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4 Things You Need To Know In Your First Year Of A Relationship

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Originally written and published on The Gottman Institute blog page.

This June 2021, my partner and I celebrate our 16th anniversary together.

Yup, you’re reading right. The big 1-6. And I mean 16 years. Not days, not months, but years. I have to say, it’s no small feat in this day and age.

The even wilder part about our relationship is that we met on social media.

And nope, we didn’t meet on Tinder. There was no “swiping right” in 2005. (Though I often wonder if there were, would we be together?) We didn’t meet on Facebook or even MySpace. They didn’t exist then!

I met my partner of 16 years when internet dating was such a new thing that no one was making any money off of it yet.

We met on a site called Friendster. Never heard of it? Don’t remember it? Then I’m clearly aging myself. It was one of the first social media sites with profiles and photos, but not much else. No news feeds, ads, business pages, or emojis to distract you. No “white noise.” Think of it as Facebook, only your English teacher put a red slash on everything that she thought was extra.

Here’s how it happened for me.

A guy named Alapaki messaged me. He had nice photos and a cool job (as a symphony percussionist). I was a music major in undergrad so we had that in common, and I was headed toward grad school for psychology.

So I took a chance and messaged what would turn out to be the love of my life. And here we are, still together, 16 years later.

We’ve really learned a thing or two about relationships, particularly what it takes to make it past the tumultuous first year.

Below I’m sharing 4 lessons we had to learn (the hard way) in the first year of our relationship, so that you might not have to.

Lesson #1. Center your first date around an activity that has you both focused on something other than yourselves.

At 28 years old, my favorite pastime was touring San Francisco on my blue sport-touring Suzuki Bandit. The best thing about this motorcycle was how comfortable it was to ride, even though it looked like a regular old sports bike. In fact, I was so into motorcycles that when we first started dating, Alapaki, when speaking about me to his friends, would refer to me as “the motorcycle guy."

So guess what we did on our first date? We enjoyed sightseeing in the city on my bike, chatting up a storm. Our date was fun, light-hearted, and full of adventure.

You see, when you are engaged in an activity that takes the focus off you, you naturally have fun with that other person, instead of, say, sitting around having drinks and talking about yourself to each other. You get to experience the other person rather than have them tell you who they are. And that is so much more revealing and exciting!

Lesson #2. Relationships are about allowing your partner to express themselves, evolve, and engage in the world around them.

My Dad is not a particularly philosophical man, but every once in a while he'll drop these one-liners that just stick.

When I was on the dating scene (before Alapaki and I met), I was complaining about how flaky people could be. Always one to cut to the point, Dad said, "Sam, you need to understand that relationships are about allowing."

What he meant was that I had to open myself to the ambiguity of relationships and allow other people to be themselves.

Early in our relationship, Alapaki would make plans to hang out with his circle of friends, even though I assumed that, given we were dating, we would naturally spend the weekend together. At that time, in my 20s, I wasn't skilled at seeing the big picture when it came to dating. I wanted his world to revolve around me.

16 years later, I understand that individuals need to have their own lives.When your partner can express him or herself, they align with their higher, authentic self. And they will have so much more to contribute to you, your relationship, and the Universe as a result.

Alapaki had his own life before me, and he continues to have his own life alongside me. Using Gottman terminology, this is the map of his world. It includes his experiences in the past, the present, and the future to come. In order to be the kind of partner I want to be to Alapaki, I must remember it’s my job to appreciate his map of the world - a map that continually evolves and expands as he grows richer from a full life of friends, family, and of course, me.

Lesson #3. Focus on what works in your relationship.

Relationships take time and understanding. Nothing good ever comes easy. And when you are an independent person sharing your life with another independent person, each with their own temperaments and past experiences that affect their present reactions, there are bound to be things that work, and things that don’t.

Originally from Hawaii, Alapaki is a pretty free, relaxed spirit. But he often reminds me that Hawaiians are used to the heat, which is why he has a fiery temper sometimes. On the flip side, I'm not from a family that openly argued about anything. So Alapaki’s passionate expression took years of adjustment for me.

One of our biggest arguments tended to be about leaving the house in a timely manner. Alapaki would be very defensive when I tried to rush him out the door, even if we were already late for wherever we were headed.

We had to find a way to de-escalate the situation. It is inevitable in every relationship that there will be arguments, but we had to focus on ways to calm situations down rather than ramp them up.

Instead of pressuring Alapaki in the moment, I was able to communicate urgency while keeping the mood positive through my chosen responses to the situation. I would say things like, “Thank you for getting a snack ready for the car. This will make it easier for us to leave on time”, instead of “We are always late because of you! Hurry up!” I’d get a far less aggressive - and far more favorable - response from the former comment.

That is what works for us. What works for you? Is it saying something kind during tense moments, or expressing gratitude for something they did well earlier that day? Or perhaps it’s making a joke to release the pressure? Figure out what method of communication works for you that will lighten the situation.

Lesson #4. Approach your relationship - and life - with a “Yes, and…” attitude.

If you’ve ever taken a drama or improv class, you’d know that answering your partner’s questions with a “No” is a dead-end. It kills the scene, leaving it stagnant with nowhere to go. Improv students are taught to always say “Yes, and…” so that the scene can keep going.

Alapaki and I have said “Yes, and….” many, many times throughout our 16 years together - and we continue to do so.

Life evolves, it changes. Life is about growth. And if you want to grow together, you need to adopt the “Yes, and…” attitude.

In 2006, I said “Yes, and…” to Alapaki going to grad school so we could open a practice together.

In 2007, Alapaki said “Yes, and…” to getting cats, and then our first dog in 2016.

In 2010, Alapaki said “Yes, and…” to a career change for me.

In 2015, we said “Yes, and…” to getting formally married.

In 2020, I said, “Yes, and…” to a career change for him.

And now, as we emerge in 2021 from the pandemic, we both say “Yes, and…” to moving out of the Bay Area to focus on our business.

Yes, and…” always goes both ways. It simply has to for the relationship to grow.

These difficult decisions all involved understanding the map of one another's world, finding endeavors we could mutually work on, being open to each other as we evolve, and focusing on the positive even when we might not agree with the other person.

We feel grateful that the Universe had us meet during June all those years ago and blessed us with the last 16 years together. June is LGBT Pride month around the world, and we are grateful that we can share our partnership proudly.

Happy Pride to our LGBT community and our allies around the globe! May all your “Yes, and…” dreams come true.

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