Three Steps to a Healthier Relationship

As women, we are all about relationships. It is often what we feel gives meaning to our lives. Yet, relationships also provide some of our greatest challenges. With intimate partnerships or marriages, the promise of “happily ever Happy mature couple sharing a passionate hugafter” can feel elusive when it comes to the day to day of living and loving with another person. It is often our primary partners that we struggle with the most. That’s right. The one we fell in love with, thought they were perfect and then began to experience how many things about them trigger us into uncomfortable feelings and reactions. They drive us crazy, they make us mad, and cause us to feel things in ourselves that we surely would rather not.

The conflicts that arise are large and small. They happen in the day to day of living together and having different styles and habits. Challenges arise when we try to merge those styles. You are messy, he is neat. You like loud music, he longs for quiet meditative space. We all know the basic feeling though. That “Ugh” inside of us when our partners have not behaved in the way that we wish them to. These feelings may arise in us many times a day and lead us to rampages in our own minds (and to our partners) of “how many times have I told you . . . why don’t you listen . . . I hate that you won’t change”. Sound familiar? Oh yes. Living with someone guarantees that we will be challenged frequently by these differences. Day to day irritations can lead to couples at war. All because he left the toilet seat up or you left dirty clothes on the bedroom floor. What to do?

Then there are the bigger challenges: personal preferences, life style choices, basic personality styles. What happens when you long to vacation in a luxury hotel in Hawaii and he longs to do a 10 day trip into the wilderness with nothing but a backpack. He spends freely and you are thrifty and cautious. He wakes early and you like to sleep in on the weekend. He works 60 hours a week and you want him home to enjoy more time with you. He needs lots of one on one time and attention or he feels abandoned, you have a need for space or you feel suffocated. He wants frequent lovemaking. You would rather knit. In any of the above scenarios the he and she could be reversed. But does any of this sound familiar? What are the things that you and your partner disagree about most often? Have you come to any resolution? Maybe so, and often not.

There is no way to avoid differences and conflicts in a relationship. We learn and grow through the challenges that relationships bring us. But these differences and conflicts can turn into all out warfare between partners and then one day, that person you fell in love with and thought was perfect, has become the enemy.

It doesn’t have to be this way! There are some important steps you can take every day to lessen conflict, help you to navigate it when it arises and learn to live with your partner in a more harmonious and loving way. These steps help to make your relationship healthier, but just as you take time to focus on your physical health, these three steps to a healthier relationship require your time and attention too. It is however, time well worth it!

Step One: Spend time connecting every day.

The first and most important thing you can do right now to improve your relationship is to spend time connecting every day. This step is deceptively simple. Couples who make time for connection build a foundation in their relationship that offers something to stand on when there is conflict. It doesn’t take much time. It is just important that it happens.

Connect daily with our partners and bringing our full presence and focused attention to them, helps them to know they are important to us. Our time and attention says to them that amid life’s many things to do, they are a priority. When our partners give us their time and attention, it lets us know that we are also a priority to them. We all need that. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. Daily connecting time might be a long and relaxed hug in the morning and a few minutes of face to face talking time. The evening, after a long days work might work best for some couples. Dinner, a drink, a walk, it doesn’t matter. Just make sure the TV is off and you are really listening to one another without distractions. Even 15 or 20 minutes a day can make a big difference. Relationship research has shown that that is all it takes to keep a relationship on track. When possible, find longer periods of time to be together in the form of dates or weekends away.

Commonly couples miss or resist this concept. Daily life is the great time and energy eating monster. Our jobs, our kids, our life outside the home, can seem so terribly important and time consuming. Our partners are there, day after day, brushing their teeth beside us. Ho, hum. The happenings in our outside life can seem more important. It is the relationship that is the most important! True in the beginning, true now? As writer Jack Kornfield has expressed, “On their death bed, no one ever wishes they had spent more time at the office”.

When couples don’t connect consistently, serious relationship troubles may evolve over months and years. Couples take each other for granted, conflicts increase, they grow distant, they fall out of love. A common example that we all recognize – kids grow up and leave home, and a couple ends their marriage. Why? Because, all those years, many other things were more important, especially the kids. Then one day the kids are gone and there are two strangers living in the same house and sleeping in the same bed. Suddenly, life looks better somewhere else or with someone else.

Two Practices For You To Try:

Hugging till relaxed:

Embrace your partner standing up. Really hug, body to body. Now take a deep breath together. Now another one. Allow yourself to be completely there, aware of your partner’s body, aware of the connection between you. Take another deep breath, and then another. Deepen and relax into the hug, into the connection. Continue until you feel completely relaxed.

2. Being present for each other.

Sit across from your partner. Look into each others eyes for a moment. Just take each other in. Take a few deep breaths together and then take hands. Sit that way for awhile and talk together about one of these things.

What you are intending for your day,

What you are thankful for, or

Your feelings about something important that is happening in your life.

Each persons shares takes a turn to share without interruption. When you are done, again look into each others eyes and take a few breaths. End with a nice long hug and “I love you”.

Simple yet powerful!

Step 2: Show appreciation every day.

Appreciation is music to our ears. It soothes our souls. It even feels good to be appreciated for those day to day things we do, like making meals or keeping a clean house, or going off to work every day. When we are not appreciated for those things we can start to feel taken for granted. This never feels good. Not for us, not for our partners.

When couples make a practice of appreciating one another several times every day, this appreciation acts like a balm to the relationship. Think about it. You finish making a meal and set it out on the table. It feels so good to have your partner say “hey, thanks honey for this delicious meal you have created. I really appreciate it.” Or when your partner has just finished hours working on a house project, you see how they light up when you say, “Wow, you worked hard on that, thank you so much”. It may seem a little silly and contrived at first, but I invite you to try it. It is hard to feel negative or conflictual with our partner when we have just been appreciated or have felt and expressed appreciation for them. It sets a tone of positivity. It is, quite simply, a good vibration between you.

It is common to think that we can change our partners through criticizing their behavior. If you just tell them often enough that they are wrong, or doing something wrong, they will change it, right? It doesn’t work that way. Criticism rarely changes anyone. When we are criticized we mostly feel defensive and resentful and not motivated to change. Yet, we often think that our criticism is going to help.

When we express appreciation for our partner, they feel better about themselves, about us, and about the relationship. They often feel more compelled to be influenced by what you desire to see happen. They wish to make you happy! Let’s take a for instance. After a long day himself, John has just worked hard to make a beautiful dinner. Mary has had a long day too and is a bit grumpy. She eats the meal and says to John “you know I really don’t like that you made fish tonight. I was really in the mood for chicken.” John feels deflated, maybe hopping mad and less inclined to make Mary anything that she wants to eat in the future. Instead, consider that Mary expressed gratitude and appreciation by saying “Hey that was a great meal. I really appreciate how you managed to make it even though you have had a long day too.” John feels validated and appreciated. Maybe later Mary says, “you know what I really have the hankering for soon is that great chicken dish you make”. You bet John is going to be on it.

When we live in appreciation of our partner, and express it frequently, we live in the recognition of the best parts of them. We see all that is good and we acknowledge it. We make that our point of focus, and therefore that is what grows in our life and within our partners. Simple as that. Our partners are actually more likely to make changes when we stay away from criticism and practice appreciation.

Take the time every day to appreciate each other as many times as you can. Simple statements within the flow of the day are fine and great.

Here is a practice that makes appreciation even more powerful.

An Appreciation Practice:

Start with the earlier practice of sitting together and breathing and being in connection with one another, spending a little time just being together without distraction. While you are doing this, add a piece of expressing some appreciation to one another about either something the other does, or how they look, or the qualities about them that you most admire and love. Take turns and go back and forth until several appreciations have been spoken.

Step 3: Stop the blame game.

It is so easy to be at war with our partners! We hold tightly to our point of view, we draw lines in the sand of our home territory, and we are just absolutely sure that whatever the conflict, it is our partner’s fault. It certainly could not be ours! It is so easy to blame. We all know the stories, they unfold for us every day. We blame our partner for what is wrong in our life and in the relationship. We blame them for why we are unhappy. “If only you could communicate better, our relationship would improve”. “We don’t have fun anymore and it is your fault”. “If only you made more money, our life would be better”. On and on and on it goes. Often when our partner does something differently than how we want them to, we blame them and we make them wrong. The problem is that, just like criticism, blame never feels good. Blame never creates change. Couples get caught in the trap of blame. Take a moment and think about the ways in which you blame your partner for the way things are in your life or ways that you feel blamed by them. Think about the ways you feel you are right and they are wrong or the ways they feel they are right and you are wrong.

THE TRUTH IS NO ONE IS TO BLAME! Blaming the other is never the answer to resolution and harmony or a healthy relationship. When we blame, we exude negativity and judgment and that never serves our relationship well. In fact, it is inherently damaging.

No blaming? Easier said than done! Stopping the blame game can be a challenge but the rewards for doing so are magnificent. The key to withdrawing blame is to recognize that relationship dynamics are shared, and each person plays their own part. It is important for each person to look for their part in what is going on in the conflict and take responsibility for what they can do to change. It is also important to acknowledge that our partner is not wrong, and see that they are just contributing their part in the conflict. Here is a simple example. Let’s say one person likes a very neat and tidy house and the other person is more casual, they don’t mind a bit of mess, they don’t always clean up after themselves right away. This is a common war zone among couples. The neat one can blame the messy one for being messy and they feel so sure that keeping a neat house is the “right way”. They blame the other for their unhappiness about their home life, and probably their general unhappiness. They sit in judgment of their partner. “She is such a slob. How can she live like this? What is wrong with her? If only she would clean up I would feel better!” The messy one feels the same self-righteousness, and they sit in judgment of the tidy one. “He is so uptight! Why can’t he relax? If only he were not so uptight we could have a happier home life!” Round and round it goes. We know all too well that the back and forth of blame might never stop. It feels awful for both people and it profoundly impacts relationships in a negative way.

So is there a way off of this merry go round? There is, if both partners can pull back their blame by practicing the following:

Realize that there is no right or wrong in our relationship dance. Our perspective is just one idea of what is right or wrong. Our partner has another perspective. Neither is the absolute correct way.

Take greater responsibility for what you think, feel, and do in your relationship.

In the deepest sense, your partner does not make you feel anything. What you feel is the result of your own past history. So, the feelings or situations that we are blaming our partner for offers us a profound opportunity for growth. Rather than seeing our partner as the enemy, we can ask ourselves: What can I learn here about who I am? What is my attachment to having things the way I want it right now? What is in my history that reminds me of the experience and feelings I am having now? Is there some old pain or other negative emotions related to that history that are showing themselves now? And most importantly, how could I respond differently? When we resist blame and take responsibility, all of a sudden the dynamic changes and there is more spaciousness and less gridlock in the conflict. We feel a tad bit more understanding and that understanding opens our heart. If both parties can pull back from blame, begin to see and admit what they bring to the conflict they grow toward resolution. A softer place emerges for both and that place offers the opportunity for compromise, for the issues to be seen in a new light, with a solution that works for everyone. Each party feels more willing to give. Maybe one person feels more inclined to pick up a few more things because they understand that it is important and they care about what their partner wants. Maybe the neat one feels able to relax a bit and recognize that what is more important is that they both feel comfortable in their home. It is so much easier to care about the others feelings when we are not feeling blamed. It is hard to compromise when we feel blame because blame fans the fires of conflict.

A Practice for Noticing Our Blame:

Here is something to try. Spend one day noticing whenever you feel blame toward your partner, whether it is verbally expressed or you just feel it. Take note. As you notice, write down each occurrence in a notebook. This process works best if both partners do participate. At the end of the day review what you have written. Think about each criticism or blaming behavior in the light of “no one is right and no one is wrong”. What part do you bring to this blaming dynamic? If you step away from blame and making your partner wrong, how could you see your partner in a different light? From that, how might the conflict better resolve for greater harmony between you?

As an on-going practice, non blaming can be a challenge but one that will serve your primary relationship and all your relationships very well.

Thank you for reading my article. Wishing you a healthy, loving relationship.

Ruthanne Harris Carosio ©2009 Pathways to Radiant Loving

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