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.
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