The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

15 Simple RuIes for a Remarkable Couple Relationship

Coupling up is complicated. The rules for making it work are not.

The natural course of marriage is downstream, unless you are intentional about paddling against the current.  Even the best marriages will get stuck in too much distance or too much intensity and blame. 

Be the one to change first. While it takes two to couple up, it takes only one to make things a whole lot better. Here are 15 essential tips from Marriage Rules: A Manual for The Married and The Coupled Up.

1. Warm things up. Make at least two positive comments every day to your partner and speak to the specifics about what you admire (“I loved how funny you were at the party last night”). Make sure that your positive comments exceed critical ones by a healthy margin.

2. Dial down the criticism. Many folks value criticism at the early stage of a relationship, but become more allergic to it over time. Get more bite marks on your tongue, by letting all but the most important issues go by. When you have a criticism, make it in three sentences or less. Remember this: No one can survive in a marriage (at least not happily) if they feel more judged that admired.

3. Overcome your L.D.D. (Listening Deficit Disorder). Whole-hearted listening is the greatest spiritual gift you can give to your partner. Drop the defensiveness, and listen only to understand, without interrupting, correcting facts, or counter-punching. Save your defense for another conversation.

4. Be self-focused. Connect with friends and family, pursue your own interests, and be of service to others. If your primary energy isn’t directed to living your own life as well as possible, you’ll be over-focused on your partner in a worried or critical way.

5. Apologize. Offer the olive branch. You can say, “I’m sorry for my part of the problem” even if you’re secretly convinced that you’re only 28% to blame.

6. Don’t demand an apology. Don’t get into a tug of war about his failure to apologize. An entrenched non-apologizer may use a nonverbal way to try to defuse tension, reconnect after a fight, or show he’s in a new place and wants to move toward you. Accept the olive branch in whatever form it’s offered.

7. Sweat the small stuff. When you say you’ll do something, do it! Never assume that your overall contribution to the relationship compensates for failing to do what you have agreed to do, whether it’s picking up your socks or moving the boxes out of the garage by Sunday.

8. Stop the emotional pursuit. Under stress, don’t press. If you pursue a distancer, he or she will distance more. Consider it a fundamental law of physics. Focus less on your partner, and more on your own life plan. A distant partner is more likely to move toward you when he or she has breathing room and can see you taking good care of yourself.

9. Say it shorter! A distant partner may avoid conversation because it feels awful to him. Sometimes the culprit is the sheer number of sentences and the intensity in our voice. Slow down your speech, turn down the volume, and lower the intensity.

10. Know your bottom line. Be flexible in changing for your partner 84% of the time, but don’t sacrifice your core values, beliefs and priorities under relationship pressures. Your marriage will spiral downward if you have an “anything goes” policy.

11. Exit a conversation when you are on the receiving end of rude or demeaning treatment. You can say, “I’m giving myself a time out from this conversation. I’m here to listen when you can talk to me calmly and with respect.” Keep your actions congruent with these words.

12. Be a mystery. It’s comfortable and cozy when two people know absolutely everything about each other but we’re more likely to be drawn to a partner who has connections and a passion for life outside the relationship. So take a dance class, skiing lessons, or join a book group with friends. The more passion you show for life outside your marriage, the more zest you’ll find within it.

13. Make rules about technology. Agree on “time-out rules” from anything you’re prohibited from using during takeoff and landing in an airplane. For example, cell phones off and out of sight during food preparation and eating meals and no answering land lines. No taking calls in the middle of a conversation or when people are visiting.

14. Initiate sex, even if you don’t feel like it. If you’re the distancer in bed, initiate sex once in a while even though you don’t feel like it. A long-term relationship won’t flourish if your partner is someone for whom sex is an enlivening essential force and you’re too unavailable. To decide you won’t be a physical partner because you don’t feel like it is like his deciding that there will be no more conversation because he’s not a talker. If you have a fair and good partner, there is probably something you can do that wouldn’t be too terribly difficult. (P.S. If you’re the pursuer in bed, back off.)

15. Work on relationships in your first family. Become a good questioner about family history, and observe and change your part in triangles and dysfunctional family patterns. You’ll stand on more solid ground with your partner if you navigate family-of-origin relationships with more creativity and less reactivity.

Start Small. Pick two rules from the above and stick with them. Your relationship thanks you in advance!

Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.

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