In every relationship – whether with our romantic partners, our children, our parents, our co-workers, or friends – we have good days and bad days. We can have more good days if we know and use effective relationship skills. Here are some I find most helpful, with links to find more details on whichever tools resonate most for you. (You can also find a summary of these in my Relationship Toolbox handout.)
Turning Toward your Partner (based on Gottman)
When someone wants to make a connection, they make “bids for affection.” These can be questions, invitations, non-verbal gestures, glances, or touch – anything that asks you to connect. When someone bids for your attention, there are three main categories of ways that you might respond.
Turn Toward: Act in a responsive, interested, positive, and loving way. Reach out, touch them, look at them, smile. Say “I hear you”, “I want to connect with you,” “I’m interested in you.” Ask a question.
Turn Away: Act in a way that ignores them, or dismisses their bid. Look away, wander away. Don’t respond verbally, or respond in a way that has nothing to do with what they said.
Turn Against: Act in an angry way that rejects them and their bid. Walk away, glare, make threatening movements. Use sarcasm or put-downs, roll your eyes. Do the opposite of what they asked you to do.
In the most successful relationships, partners have a 20:1 ratio. They have 20 positive bids and/or turning toward incidents for every one incident of turning against or away. Can you aim for at least 5:1?
Expressing Appreciation (inspired by Hendricks and Louden)
When juggling day-to-day responsibilities at work, home, and with children, we we might start feeling disconnected and invisible, or drained and undervalued. One of the best ways to re-fill our tanks is by creating a “culture of appreciation”. Some ideas:
- Always thank your partner for the things s/he has done. Even if they’re part of his/her “job.” It’s still nice to know that they are noticed and appreciated.
- When asking your partner to do something, make it a real question (i.e. something they could say no to) not an order disguised as a question. Say please – and thank you.
- Five minute writing. You each spend five full minutes listing everything you love about your partner – the big things and the little ones. Pour out all the appreciation you haven’t had time to share. Give your list to your partner.
- Post-its: leave notes around the house, listing what you love about each other.
Speak your partner’s love language (Chapman)
In Chapman’s The Five Love Languages, he argues that different individuals have different “languages” they use to express love, and that we “hear” love best when it’s spoken in our language. Which one of these sounds most like how your partner hears love from you? Which describes how you hear love?
Physical Touch: Feels most loved when you touch: stroke their hair, hold hands, massage, rub their feet, hugging, kissing, sex. Feels most rejected when touch is missing (or if touch is used in anger).
Words of Affirmation: Encouragement and praise are vital. Being acknowledged for work, appreciated for who s/he is, validated for concerns, cheered on for efforts. Sensitive to criticism.
Acts of Service: Wants active support with household tasks, like laundry, washing dishes, running errands, making a to-do list together. Feels unsupported if you don’t pitch in.
Gifts: Loves any special little thing done just for him/her. A card, something special from the grocery store, pictures of the baby texted during the day. Will be especially upset if you forget a birthday, anniversary or other gift-giving occasion.
Quality Time: Wants your Presence – time together, spent talking and connecting, doing activities together. Feels unsupported if you’re off buying gifts or doing tasks instead of spending time together.
Discuss this with your partner. Are you right about what his/her language is? What does s/he think is your language? Sometimes couples discover that if one is feeling unloved, it’s not that their partner wasn’t trying to communicate love, it’s just that they were shouting a lot in the wrong language.
Ideally, you will find a way to have a regular date night with your partner. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Just a chance to be together, really listen to each other, really see the other person, and remember why you chose to spend your lives together.
But beyond date night, think about ways that even a few minutes a day can make a big difference. In an article by Carolyn Pirak, she recommends making a commitment to spending 40 minutes a day to improve your relationship: When you separate, spend two minutes saying goodbye. When you reunite, spend 20 minutes talking about your days. Take five minutes to express appreciation to each other. Devote 8 minutes to showing affection. Give five minutes a day to sharing dreams and planning ahead.
Make a plan for special time together this week. Each day, grab some sweet little moments together.
Many conflicts arise because one or both of you is not getting something that you need. You can start feeling like opponents on opposite sides of an issue or like competitors for scarce resources. Here’s how to start thinking like allies again, and being working things out.
- Identify what you need. Hint: if you often find yourself saying “You never do X” or “You always do Y” or “I never get to do Z,” there’s a hint in there somewhere.
- Communicate that need to your partner. Be clear, and specific. Use the “I” word – “I need this”, not the “You” word – “Here’s what you need to do.” Help them understand how you feel about this emotionally. “It makes me sad when…” “I feel overwhelmed when…”
- Ask for help meeting that need.
- Listen to your partner’s opinions and concerns.
- Ask your partner what s/he needs and work together to get that need met.
Next time you find yourself in conflict, try these ideas. Even better, try working preventatively. When you’re not in the heat of the moment, explore one areas of conflict, and see what you learn together.
Speak of “We” More than “Me.”
Couples who mostly talk about “we”, “us” and “our dreams” – versus “I”, “my plans,” “you” and “your problems” – tend to have healthier, happier, and longer relationships. Even when they are in conflict, they have lower blood pressure and lower heart rates than those who talk of “me.” Their facial expressions, tone of voice and body language were all more positive. “We” language helps to foster a sense of connection, interdependence, and shared values. It helps us think of each other as allies rather than adversaries.
Just changing your language reminds you of your partnership.
Here’s a printable handout covering this information on Key Relationship Skills.
Sources: Louden’s Couples Comfort Book, Hendricks’ Conscious Heart; Gottman’s Baby Makes Three.