It can be so very easy to focus on what isn’t working in our relationships rather than what is actually in our control. We all get stuck in the trap of keeping score, holding on ferociously to past hurts as if we have claws, and forgetting that as partners if we want a more loving relationship, we must first make sure we aren’t standing in our own way. Fortunately, what we focus on tends to grow. Once we remember this fact, it makes sense to zone in on what we can do this very moment to nudge our relationships back on track. Below are five tips and thoughts to consider for the health of your own partnership.
- Remember you can see everyone but yourself when you walk into a room.
It is human nature to underestimate the toll we can take on others with our opinions, moods and habits. Indeed, it is the rare soul who pauses to consider what makes it difficult to have themselves for a partner rather than the other way around. It is a good thing to get curious and focus on our own rough edges, sand them down, and remember that it may be more natural to focus on the flaws of others, especially our spouse’s, because our own are so engrained often so as to seem nonexistent. Focusing on our own blind spots rather than our partner’s flaws helps us both.
- Growing up is a lifelong process for everyone.
When I was a child I couldn’t wait to turn eighteen years old. After all, eighteen meant I would be a legal adult with all the freedom and possibilities I imagined that came with this magical age. It is only now, more than twenty years later, that I understand we are all simultaneously works-of-art and works-in-progress for the rest of our lives. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki expressed this sentiment beautifully when he told his disciple, “You are perfect just the way you are. And...there is plenty of room for improvement!”
- Don't be stingy with your love.
- This means don’t withhold love from your partner nor from your own self. Last year, I had quite a health scare. Fortunately, everything turned out fine but as I lay in the basement of the hospital’s emergency unit waiting for an x-ray, all I could think over and over again was “Why are we as human beings often so stingy with our love?” What are we waiting for? Has anyone ever dropped dead from their partner going out of their way on a regular basis to be more exceptionally loving and thoughtful? Why hold back? I made a vow to myself in the wee morning hours of that scary night to go all out and make sure my beloved never had to wonder again whether or not I loved and cherished him. Equally, I found myself remembering all the extraordinary things he does each and every day to make me feel loved and cherished.
Consider the ways you may withhold or withdrawn from opportunities to infuse your own relationships with bold acts of love and generosity. Is there one step or act you could take today that would demonstrate love, affection, and/or renewed goodwill efforts towards your partner?
- Throw away your score cards.
While we don’t literally write down every time our partner makes a mistake or hurts us, more often than not we are keeping a mental score card or list. This is why I’ll often ask my clients if they are ready to turn over their score cards because it is human nature to react when we are hurt. Unfortunately, what quickly becomes the norm is to recoil into ourselves, taking all our hurt and grievances with us and refusing to let go. Sometimes, we will cling to old grievances for months and/or years. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Resentment is like taking a poison pill and waiting for the other person to die.”
Instead, deal directly in the here and now with whatever the upset is. If you are the one who has acted disrespectfully, apologize as quickly as you can, and move into repair mode. Do the same when your partner screws up. State your truth calmly, directly, and set a clear limit on what you will and will not tolerate in the future. As you communicate your needs, treat your partner like a teammate who is on your side to win, and not an enemy who is out to get you. If this doesn’t work and you keep getting stuck, seek out professional help with a licensed couples counselor. A well-trained couples counselor can move you both from gridlock to dialogue, and from misery back to joy. As an Advanced Trained Gottman Couples Counselor who has been working with couples for over a decade now, I can tell you firsthand that I have seen many couples who had nearly given up all hope make profound, brave, and radical changes together. First, score cards must be thrown out so that your minds are free to learn new skills and ways of reconnecting and communicating.
- Vow that your partner's "bad behavior" won't be allowed to be a green light for your own.
At my relational worst, I have felt like I might as well be back in kindergarten. In past relationships, I'd use my partner’s worst moments as an excuse to be reactive right back. Then, I read something by colleague and author, Terry Real, that really struck me. In his book, The New Rules of Marriage, he described the concept of “full respect living.” Full respect living means that no matter what your partner does, and no matter what you do or have done, both of you are always entitled to unconditional respect. When you see respect as a relational birthright, the lens through which you see your own behavior must shape up and evolve. Full respect living is about immediately raising the standards by which you allow yourself to treat your partner, and vice versa. It means that one partner’s nasty or inappropriate behavior cannot be the green light for our own. Otherwise, we find ourselves in the sandbox all too quickly flinging the equivalent of sand with our words, and gradually, feeling less and less connected, protected, and invested in our relationship.
When we feel that pull to lash out in response, we can instead learn new coping skills and responses that will help to ensure a much happier outcome. Often, clients have said to me, “Alex, that ‘s just too hard. I go on auto pilot.” While it feels like auto pilot, the more honest truth may be that we have more control than we want to admit to ourselves. For example, we often exhibit much more control when our bosses, customers, or patients trigger us than when our own partners do. Similarly, if we are in public and know others are watching, we do in fact tone our anger and frustration down. It can take work and practice to become proactive rather than reactive if this habit is deeply engrained in us, but remembering each of us alone is responsible for our own behavior can help next time your partner steps on one of your buttons. Responding respectfully doesn’t mean caving in to another’s crummy behavior. It means staying calm, setting a clear limit, and remembering we are in the driver’s seat of our relationships, and not sitting helpless in the back seat.
It would be nice if we had classes beginning as early as elementary school on how to create great relationships. Instead, we usually learn the hard way through agonizing trial and error. We can’t go back, of course, but we can start right now to take active accountability and brave new steps to sculpt the kind of relationship we’ve always longed to be in.
Alexandra Saperstein is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Advanced Trained Gottman Couples Counselor, and Marriage and Family Therapist in Portland, Oregon. For a free phone consultation, please call (503) 450-9902. You can learn more about her couples and individual counseling options at http://www.alexandrasaperstein.com .