It's like the weather, you can feel it whenever you are around each other – there’s always tension, the snipping and snapping. Or you’re disconnected – roommates with or without benefits. Or maybe worse – arguing all the time, the slamming doors, the threats. Whatever it is you dread it or are just plain tired of it.
No doubt there’s problems you both need to work out. But sometimes a good starting point is trying to change the everyday emotional climate in your relationship. If you both make an effort to make even small things better, to put the relationship on the front, rather than the back burner, to make an effort deliberately to be more kind and courteous and sensitive, the other bigger things seem less overwhelming and discouraging. Just knowing the other person is making an effort to make things better helps you feel that the other person cares, that the relationship is important after all.
So you step up. The ground rules about this are that you don’t need to feel like it to do (if you did you probably wouldn’t be reading this), you need to do and see if it will change. And, importantly, you do without expectations, keeping score or feeling like a martyr.
Here are some ideas for changing the emotional climate:
Stop getting angry / defensive. I know, this sounds tough or flippant, but it’s important and doable. You undoubtedly automatically do this is all kinds of settings – on your job, with strangers and acquaintances. It's harder with your partner because he knows unconsciously what buttons to push, because it is more intimate, because your defenses are down around him. The mindset here is that it's not about whether or not you have a reason to be angry, its about being an adult and regulating your emotions rather than spraying them around.
The trick here is to focus on you. Focus on your mood, your irritability. When your barometer starts to rise, do something on your own to calm yourself down. If you can’t for whatever reason, consider seeing a therapist, doing meditation or getting medication. Do what you need to do to manage yourself.
Ramp up the positive. The research tells us that we need a 4:1 ratio of positive comments to negative for anyone to hear anything positive. If you do 2:1 the other guy just feels that you’re always being negative. You need to ramp it up – thank you for bringing me the coffee, I appreciate your taking out the trash, I liked getting the text from you in the middle of the day. You can’t overdo it – again you don’t need to feel like to do it; even if it feels a bit artificial and forced at first, your partner will come to appreciate the effort.
Spend time in conversation. This is where you put the kids to bed early and rather than each wandering off to Facebook, sit together, not watch TV and talk about your day. Doesn’t need to be long if you haven’t done this for a while – 15 minutes, half hour. It’s about desensitizing yourself to talking without fighting, talking rather than drifting away. Note to guys: Listen, don’t try and solve the problem.
Increase affection. We’re not talking sex here – while one of you may think sex is the break-through solution, the other guy is likely to disagree. Start slow. The pat on the back, the hug when you come home, the touching of the knee when sitting on the couch. The smallest of contacts increases oxitocin and sense of connect. It's not about foreplay.
Do the small things. Here you may think about flowers or jewelry or greeting your partner wrapped in Saran Wrap (which you can do), but usually it’s all about the unexpected – doing the laundry when you normally don’t do it, putting a romantic note in the other’s lunchbox, making a dinner that the other person especially likes, watching the kids on Saturday so the other guy can get a break. Consider your partner, think kindness, and break out of your comfort zone.
Check in during the day. Another small thing. Again, it’s about being considered, on the front burner, thought of outside the home. Text or call to check in, see how your partner is doing and that you are thinking of him.
Plan couple time. What you are looking for here is breaking out of routine, not going on autopilot. Don’t make this deadly. If going out to a fancy restaurant seems like the 3rd circle of hell because you imagine that you’ll have nothing to talk about, do something that can be emotionally easier, create a shared experience that also create memories – a movie can work, a rafting or day biking trip – something different, not heavy talking, enjoyable.
Hopefully this can get you started. Feel free to brainstorm others -- again it's not about doing the one right thing but about breaking out of ingrained negative patterns. Give it a couple of weeks to see the overall effects.
And be sure to pat yourself on the back for your efforts along the way.