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Saving Long Term Relationships: How to Use Positive History & Differences to your Favor!

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Long term relationships can be downright baffling. You have two unique people who grow and change and have to relearn how to communicate with each other over time. Births and deaths and love and heartbreak come in and out of our lives and our relationships (no matter if they are with a mother, sister, boyfriend or close friend) and we are left to navigate this changing landscape. Sometimes you make it, and your bond will strengthen over time. You have a partner in crime for life and it’s a wonderful feeling! And sometimes, it’s not quite as easy. Some relationships are worth fighting for. But know that the events that you weather together CAN work in your favor. Because if you can leverage the positive aspects of your history together and begin to understand how major life events impact our understanding of one another – you will find a wealth of energy and love that can fuel your relationships for years to come.

Relationships with family can be particularly tricky. You are born into this world with an automatic community of people that shape so much of your life experience. And as hard as you might try, just because you share some of the same genetic makeup as another person does NOT mean that it’s always smooth sailing. Personalities differ – that’s a fact of life. For example, it’s not a secret that my sister Courtney and I weren’t the best of friends growing up. And in our adult years, we still oftentimes have difficulty getting along. And when I examine my relationship with her, a relationship that I will always continually try to strengthen and refine (and a relationship that I imagine will always be a work in progress) I have found that focusing on the positive aspects of the good times we shared together is way for us to pursue a working relationship for the future.

Barbie Games

When we were young, Courtney and I LOVED our Barbies. We had fifty-two of them and I would bet ANYONE that I could still remember all of their names, which would be a feat considering that most of the time we couldn’t agree on just one name, so we gave each Barbie two

We loved Barbies since the beginning…

names (Elizabeth-Jessica was Courtney’s favorite). We played with our Barbies way longer than most girls at our elementary school probably cared to admit. We got lost in our own little world playing with these dolls. And frankly, the games we played really were not even that much fun, when I think about them now! I remember a favorite game of mine was “Movie Theater”. That’s when you line up all your Barbies like they were going to the movies, and then they just sit there for awhile until the “movie” is finished. I didn’t even make any of the other Barbies act out the movie, they just stared at the wall. Another favorite two-player game (it’s hard to play “Movie Theater” with a partner) was “Shopping Mall”. That’s when you take all the millions of colorful hairbrushes that you collected and separate them into different piles. Those are the stores. Then you take your Barbies… and they go to the stores… and they buy lots of hairbrushes. Courtney and I never messed with buying clothes. It was too difficult to change the clothing on the dolls, so most of our dolls were just left semi-topless. We also were not allowed to play with the shoes because my mom deemed them a choking hazard (probably why I’m still alive today). “Shopping Mall” was always fun.

My absolute favorite game above all else was “School”. This was when I would designate about four Barbies as teachers and all the other forty-eight Barbies as students. I would divide them into classes and then they would sit there for awhile, until it was time for lunch and they would all go to the cafeteria (usually located under my desk) and then after lunch they would go back to their classes until it was time to leave. I’m pretty sure my Barbie gaming techniques explain my somewhat OCD tendencies and love for sorting things in piles, but that’s besides the point. “School” was the best . I would play all fifty-one of the Barbies and Courtney would get only ONE. I convinced her that it would give her a more immersive game-play experience that way, and she seemed to take the bait. We could play “School” for hours. I felt like it was one of the few times where we could talk and not fight. It wasn’t “us” talking…it was Amber-Kaitlin or Julia-Jennifer or Smashmouth (that was the Barbie that we let my little brother Clayton name…he liked the 90s band). We couldn’t always be friends, but our Barbies could.

Uh-Oh Barbie…

We also both cared for our Barbies. Their lives meant the world to us. Of course, that didn’t come without its mishaps. We tried our best to take care of them, but a few slipped through the cracks. I remember when Danny (he only had one name…we must have agreed that day) had a tragic gymnastics accident and lost both of his legs. If you’ve ever played with a Ken doll (or Barbie for that matter) you know that you cannot make a doll do a middle split. That was Danny’s fatal mistake that fateful afternoon at his gymnastics competition. But this posed some serious issues for Courtney and I – would Danny still be liked at school? How would people react at the shopping mall? Would the Barbies get up and leave at the movie theater once they saw he had no legs? Those were tough life decisions. I believe Courtney and I agreed that no one liked Danny after the accident. We weren’t the nicest little girls. I think his girlfriend dumped him and then he started dating Smashmouth (Yeah, Smashmouth was a girl…in a way, we were quite progressive when it came to naming the dolls…or just downright weird. We had a doll named Quakenbush too. He was a nerdy boy, so we named him after this nerdy mouse named Quackenbush from this pop-up book we all really liked. *sigh* Who knows…).

Fathead Disease

The largest social issue Courtney and I dealt with while playing Barbies was the Fathead Disease. Fathead Disease (a term that Courtney and I both coined back in ’96) was when a doll’s head fell off and your mother had to push it back on, but the resulting doll had little-to-no neck left. It happened and it happened often. It changes an otherwise pretty Barbie, into a misshapen girl with abnormally large cheeks and a hunch-back appearance. And even at a young age, it was hard to fully appreciate a doll with Fathead Disease. So, Courtney and I decided to incorporate it into our game play. When we played “School”, we made a Fathead club. This gave the Fathead dolls a time to hang with their other Fathead friends and socialize without being teased. Eventually, Fathead Disease just became a part of normal life. I remember Jamie (I refused to call her by any other name since she was my favorite) came down with a bad case of Fathead towards the end of my Barbie playing career. Only then did I decide that being a Fathead was cool. I wish I could say that this lesson taught Courtney and I how to be more accepting of others, but I really don’t remember that. I mainly think it’s just sad that little girls even at that young of an age realize what being different can mean to ignorant people. But Courtney and I came up with this stuff together. And I know if I mentioned this story to her, she would laugh. She would probably remember a million other stories to go along with it as well (she has an insane memory), but it would be a positive memory between us.

What’s the “Barbie” in your Relationship?

What is the “Barbie” in your long term relationship? What’s the deep, positive memory that you can bring up time and time again and it feels like you are right back experiencing the older, happier times? Cherish those – they are the key to your future relationship success. I have a good friend of mine that used to be my absolute best friend, but we’ve drifted apart over the years. But I know that when I text him an old inside joke, or if I bring up a certain TV show, we fall RIGHT back into the relationship that we used to have. We might not be as close in the present day as we once were, but we have a secret key to gain access to the beautiful, deep friendship that still exists. Yet, try not to dwell on the difference between how things used to be and how things are now. Just focus on finding that key, that ‘Barbie” and utilize it to its fullest extent. Because even if you need to keep the conversation “light” and only stick to those old, positive topics – a relationship can start to recuperate from there. It’s a starting point, and every moment that you remain in that friendly, positive zone, you are moving further and further away from the problems or troubles that might still be present. Rebuild a solid foundation, and you’ll have the resources to combat the present problems in a more constructive way. Some couples, when they get married, put together a box filled with love letters, bottles of wine and gratitude lists for one another. They tape up this box and they store it away, only to be opened when times get tough, or they experience their first big fight. It’s a reminder that when the going gets rough, there are tools that they can use to get back to a good place. You just need to remember them. It won’t be a cure, but it’s a start . And a start is all that you need to move into the direction of a lasting, positive relationship.

Let’s Grow Old Together

Just like Courtney and I learned some of our most brutal life lessons early on (thank God Fathead Disease is not a real thing!) it taught us a lot about navigating life changes together. When we played with Barbies, we were at the age when bullying was becoming an issue at school and kids our age were starting to develop an understanding of the impact of judgmental behavior. When you are in a long term relationship – you MUST learn to navigate the life lessons that you are bound to learn together. Whether you and your partner are around the same age (like Courtney and I are – we are only 2 years apart) or you might have a larger age gap (like a mother and daughter), you both must be aware of the life lessons and changes that are happening in each other’s lives. When I graduated and started my first job, my boyfriend Stephen was still in grad school and we both had to learn how our changing schedules would impact our relationship. He needed quiet study time in the evenings and I needed to crash on the couch after a long day at work. This was new and different for us, as compared to when we both used to be undergrads and had more free time to spend with one another. But we took these life changes in stride and found a way to spend time with one another, while still acknowledging the changing nature of our life together.  Awareness of these changes or differences can save you from unnecessary friction and misunderstanding in your own relationships.

Instead of Barbies, Courtney and I now bond over hometown gossip. Long term relationships are like flowers – they need care, rays of positive sunlight and water to wash away the misunderstanding. But they are worth it in the end. It’s never too late to recover a relationship that might be suffering. Use these two knockout tips, and you will find your long term relationships blooming again in no time.

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