Don't talk about work or the kids. Talk about you. One of the best things you can do to better your relationship is to let your partner know what you want, what you dream about, and how you feel. Our emotions are what make us human. We make our connections with other people through our emotions. Learning how to talk about our feelings is vital in maintaining an intimate relationship with our partner.
Develop a ritual around your relationship. We all look forward to Christmas, Easter and birthdays as times associated with bringing us close to family and friends, but we don't often realize that what we are doing is using ritual as a means of connection. Ritual can be used every day to strengthen bonds with those we love – such as sitting down as a family every night at the same to talk about what has happened to us that day, or making one night of the week 'family night' when everyone sits down together to eat – with no distractions from the television. Rituals have been a vital part of human bonding behavior since the beginning of time – and we ignore the value of ritual, we ignore the enormous benefits they can bring to our relationships.
Learn to listen. Many people think they are good listeners, and this belief prevents them from understanding what it means to be a good listener. It does not mean trying to fix someone else's problem. When was the last time you listened to your partner or one of your children and were able to hear and understand their point of view without expressing an opinion or offering advice or defending your own position? Some people have this rare skill but for most of us listening means waiting quietly until it's our turn to talk. Can you remain curious about what someone else is saying, even if it is sensitive for you, or opposes what you think is right, or what you yourself belief? Are you able to accurately reflect back to someone what they have said to let them know you really get their point of view? It's a rare but vital skill in any successful relationship.
Don't react – reflect. The most common behavior seen in distressed couples is what I call 'chain reaction.' One partner says something – and the other reacts defensively. Then the first partner becomes defensive to their defensives – and within a minute or two there is a blazing row. To break this pattern couples need to learn to reflect, not react. Really listening to your partner's issues instead of reacting to them can be the difference between anniversary and alimony.
Stay separate together. Sharing love and sharing lives should not mean living in each other's pockets. It's vital that two people do not lose their sense of self. Couples do not have to share the same friends, tastes, or habits to have a satisfying relationship. Clone-liness can lead to loneliness. A significant number of couples begin to feel enmeshed in a suffocating relationship – and separate in order to rediscover their sense of self. There will be times when you or your partner need time alone – and times when you need to lean on each other. Maintaining relationships with friends and family and activities that you had before you met, can be very important to a relationship in the long term. It can also expand your own horizons!
Turn away, turn towards or turn against? Dr John Gottman describes these as the three alternative behaviours we can adopt when relating to our partner. Everyone makes daily bids for emotional connection of some kind. We may want our partners attention, interest, enthusiasm and excitement about something we are excited about or affection etc. If our bids are met with a 'turning torward' response a deposit is made into the emotional bank account of the relationship. The more positive responses we get the higher our emotional bank balance gets. This healthy balance acts as a buffer to get couples through difficult periods. Turning towards our partner simply means acknowledging attempts at connection with love, kindness and interest. In contrast 'turning away' means not responding to our partners bids. Research states that couples who 'turn toward' one another in the little everyday moments in life report much higher relationship satisfaction and are more likely to remain together. Hence the importance of Gottman's motto 'small things often'.
Do things together that are fun! This may seem obvious – but it's so obvious many couples forget to do it. In between paying the bills and raising children and going to work many couples tend to squeeze in time to … argue. Every couple should have at least one 'date night' per week. This does not have to mean a candlelit French restaurant; it can mean going to the movies together or participating together in a sport. Anything from bridge to mountain climbing! It's just an opportunity to connect and have fun together.
Learn to fight clean. Dr John Gottman tells us that conflict in a relationship is not necessarily bad. What is bad is verbal abuse, violence or chronic arguing. Conflict is not a case of one partner being wrong and the other being right; it means there is an issue that needs resolving. Don't ignore it, and don't try and get your own way either. Don't continue in an argument if it starts to heat up – that only leads to disaster. Dr John Gottman has shown that two thirds of all conflict in a relationship is never resolved - the goal is to manage conflict not to eliminate it. When you are both able to compromise it shows that you value the other person and recognize your essential differences.
Never take love for granted. Celebrate your relationship every day. You'll miss all those little everyday things that you love about your partner if they were gone. The best way to keep them - be grateful for them in the now. Thank them for making you dinner or taking the rubbish out; tell them you like spending time with them. Couples who appreciate each other are not only happier in their relationships, but happier in their lives.
Sweeping things under the carpet makes for a lumpy carpet! For many couples communication means discussing whose turn it is to take the kids to school and whether to install a new deck. Make time every day to talk about the things that matter to you – and don't hope that problems will just magically disappear. They never ever do – molehills can quickly become mountains when they are ignored. Remember to share your dreams with your partner – but also talk about your concerns too.