By Felicia Levy, LCSW
Love is in the air, or maybe not. February is often the month that brings up the topic of relationships, romance and love. Everywhere we go we’re reminded that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. For some though, relationships aren’t always filled with Hallmark cards, flowers and chocolate. Sometimes relationships can be a challenge. After the initial excitement fades, a relationship can turn routine- working late, taking care of your mountain of daily tasks, family and kids and forgetting to make time for each other. By the end of the week you have no energy. Other times relationships can get weighed down by unresolved conflict, past resentments or difficulty in communicating. Maybe you’re asking yourself when did things change, where did that spark go, and how can we get it back?
The good news is, it’s pretty common for relationships to fall off track. People often turn to the Internet or self-help books to find the “magic answer” to a successful relationship. What successful couples already know is there isn’t just one magic answer. There are many steps you can take to either grow and nurture your relationship or help get your struggling relationship back on track.
While it can be easy to get caught up in searching for the latest and greatest relationship advice, what is helpful in maintaining and mending your relationship is to remember the tried and true “back to basics” tips.
Healthy relationships are established on a strong foundation. It is never too late to strengthen this part of your relationship. The foundation primarily includes trust and respect. In times of conflict, partners in strong relationships trust the bottom line (the foundation) which includes three key points; knowing they have each other’s best interest at heart, trusting that their partner is doing the best they can, and knowing each other will act with good intentions. These three points can be summed up simply as giving each other the benefit of the doubt, before reacting, which can go a long way.
Happy couples have learned that it never hurts to create a few ground rules. Rules can include anything important to the couple that falls in line with their values. Some rules to consider- just like Stephen Covey recommends in terms of business, this is also applicable in relationships…seek first to understand. Many times there is a natural tendency to assume or jump to conclusions about why your partner said or did what they did. Ask questions. Try to understand where they were coming from and what was their intention. A few other helpful rules to think about- no name calling and no threats of separation/divorce. It’s hard to take back those words once they have been said. Each of these actions has a way of destroying the trust and respect that you’ve worked so hard to build on your foundation. If you’ve found yourself in a rough patch in your relationship, it’s a good idea to actually have a discussion about the rules to help moving forward.
Acknowledge what you need and what you feel. This is a common struggle for couples- being upfront and honest about what they’re feeling and what they need. When we’re afraid that we may be misunderstood or that there may be a conflict due to disagreement, we tend to respond with passive-aggressive behaviors, or thinking that our partners should be mind-readers and know what we need. Talking with your partner about your feelings and needs can make you vulnerable. It is this vulnerability- being up front about what we are feeling and what we need that can actually strengthen your relationship. Speak your truth. When you don’t agree with or understand what your partner has said, respond from a place of respect, compassion and support. Acknowledge that you appreciate when your partner listens to your perspective and make sure to reciprocate. Don’t forget, there are no mind readers. Speak your feelings. It takes courage to be open and share these emotions, especially if you have unresolved resentment or confusion. This openness can lead to conflict resolution and a stronger relationship.
Look inward to gain self-awareness. Have you ever felt stuck in your relationship because you’re trying to figure out how to get your partner to change or do something differently? And they just won’t change! Look at yourself first. We can’t change someone else. We can change our own responses and behaviors. This is similar to blame. When something goes wrong, it’s common to not think of our own behaviors and instead blame others. Stop blaming! Ask yourself if there was anything you could have done differently that would have positively impacted your relationship. Relationships thrive in this way when there is less blame, and more understanding.
Resilient couples understand ebbs and flows are normal. Most partners do not have exactly the same needs at exactly the same time. This can relate to intimacy, alone-time, finances, together-time, staying in, going out, etc. Take a deep breath and let go of the sense of urgency to always be on the same page. Couples who have healthy relationships have an appreciation that sometimes there will be differences in desires and thinking. Through compromise with their partner they know that the natural course of the relationship will get back on track.