How You, Alone, Can Build A Thriving Relationship

Just like Serena Williams.

Image by Ichigo121212 from Pixabay

Why is it that you always feel like you’re the only one working on your relationship?

You don’t want a mediocre relationship; you want a stellar one. You want to live a long, happy life together. One where you support, challenge, and cherish each other, have great sex, and lots of fun.

It’s terrifying when you don’t see your partner working to make things better. It’s hard not to wonder if they care as much as you do.

What Does Serena Williams Have to Do With This?

Serena Williams is, without question, one of the best tennis players of all time. She is a role model for all of us in overcoming barriers with hard work and fierce determination. She is strong, fearless, and always displays extraordinary sportsmanship, decorum, and grace.

But this article is about relationship success, so I want to draw your attention to her time as a doubles partner with her sister, Venus Williams. They won 3 Olympic medals together, 14 grand slams, and a total of 22 titles.

They know how to work together as a team.

Doubles partners have to collaborate, communicate, plan, set their goals, and make joint decisions when things don’t go as expected.

But their time interacting together on the court only accounts for a small percentage of their success. Serena worked her entire life to be the best tennis player she could be, and so did her sister. That enabled them to show up to each match, bringing their A-game.

When one sister double-faulted, the other kept her eye on the ball, ready to slam at the net.

You can apply this work ethic to your own romantic relationship.

Relationships Are Not Fair

Everyone knows relationships are about teamwork, but it’s frustrating when you feel like you’re doing your part, and your partner is the one who keeps messing up.

The problem is that when we focus on wanting things to be fair, our energy is diluted. It’s better to stay razor-focused on being the best partner we can be.

I imagine Serena doesn’t stop doing her strength training exercises when Venus takes a day off. Perhaps she’s eating an egg white omelet, sitting next to her sister, and having a double chocolate chip muffin for breakfast.

Herein lies the paradox. Trying to make things fair pulls you down instead of elevating both of you. When you’re working hard regardless of what your partner is doing, you will improve both in your own time and in your own way.

Stop Waiting for Your Partner to Change

What if your particular partner is not as driven as Venus?

Welcome to the club.

Like all humans, you can probably see a problem in your partner that they are not working hard enough to fix.

This is excruciatingly frustrating. You’ve been expressing the problem repeatedly, and you don’t see progress. Maybe you see a little bit of effort, but only the day after a fight, and then it’s right back to normal again.

It’s tempting to spend your time and energy educating your sweetheart in as many different ways as you can think of to persuade them to see the improvements they can make.

Most people think that both people need to be working together simultaneously at all times, to make things better. In truth, only a tiny percentage, maybe 5% at most, is done with both partners working on the same exact same thing at the exact same time.

You’ll have a lot fewer headaches and frustrations if you use your joint problem-solving time incredibly wisely, and the bulk of your work is self-improvement.

Just like Serena lifts weights, practices her backhand, studies videos, and consults with expert coaches, you can look for your own areas of growth regarding communication, intimacy, teamwork, and conflict management.

This is how to avoid feeling unhappy and powerless. It is sad when people feel this way even when they love their partners deeply and know that they are deeply loved.

Hard Work Pays Off

If you want to get better at tennis, it’s a linear process. The more you practice, the better you will become. If it’s a high priority, you’ll put more time and energy into it, and if it’s a low priority, you won’t get better very quickly.

If you don’t progress as quickly as you’d like, there is actually comfort in knowing that you have no one to blame but yourself. You know how to fix the problem by bringing eight cans of tennis balls to the court and fearlessly practicing your serve no matter how many times the ball goes into the net or over the fence.

I have been training and practicing as a couples therapist for almost 30 years and have seen people work incredibly hard to improve their relationships.

What I’ve observed is quite profound.

There is a clear and direct correlation between the success of therapy and the degree to which each party looks more at themselves and less at their partner.

People come for help for a huge variety of reasons: infidelity, trauma history, addiction, mental health issues, and communication skills training.

But the common theme that determines whether or not they reach their treatment goals is the same no matter what they are trying to fix.

The couples that recover are the ones who are trying to change themselves instead of their partners.

Where to Start

Maybe you don’t have an enormous drive to be an athletic icon. If your goal has nothing to do with fame and fortune, it is probably just to be the best version of yourself.

There is no shortage of wise and useful relationship advice at your fingertips. But your mindset will determine whether or not the advice will lead to actual constructive change.

I’d like to challenge you to follow these 3 steps on your self-improvement journey as it relates to your relationship wellness.

  • Step 1: Keep your expectations high.

Don’t ever lower the bar of your dreams. You deserve to have a wonderfully passionate, fun, and deeply respectful love life.

  • Step 2: Focus on your partner’s strengths.

You chose a beautiful person to go through life with. As you start to think about the ways you wish they were different, try to re-vector your attention to the reasons you fell in love in the first place.

  • Step 3: Focus on your own areas of growth.

Maybe we can even call them weaknesses since we know everyone has them. As you’re reading an article, please try to pay attention to the advice as it applies to you rather than your partner. Remember that you are a wonderfully imperfect human who is willing to work hard and make changes for the things that are important to you.

What Next?

If you would like to take a deeper dive, check out my book, Love Is an Action Verb, a DIY resource for one person to work on showing up as their best self to live their best relationship.

NOTE: If you fear you are in an abusive relationship, seek help. None of this advice applies to you. Self-improvement will only work in a relationship based on safety, dignity and respect.


Laura Silverstein, LCSW

Laura Silverstein is a Certified Gottman Couples Therapist, and author of Love Is An Action Verb.  She has thirty years of clinical experience and is the founder and co-owner of Main Line Counseling Partners, based in Bryn Mawr, PA. Laura is a frequent contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog and has appeared as a relationship expert in media outlets such as the New York Times, ABC, and Today. She helps couples find more happiness as a research clinician, speaker, trainer, and writer with a positive, action-oriented style.

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