It is no secret that relationships of any type take work to build and maintain. But what is that work? How can we optimize our efforts in relationships, so the work we put in earns us the results we want? Below are some strategies you can employ to increase the connection and satisfaction in your partnerships.
Where do your thoughts drift to most often? Towards gratitude and admiration, or towards frustrations and unmet wishes? Focusing on a partner’s faults and flaws, or on our own perceived inadequacies, can erode the happiness in our relationships. These negative thoughts turn problematic when they develop into habit, becoming the default story we fit our observations into. One strategy to address this is to counter negative “automatic” thoughts with positive “conscious” thoughts. Two examples are listed below.
Observation: Partner said hello when I came home from work, then returned to the task he was doing.
Automatic Thought : ‘He didn’t ask me how my day was after work… I wish I was interesting enough to hold his attention.’
Conscious Counter : ‘He always laughs at my jokes, even the bad ones. I’m pretty funny.’
Observation : Partner forgot to pick up an important ingredient for dinner while she was grocery shopping.
Automatic Thought : 'So forgetful, I just can’t rely on her for anything.’
Conscious Counter : ‘She took the grocery shopping off of my hands this week. I’m glad I have a partner who cares and tries to lighten my work load.’
These counter thoughts don’t need to be direct opposites of the negative ones- they can even be unrelated, as shown in the first example. The point is to interrupt our most habitual negative thoughts, and steer the mind towards more neutral or positive interpretations. You can make this easier by writing out a list of all the qualities you admire about both your partner and yourself, big or small. Keep this list handy by tucking it in your wallet or typing it into your phone.
Small, playful interactions with a partner can get lost over time. As people become closer to one another, more opportunity for conflict arises. Our relationships can become bogged down by conflict when it is not offset by pleasurable, playful moments together. Play can look like many things, from light-hearted compliments to more structured games and activities together.
Play can ease the cumulative tension in a relationship, and making it easier to navigate conflicts when they do arise. Try to incorporate moments of play into your relationship on a weekly basis!
When couples come for therapy with me, they usually ask for help with communication. Relationships feel difficult when one or both parties aren’t feeling heard- and we often hear what is important to us, rather than what is important to the partner. To improve communication, I recommend adding an extra step into your usual back-and-forth dialogue. I call this extra step “Confirm Your Understanding”. Before responding to something your partner has said, tell them what you received from their message. This gives them a chance to confirm, or clarify, the meaning of what they said. It demonstrates that you are attentive and listening to understand, rather than reacting to a half-heard idea. Here’s some examples of how to start this step:
I recommend practicing this during low-stress interactions at the start. Ask your partner how their day went, summarize what they share, and ask if you missed anything important in your summary. Building up this skill can help prevent unnecessary conflict born out of misunderstandings, and deepen your knowledge of one another’s inner world.