by Claire N. Scott, Ph.D.
There are literally hundreds of books on how to improve relationships. Relationship difficulties are the most often cited reason that people decide to come into therapy. While relationships are one of the most rewarding things in life, they can also be one of the most challenging and heartbreaking. Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned from some of those relationship books and from almost 20 years of doing couples therapy. (The primary source for the research cited is The Marriage Clinic by John Gottman, Ph.D.)
Research has found that the most significant factor in determining satisfaction in a relationship is the quality of the friendship between the two people — and this is equally true for women and men. Obviously that makes it important to devote time and energyto strengthening the friendship between you and your partner. How? Spend time together, listen, be empathetic about sorrows and enthusiastic about joys, tolerate foibles, forgive faults, support dreams, be available when you’re needed – in short be a good friend.
Conflict is a natural part of any close relationship. People have different needs, wants, values, priorities, temperaments, histories, energies, moods, rhythms, styles. What is unusual is not that people have conflict, but that they ever manage to work through it sufficiently to actually want to be in each other’s company for any length of time.
That magical, wonderful, knock-your-socks-off feeling of being in love will fade. It’s inevitable. There’s no feeling like it, and it’s wonderful while it lasts, and it will fade. Ideally, the “pink cloud” feelings you have for each other can mature and grow into a beautiful, lifelong loving companionship – but that takes work – keep reading.
Be careful how you confront your partner. Remember the difference between a complaint and criticism. A complaint is an objection you have to how something is going – or not going. Criticism is an attack on your partner’s personhood. Example: a complaint might be, “I get so aggravated with you when you don’t call when you’re going to be late.” That line can be turned into a criticism by adding, “How can you be so selfish?” or “What’s the matter with you that you always do that?”
Old saying – still true: YOU GET MORE FLIES WITH HONEY THAN YOU DO WITH VINEGAR . Remember when you have a complaint that you’re asking your partner to change to please you. Chances are they’re going to be more likely to accommodate you if you act like you like them!
Be “influenceable”. Research also shows that happier relationships are those in which each person is open to being influenced by the other. Don’t hang on to being so right that the only place left for your partner to be is wrong.
Examine your beliefs about what you think couples and families do for one another? If you believe, as I do, that loved ones supportone another in “becoming” what one wants to become, then the attitude you bring into partnership is likely to be one that will help both you and your partner grow and flourish.
Power: Only in relationships where both partners have equal, open power can true intimacy exist (meaning the experience of being open, vulnerable, and able to share one’s innermost thoughts and feelings). The old topdog/underdog setup may have worked in a way, but the result was NOT intimacy.
Even the best relationships have some irreconcilable differences . Not all problems can be solved. If you want to keep your partner (and your sanity), you might have to decide that that quirk that drives you mad is actually an endearing idiosyncrasy. If that’s impossible, keep working on the irreconcilable differences, but with gentleness, respect and good humor. (Though this is a tangentialremark and fodder for a different article, how can we possibly expect nations to live peaceably with their differences if we can’t even manage it in our closest relationships?)
Repair attempts . This is a term coined by John Gottman that I particularly like. It refers to the times one or the other partner makes some conciliatory gesture. It could be a joke to lighten the mood in an argument, a gentle touch, a request to table the conversation till there’s time to cool down, a silly grin, an “I’m sorry” or “boy did I screw up”. Sometimes the timing can be off, and the receiver is just in no mood to hear it, but it’s helpful if the attempt is at least acknowledged. Take a second to smile at the joke or return the touch. Repair attempts can lower the volatility and improve the atmosphere in the room. It doesn’t mean the disagreement has been resolved; it’s just a little breather to remember you love one other.
Accept that reality is subjective. We can only see the world through our own eyes, and not all eyes see the same . Studies on eyewitness testimony attest to the unreliability of eyewitness accounts. When I was a campus counselor years ago, I once counseled two people individually for two months before it became evident that they were roommates in conflict with each other! Their respective descriptions of what was going on was so different that the accounts bore no resemblance to each other. I’m still having that experience with couples today.
How do you know when your relationship could benefit from couple’s counseling? Two clues: (a) if your disagreements keep having the same flavor and you feel like you keep going round and round and getting nowhere, and/or, (b) if you’ve tried everything you can think of and it feels like nothing works. Sooner is also probably better than later. Relationships with a long history of hurt, resentment and hateful words are difficult to heal. John Gottman’s research highlighted four indicators that a relationship is in serious trouble: the presence of high levels of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. These things are deeply corrosive to a relationship and can leave it eroded beyond repair if not addressed.
This list is obviously not exhaustive – I haven’t even touched on sex and money. If you would like to read more about relationships, some books I recommend are: Soul Mates by Thomas Moore; Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver; Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix; Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner; Conscious Loving by Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks.