Seven Relationship Lies—and Rules to Replace Them on Valentine’s Day

I usually write strictly about professional relationships, but today, I want to share seven Valentine’s Day lies—and the relationship rules to replace them.

Our culture promotes many misleading ideas about what makes for successful personal or romantic relationships. Popular concepts like the need to “just be yourself” or “move on if your needs aren’t being met” can actually be destructive.

Some of these seven rules apply to new relationships, while others are especially relevant if you have a long-term partner.

Lie #1: “Cleverness and charm are essential to attract others.”

Valentine’s Day Rule: Great relationships start with great conversations, not one person showing the other how much they know.

This may come as a surprise to many, but your date—or whoever you’re with over dinner—actually wants to have a conversation, not listen to you talk about yourself for two hours. A great conversation helps you learn more about the other person. It establishes commonalities, which drive rapport. It improves your understanding of the things in life or at work that are important to both of you.

Do you try to impress others with your facile wit, amazing job, and easy answers–or do you draw them into a vibrant conversation that leaves them wanting more, not less of you? (Of course, this rule applies to professional relationships–including with clients–as well!).

Lie #2: “Focus on your own needs, and make them clearly known to your partner. Ensure you’re with someone who will meet them.”

Valentine’s Day Rule: Know the other person’s goals and dreams and help them accomplish those aspirations.

Contemporary therapists emphasize making your needs known to your partner. That’s fine up to a point—you certainly don’t want to be a doormat. But relationship building really starts when each individual tries to understand the other person’s needs, priorities, and dreams.

Do you really know what’s on your partner’s agenda for this year? Have you spent a leisurely evening asking them about their dreams, hopes, and fears? Have you thought about how you can help them accomplish their most important priorities?

Lie #3: “You must believe in and affirm yourself.”

Valentine’s Day Rule: The greatest gift is to believe in the other person

Ever since the 1960s, it’s been a truism that you cannot love others if you don’t love yourself. That that’s probably true in the sense of having confidence in yourself, but our culture has pushed this idea into the realm of self-absorption. The fact remains that one of most powerful gifts you can give your partner is your unequivocal belief in them.

Ask any successful entrepreneur who’s had to claw their way to success against great odds—they will often point to a spouse or parent or mentor who deeply and consistently believed in them. Is it any accident that a handful of US Presidents were effectively raised by mothers who always rooted for them?

When the young Beatles faced stiff odds at getting a recording contract—they were turned down by almost every record company in the UK—they had one person who resolutely and totally believed in them: their manager, Brian Epstein, who told anyone who would listen that they would be ‘bigger than Elvis.” It’s a powerful gift to believe in your partner—or a good friend—and express that belief consistently and repeatedly.

Do those closest to you feel that you unequivocally belief in them?

Lie #4 “There’s something magical about first impressions–you can tell very quickly if the chemistry is there and whether or not the other person is for you.”

Valentine’s Day Rule: Don’t be put off by an awkward start—some of the best relationships may not appear promising on day one.

The things that attract us to someone initially are often quite superficial and rooted in outdated evolutionary needs. These factors, like physical attraction or the other person’s income level or job title, do not necessarily—by themselves—bode well for long-term compatibility and loyalty. Furthermore, if we don’t feel we “click” with someone immediately, we move on. Understanding whether real compatibility exists requires a deeper knowledge than just one dinner or cup of coffee.

The truth is many great relationships have an awkward start. I wouldn’t say the sparks flew when my wife and I met for the first time at graduate school–but they did once we became friends and learned more about each other! As you dig deeper and discover things you have in common—a similar upbringing, common likes and dislikes, shared values and beliefs, and so on—you can find that your mutual affection grows. Your compatibility can also grow when you discover that some of the differences which bothered you initially actually make you very complementary.

Have you met someone recently whom you may have misjudged?

Lie #5: “Don’t try and change your partner.”

Valentine’s Day Rule: To grow and reach their fullest potential, people need both truth and love.

Complete acceptance of another person’s behavior is not love.It’s abdication of your responsibility as a loving partner. Interestingly, a new study shows that constantly praising children can actually make them anxious and afraid, not confident! In fact, any parent can tell you that if children have no limits, no constraints, and are constantly told how special they are, they can become spoiled and self-absorbed.

Fact is, two people in a long-term relationship know each other better than anyone else in the world. They are in a unique position to provide the insights and honesty that can help each other become their best selves. Who is actually going to tell you when you’ve stepped over a line or acted selfishly? Your colleagues at work and your friends won’t do it. We grow and mature because we get feedback from the world around us. And when you’re older, one of the few people who will give you that unvarnished perspective is your spouse or partner.

But…be very careful how you do this. In isolation, constantly making “suggestions” or criticizing the other person doesn’t cut it. You have to first be seen as the person who utterly believes in them and loves them unconditionally.

Do you sometimes veer too far towards either abject acceptance of or frequent criticism towards those close to you?

Lie #6: “If you’re together with the same person for many years, the big problem you have to overcome is the lack of excitement and variety.”

Valentine’s Day Rule: A long-term relationship–be it with a spouse, partner, or friend–can continue to grow and engender passion even after decades have passed.

A recent article in a national newspaper bemoaned the difficulty of maintaining a long-term marriage, mentioning the possibility of “deadening routines, cyclical arguments and repetitive conversations” and the difficulty of maintaining “excitement and passion.” OK, these are real risks. They are problems, however, in great measure because our culture tells us lies about what makes us happy and what we should expect from romance.

It’s the setup that’s the problem—the unrealistic assumption that the ‘excitement’ in year twenty relationship must match the heat of the infatuation you experienced in your early courtship. Set that aside and you can enjoy a vibrant, interesting, and deeply loving relationship after many years together.

Here are just a few simple but powerful questions you can ask your partner. They will help you re-engage more deeply:

  • “What are you doing now that you are you most excited about?”
  • “What are your dreams?” (Be sure to shut up after asking this question!)
  • “So what do you think about….? (it could be almost anything)
  • “What can I do to help you this week?”
  • “What’s something you’ve always wanted to do, but you just somehow never got around to doing?” (a vacation, a hobby, a skill, etc.)

Lie #7: “Self-care is essential–you need to put your own oxygen mask on first in order to be able to help others.”

Valentine’s Day Rule: Just focus on helping and supporting each other, period–then you don’t have to remember silly clichés about oxygen masks on airplanes.

You should absolutely take care of yourself, but don’t buy into the self-care worship that is promoted by the wellness industry and some therapists. The point is not that self-care is bad, but rather that an excessive focus on it can turn into self-absorption. Healthy self-esteem that allows you to treat yourself well is different than the attitude that “once I’ve taken care of me, then I’ll think about you.”

These rules aren’t just for Valentine’s day, of course.

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