We fall into ruts. Much as a car tire can get mired in mud, relationships can get stuck in the same-old, same-old: behaviours and even beliefs that are reflexive, reactive and sometimes downright unreasonable.
What to do? Well, here are five things you can do today that will positively affect your relationship way into the future.
1. Stop and listen
Don’t try to fix a problem on your own—not at first, anyway. By taking the time to listen empathetically to your partner (without blaming, defending or, most importantly, fixing), you give the greatest gift—namely the feeling of being felt, as psychiatrist Dan Siegel describes it. So before you weigh in on your partner’s problems, practise validating. Start a few sentences with the following:
“I hear you.”
“I think what you’re saying is…”
“If I’m getting this right, what you’re feeling is…”
“I can understand why you might feel that way.”
2. Learn your love language—and then learn your partner’s
Just as your relationship might suffer if your first language is Farsi and your partner’s is Greek, it can also suffer from love-language barriers. Simply put, we give and receive love in different, well, dialects. According to Dr. Gary Chapman, we speak in five love languages: physical affection, gifts, acts of service, words of endearment and undivided time and attention. Sure, ideally we’d like a healthy serving of all of them, but which one can you simply not live without? Figure it out, then figure his out. You don’t need to speak the same language, but you do need to understand each other’s preferred patois.
Read more: 10 quick relationship fixes>
3. Spend some time together
You’d be shocked how little time couples actually spend interacting with each other. (And, no, folding socks while he does the monthly bills doesn’t count!) You live under the same roof, but most couples might as well be strangers. I’ve heard every excuse in the book for ducking out on date night (too little time and money are the top two). But, let me tell you, the cost of not communicating is continental drift—a chasm in your relationship so great you may as well be living on different continents. It doesn’t take a lot of time or a lot of money to get out and talk, laugh and remember that before you were parents, you were friends.
4. Believe the best, not the worst
Most of us aren’t just guilty of getting stuck in behavioural ruts, we also get stuck in reflexive thinking patterns. And, I hate to tell you, but most of those thought patterns are negative. We hold on to hurts. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson calls this our “negativity bias.” In the past, a preference for the pessimistic may have served an evolutionary purpose by protecting us from further harm; but folks, our partners aren’t woolly mammoths (well, mine isn’t anyway). Start to practise seeing things positively: he’s late because he stopped to buy flowers; she’s short-tempered because she’s shouldering so much these days. Or, here’s one from my own marriage: When you call from the third floor and I don’t answer, it’s not because I’m ignoring you, it’s because I don’t hear you! Do your marriage a favour and start thinking positively.
5. Aim for a 5:1 ratio
Say five nice things for every one criticism or correction. Life is busy, and our relationships start to become characterized by instructions, directions and criticisms. Soon, it’s like we’re wearing blinders: All we see is what needs fixing. We all seek to be seen—for all the things we do and all the things that we are. Show your partner you see him or her. Learn to appreciate your partner, and you’ll naturally begin to appreciate (and be appreciated!) even more.