contentment we all desire?
  2. He is there for everybody no matter the time of day. Yes, and he is probably one of my clients in marriage therapy. His wife and family don’t feel like a priority because they aren’t. Some individuals thrive on being needed, and must be Superman-to-the-rescue when the phone rings, and there are many people who will have no problem letting you do that for them, when as adults, they could figure out how to deal with their problems themselves. Needing to feel needed, and taking action on every request without moderation, is a self-esteem disorder; people need to do it to feel good about themselves, when feeling good about yourself should not be defined by things that you do. Always make sure your and your family’s needs are met first.
  3. He is such a wonderful man, except for …. Consider this … all of us are doing what we were meant to at this point in time, and every life experience is a teaching moment designed to lead us to our life purpose. You may not like or approve of another person’s journey, but their journey is not yours. You get to live life your way, and you must let other adults be where they are in their lives. The key word here is: Accept people the way they are, flaws and all. P.S. We are all flawed and always will be. Until you aren’t, mind your own business.
  4. She would be so beautiful except for … Why does any one person get to decide what beautiful is? This type of scrutiny breaks the heart and spirit of the one being scrutinized, because all any of us want in relationships is to be accepted, wholeheartedly, just the way we are. How about viewing every individual as the unique and beautiful being that they are?
  5. I do it (interfere in my adult child’s life) because of my grandkids … No, no, no, grandparents! I often have adult daughters and sons drag their moms and dads in so I can teach them appropriate boundaries. It is difficult for gramps and grandma to understand that once their child is grown, it is no longer appropriate for them to offer unsolicited advice and scrutiny, or to interfere in any way, with their parenting or how they live their lives. If the grandkids are not being abused or neglected in a way that needs to be reported to Child Protective Services, and the adult is not in imminent danger of hurting themselves or someone else, stay out of it. Instead, stand by as a loving support, there if needed and requested.

The theme here is that many people seem to think they are the authority on how other adults should live their lives, and I can promise you, they are not. Therapists are trained to know what is healthy when it comes to individual and relational emotional and behavioral health, but even we don’t know it all. If you aren’t paying me for my opinion in a therapy session, or if I’m not choosing to write a blog designed to inform and help people, you will not see me scrutinize or comment on the behavior or status of my family, friends, or people that I hear about. I know how to stay on my side of the street where my business is, and not cross into other people’s business and offend their boundaries inappropriately.

Now for The Zinger: To cross into other people’s business and offend their boundaries inappropriately by offering unsolicited scrutiny, comments, observations, advice, would make me grandiose, which is arrogant. Arrogant people think they know better than others, they look down their nose in contempt at people for not being who they “should” be. This stance is never right, it isn’t conducive to healthy relationships, and it destroys the possibility of a healthy relationship. The only way to have a healthy adult relationship with another person is to bring yourself down to their level, the human level where all of us exist, with an open heart of acceptance and compassion.

The hardest thing about being a therapist is knowing what you know, and then seeing people hurting one another unnecessarily.

A step parent can make or break a successful family holiday.

Impudent step daughter, unreachable video gaming step son, and your spouse’s ex who doesn’t help the situation at all. No one told you how hard step parenting would be, but they should have. I always tell my clients considering marriage to a person who already has kids, it’s going to take a huge heart and nerves of steel to be successful at it.

With a blended family and you will have problems that intact families do not have. Step kids – or steps – can vary widely in age – some involve babies and toddlers and others, teens or even grown children. Therapists know that relationships between the non-bio moms and non-bio dads and their step kids are likely to involve land mines of sensitive feelings and resentments, no matter the age. Combine that with immaturity, and, well, I’m about to help you with that.

First, understand that being a step parent is a choice, and if you decided to take this difficult challenge on, you must bring your best self to the table, no matter how old the kids are. Whether you are older or younger than they are, you must be the one, the adult, who sets the standard of respectful behavior toward the ones who gained you as a family member through marriage. Steps can and will stoop to low levels of behavior, though you must not.

Now, think about what it is like for a child to have his or her parent bring a new person into their family. Most children would like to have their parent to themselves, without that intrusion, but they tolerate the step parent because they want their mom or dad to be happy. It may take years for a child to feel comfortable and warm to this new person being around, or it may never happen. The only thing a step parent can do is be graceful, let it be what it is, and don’t try to force things.

Now, with that in mind, here is a list of step-dos and don’ts that will help you now and throughout the years.

General step do’s and don’ts that will ultimately help you through the holidays and other times:

Don’t make them call you mom or dad, don’t have expectations. If they are blatantly ugly to you, simply tell them that these words are hurtful to you and you are always open to a warmer relationship.

Don’t talk about their mom or dad or the divorce. Whether it is your spouse or the ex, don’t infer, insinuate, or say directly anything at all about their parents. Most steps are fiercely loyal, so nothing good will come from it. Allow them to display photos of their parent in your home. If they talk about their parents to you, validate them and stay neutral. If the parent is deceased, allow them to honor that parent however they see fit.

Don’t bribe. If you think you can buy a step child’s love, you’re wrong. They will be happy to take what you offer, but then they will only think of you in terms of what you can give them. Let them get to know you, the person, so they can bond with that instead.

Do adopt the stance of a kindly friend and inspirational coach. If the children are older than 9, a stepparent should let the natural parent do the parenting, and the two of you can discuss what that is going to look like when the children aren’t around. Stepparents must be respectful, gentle and kind with the children that are not theirs. Even if the children are not responsive in the beginning, keep maintaining an adult, respectful stance. If they are unkind and land an arrow through your heart, tell them so: “Wow, you refusing to talk to me really hurts my heart. I so want to be your friend. I am ready and willing when you are.”

Treat stepchildren equally even though it is impossible. Just do your best to treat every child the same, be attentive and interested in who they are. Try to learn what scratches each child’s itch when it comes to love languages … usually it’s quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service or gifts. Little ones may love hugs. Make a point to pay attention to them when they speak, to comment on what they say, to point out positive things you hear, and to be a fan of who they are becoming. Within the home, create a space for each child that is theirs and is made special for them.

Now, for a holiday idea that will help blended families get off to a great start.

When everyone is together for any length of time, begin with a family meeting. The tone of this will be fun and friendly. Bio and step parents should be in the best of moods and express their excitement and appreciation of the opportunity to be together. Each spouse could present a small token gift to each stepchild with a short comment about how and why they chose the gift, and what it means to have that child there today. (Keep it under $20). Once the parents are done, have each child do the same – if the children are young the bio parent can help. The children could present something they made or even a drawing. This will be a wonderful icebreaker and family ritual you could do each year. After the ritual, have a friendly discussion of rules and expectations – stress respect, and tell them what that looks and sounds like. Tell them things such as, bring your best self to the party or remove yourself to a place within the area where you can work out your bad feelings if you have them. Reassure everyone that your goal is for everyone to enjoy themselves.

The step parent role is one of the hardest any person could have. Patience and grace will serve you well in the long term. I have seen the most stubborn rejecting step children melt over the years and finally embrace their step parent as someone they love and cherish, simply because that person was persistently patient, interested and caring.

Doctor Becky Whetstone is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and former journalist, writing for the San Antonio Express-News. She specializes in marriage and mid life crisis, individual struggles, and helping people learn how to have healthy relationships. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.