“Everything can be taken from a man (person) but the last of the great human freedoms is the ability to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” – Victor Frankel
After nearly 20 years as a Psychotherapist, I have seen and helped hundreds of couples. There are some universal themes and issues that aggravate everyone. You are not alone! I have outlined 4 simple tactical tips that can revolutionize your romantic relationship. Whether you are wanting preventative therapeutic methods or to take your relationship out of the gutter, these should help.
The Momentum of Positivity
Science describes momentum as the mass of an object multiplied by its velocity. In psychological relational terms, the object is our communication content and the velocity is the emotional tone and force at which it is delivered. Communication multiplied by emotional tone and force creates a momentum.
In relationship, momentum can be generated to create an atmosphere of connection and positivity or conversely, disconnection and negativity.
When we announce what our partners are doing wrong, it drops the mood, brings out the inner critic and creates defensiveness. Positive feedback on the other hand, can create openness and a desire in our partners to do more. In Behavior therapy this is called Positive Reinforcement.
Culturally it is known that children thrive on positive reinforcement. If we encourage positive behavior, eventually the positive behavior will take over the not so desired behavior. Adults too, thrive on positive feedback. Performance reviews and bonuses in the workplace are a good example. When adults get positive feedback they feel up and want to do more of the behavior. Believe it or not, couples actually want to make their partners feel good, they sometimes just don’t know how to do it.
Try this: Catch your partner doing something that you appreciate and name it aloud. Be as specific as possible. For example: ‘I noticed that you put the dishes in the dishwasher when you were tired at the end of the day.’
In my couples work, a husband might request more affection from his wife. When they come back to session, he talks about how he is still not getting enough affection. I ask him if he actually received more affection from his wife this week, and he says yes but…I want more. The feedback loop is negative and disconnecting here. It focuses on what is missing versus the growth that has happened. More positive change would happen if he said, ‘I really noticed and appreciated when you hugged me as I came home last night.’ Positive feedback generates momentum in the direction of the feedback. In the short term, shifting to positive reinforcement will change the dynamic and help each other win. Long-term, you are creating new neural pathways for relating. With practice, this will feel more natural and become the default way of relating. Couples in my practice often describe feeling more supported by their partner and feel that they have each other’s best interest at heart.
Name it and Claim it
A major complaint I hear in my couples work, is one or both partners feeling unseen or unnoticed for what the other does to contribute to the partnership. In the book ‘The 5 love languages’, it speaks of verbal feedback as a way some people feel loved. It is also commonly held, that we cannot receive love easily in areas we are not fully loving or appreciating ourselves. Unfortunately, couples tend to wait endlessly for their partner to appreciate them verbally. I hear them say, ‘Why doesn’t she notice that I made the bed or that I created a weekend getaway for us?’ ‘I feel so unseen!’
Try this: Instead of waiting to be seen and validated, announce your desired verbal appreciation and ask that it be mirrored back. For example I might say: ‘Thank you Val for cleaning the house and getting groceries.’ Say it with a smile and the exact tone you want to hear this back. Ask your partner to reflect this back to you. The instant reflection works quickly and creates the same endorphin rush as if your partner thought of it himself or herself. The benefits of announcing it when you need to hear it, are inviting the moods of humor and warmth, as well as decreasing resentment.
A common grievance in relationship, is that something is ‘missing’ that was once there. He used to be romantic or she used to be more sexual are frequent shares. There are many reasons why romantic and sexual energies get subdued in longer-term relationships. The energy of stress, shared responsibilities and expectations can weigh heavy and the lens towards ones partner starts to take on the fog.
When couples first meet they are not expecting any certain behaviors or duties from the other. It feels fresh and light because each person is coming from their own self-experience and is not projecting those aspects on one another…yet. So what is the way back to this state?
Each person needs to take responsibility for his or her own energy state completely. If you are feeling frustrated because your partner is not romantic enough and you want more romance, the desire is coming from you! You can own the romantic desire and ask yourself what it would take to bring you into a romantic state of being (light some candles, cook a sensual dinner, put on some music, take a bath). When you embody that state of being completely, it will most likely invite or seduce your partner to match your energy and add their romantic flavor to the scene.
On the contrary, when you stay in the complaint of your partner not being romantic, they are equally compelled to match you in the energy of your disappointment, and you will both be living in a reality far from romantic. The same goes for the man who wants more sex. Embody turn on rather than complaint. It’s a lot sexier. Create an environment or a scene that you know would turn your partner on and let her step into it. Seduction requires attuning to you first, owning it and inviting another. Blame and complaint are universal turn offs and will not bring you to the place you want to go.
In essence, role modeling what you want invites a mirrored response. If you want something, start doing it yourself. It will create the energy and mood you want and your partner might join in, reflect and amplify that.
Learn How to Fight Fair
Culturally, we are not trained in constructive ways to fight. In unfair fighting, acting out is the biggest culprit. Acting out in relationship includes: name calling, hurtful tone of voice, kitchen sinking (bringing up every topic you are upset about at once), throwing things, physical violence, threats to end or sabotage the relationship. I often hear couples say, that they acted out because their partner did xyz, and they feel justified.
Let me ask you this? When you are at work and your co-worker does something you do not like, do you scream at them or call them names? Mostly likely not.
Many people support the idea that we are allowed to act out against the people closest to us. It is my desire to change this. If we can control ourselves at work and in social arrangements, we have the capability to communicate mindfully with the ones closest to us. Building up the capacity to do so is vital here. So what is good and fair fighting? The first step, is to stop the acting out. Instead, learn to utilize self-care when you are activated by your partner and make a self-calming and loving choice. This could including going on a short walk, listening to music, doing a drawing, or calling a friend. Wait to share your feelings with your partner until your nervous system is back to center and you can have a healthy dialogue.
When acting out does happen (we are not perfect), there are a few strategies I would suggest for repair: a) Learn Active Listening or Non-Violent Communication skills. These techniques are simple and straightforward and you can learn them with a therapist or NVC Course. b) Ask for a do-over. Calling for a ‘do over’ in communication is often just as effective as processing the poor communication. If your partner is open to the do-over, restate yourself using kind, calm and reflective communication skills.
Relationships are like a house that needs cleaning and TLC. If you put attention on cleaning out the little things, setting the tone and nature of communicating, you can create the atmosphere you are desiring. And as always, celebrate your successes!