Five Tips for a Better Relationship Today

Couple sitting on lake dock

It can be easy to focus on what isn’t working in our relationships rather than what is in our control. We all get stuck in the trap of keeping score, holding on ferociously to past hurts, and forgetting that as partners if we want a more loving relationship, we must make sure we aren’t standing in our own way. What we focus on tends to grow. Once we internalize this fact, it makes sense to zone in on what we can do to nudge our relationships back on track.

Below are five tips and thoughts to consider for the health of your partnership:

1. Remember, you can see everyone but yourself when you walk into a room.

It is human nature to underestimate the toll we 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 himself or herself for a partner rather than the other way around. We are wise to focus on our own rough edges, sand them down, and consider that it may be more natural to focus on the flaws of others, especially our partner’s, because our own are so ingrained as to seem nonexistent. Focusing on our own blind spots rather than our partner’s flaws helps both parties.

2. Growing up is a lifelong process.

When I was a child, I couldn’t wait to turn 18 years old. After all, 18 meant I would be a legal adult with all the freedom and possibilities that I imagined came with this magical age. It is only now, more than 20 years later, that I understand we are all simultaneously works of art and works in progress. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki expressed this sentiment beautifully when he said, “Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.”

3. Don’t be stingy with your love.

This means not withholding love from your partner or from yourself.  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 was, “Why are we as human beings often so stingy with our love?” What are we waiting for? Has anyone ever dropped dead from his or her partner being 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 I loved and cherished him.

Consider the ways you may withhold or withdraw from opportunities to infuse your 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 toward your partner?

4. Throw away your scorecards.

While we don’t write it down every time our partner makes a mistake or hurts us, more often than not we are keeping a mental scorecard or list. This is why I’ll often ask my clients if they are ready to turn over their scorecards, 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 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. As you communicate your needs, treat your partner like a teammate who is on your side to win, not an enemy who is out to get you. If this doesn’t work and you keep getting stuck, seek professional help with a licensed couples counselor. A well-trained couples counselor can move you both from gridlock to dialogue, from misery back to joy. As an advanced-trained Gottman couples counselor who has been working with couples for more than a decade, I have seen many couples who had nearly given up hope make profound, brave, and radical changes together. First, though, scorecards must be thrown out so that your minds are free to learn new skills and ways of reconnecting and communicating.

5. Vow that when your partner misbehaves, you won’t allow it to be the green light or an excuse for your own disrespectful behavior.

At my relational worst, I have felt like I might as well be back in kindergarten. I use to use my partner’s worst moments as an excuse to be reactive right back. Then I read something by author Terry Real, something that really struck me. In his book, The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Know to Make Love Work, 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 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 the other’s. 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 ensure a much happier outcome. Often, clients say to me, “Alex, that’s just too hard. I go on autopilot.” While it feels like autopilot, the more honest truth may be that we have more control than we want to admit. For example, we often exhibit much more control when our bosses, customers, or clients trigger us than when our partners do. Similarly, if we are in public and know others are watching, we tone our anger and frustration down. It can take work and practice to become proactive rather than reactive if this habit is deeply ingrained in us, but remembering that we’re responsible for our own behavior can help next time your partner pushes one of your buttons. Responding respectfully doesn’t mean caving in to crummy behavior. It means staying calm, setting a clear limit, and remembering we are in the driver’s seat of our relationships, not sitting helplessly in the back.

It would be nice if we had classes beginning as early as elementary school about 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.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Alexandra Saperstein, Advanced Trained Gottman Couples Counselor, LPC, LMFT, therapist in Portland, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • juanita

    juanita

    October 10th, 2012 at 11:50 AM

    The reference about not being stingy with love hit pretty close to home for me because I know that there are times where I am and I do not mean to be. I want to be that June Cleaver loving and kind mom and wife that I idolized and wished for when I was growing up but that role model I only saw on TV. The one I had in real life was far from that, always with holding her own love and affection and nopw I look on that and see that I have become exactly when I despised as a child. I wanted to be so much more for my own kids and husband but I just don’t know how to break down those own walls that I have up inside of me and become that loving person that I want to be.

  • Brian

    Brian

    October 10th, 2012 at 5:24 PM

    I value this article a great deal, really I do, but I seriously don’t understand why we even need these kinds of pointers. What I mean is that when you love and respect someone and are with them for the long haul, should you need all of these “helpers” for keeping the relationship on tracK? You should do what you feel, and if you are with the right person then that will mean that you are always treating them with the love and the affection that they deserve and that in return they are giving the same back to you.

  • Iris

    Iris

    October 11th, 2012 at 4:04 AM

    The Golden Rule is still so applicable today, even in the most difficult situations.
    I try to look myself in the mirror and think before I speak, asking myself if what I am getting ready to say would sound as alright to me if someone else was saying that to me.

  • pete

    pete

    October 11th, 2012 at 12:55 PM

    good things mentioned here for a relationship.although many of these things seem easy most of us do not implement or adopt them.this includes me and I dont know why we just cant seem to adopt them.why is it that we unconsciously avoid good,simple easy things like these? things we know will benefit us are often the things that we neglect. it almost seems like we are hardwired to be imperfect!

  • Melissa el

    Melissa el

    October 12th, 2012 at 4:23 AM

    aaahhh the dreaded scorecard- I usedd to keep one of those- and you know what that got me? a divorce. My husband got tired of never feeling like he would be able to win because I was always too busy throing things back at him that he had done maybe even two years ago and I never let him forget about. I see that a lot more clearly now then I ever did then- only wish that I had learned that lesson sooner.
    Marriage is not a competition- that implies that you are working against each other. Instead marriage should be about compromise and cooperation. I think that this is the key that we most often forget :(

  • cindy pospichal

    cindy pospichal

    November 22nd, 2012 at 2:27 AM

    i like some of your guys replies i just wish i could let go of certain things in my life to have a relationship when u have been violated in terriable its hard to back or to even look at yourself in a good way some times its scary to put yourself out there to get judged and exspecially when u have been violated in the worst way i would love to find a special guy that would love me fore me but when u loose all trust and are forced upon as in rape its hard to trust and theres a part of u that will never be the same.

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