One of the common complaints I hear from couples is that one of the partners feels that she is not important, or that the relationship itself is not important – it’s pushed aside by work or kids or whatever…. Sometimes this is situational – one of you is dealing with a ill parent or work demands have ramped up.
But more often it is patterns that you've both fallen into. You both feel disconnected. You may not argue but you also don’t talk beyond mapping out the logistics of the day or week. You fall into parallel lives, daily routines with each of you doing your own thing. You really haven’t had a date night since... honestly, you don’t remember.
Time to change it. A good way of thinking about your relationships is that it is like a baby that you both created and are responsible for and tending to. When the baby gets sick, isn’t doing well, you both need to be concerned and step up. You both stay attentive and are committed to seeing it thrive and grow. It's a combination of consciously keeping the negative from getting worse, and consciously making the positive a postive.
Some tips for doing so:
#1. Check-in with each other. A common gripe is, “You never ask how I’m doing!” Again a symptom of disconnections and parallel lives. Don't just complain, but step up and change the pattern: Proactively talk about you and what you are doing, rather than waiting for your partner to ask and getting resentful.
A more important, but often forgotten focus is checking in on the baby – How are we doing? It’s easy to bypass this conversations because they are out of your routine or because you are afraid of the answer. But these are the important conversations to have, to talk about the elephant in the room. Do it even though, because it is hard. If you need to, plan check-in times once a week.
#2. Don’t defend. When your partner raises a complaint, try and avoid that easy response of defending – No, I didn’t – and then stacking up evidence to make your case. Basically what you are doing at this point is trying to convince the other that you’re right, he's wrong. You then start to argue over whose reality is right, who is more the victim.
Don’t do this. Yes, easier said than done, but the attitude you need to try on here is: "Even though I feel that I’m doing my best, I see that you are still not happy. Because I care about you, I want to understand what you need and will try and make it better." This is not giving in, kowtowing to the other person, but being a sensitive, reasonable adult.
#3. Don’t counter attack. Counter attacking is usually the next step in the escalating argument: “You’re complaining about this, but I don’t say anything about that…” This again is about power struggling, not good. Yes, your complaints may be valid, but save them for the moment. Again this doesn't mean you forever have to bite your tongue, but rather that you are dealing with one problem at a time. For now focus on your partner’s concerns, and at a later time when you are both calm, bring up your own.
#4. Schedule couple time. Okay, enough on the negative. Think positive. Because it is so easy to go on auto-pilot and drift apart, you need to go against inertia and plan date nights, touch-downs, weekend trips. You both need to create positive shared experiences in order to counter the mundane, build good memories, and have something to look forward to.
#5. Treat each other with courtesy, sensitivity, and respect. This is the foundation of everything above. You automatically do this on your job (I hope), but it's easy not do this in a relationship because you are more comfortable with each other and you know how to push each other’s buttons – all understandable. But when the relationship (the baby) is suffering in even small ways, this needs to be your default mode, what you go back to to change the emotional climate in the relationship. Again, again, it's not about giving in, but treating each in the way that you need to be treated.
#6. Say Yes And rather than Yes But. Improv is all about working together as a team, and the number one rule of improv is Yes And. Rather than getting defensive or controlling and negating what the other person is saying, you build on it, add to it, create trust rather than controlling and jockeying for power. If you partner suggests something, assume it is good, not malevolent, assume good intentions and rather than canceling the other’s idea -- Yes but -- go along with it AND then feel free to speak up and add to it: "Let’s go out for Thai food. Yes and this weekend let’s have a BBQ and invite some neighbors." Try for a week, do when you feel disconnected.
#7. Create intimate conversations. Yes, intimacy in general is important -- sex, affection -- but the base level is about communication. It’s all to easy to fall into conversational patterns – you talk about work, I talk about kids, we’re done. Intimacy doesn’t mean talking about deep dark secrets but stepping outside your comfort zones. You’ll know when you're doing exactly that because you’ll have the twinge of anxiety. Take the risk and say it. Deepen the conversation. Have no expectations. Again, it’s about breaking patterns, expanding the ordinary.
#8. Solve problems. As I've mentioned in other posts, it’s good to have business meetings. Planned time to solve problems when you both are not tired, drunk, angry. Have an agenda, be adult, pretend you’re at work. The goal is help your partner understand one thing, solve one problem. Don’t go off into the woods of the past, skip the drama and courtroom. Stay sane. Make your point. Solve your problem.
#9. Talk about talking. If you struggle with any of the above, talk about the struggle – I have a difficult talking about______because I’m afraid you are going to get angry; I feel you don't make our relationship a priority and when I try and talk about it, I feel you don't listen; it would help me if you did _____. The conversation formula is "When you do _____ I feel ___and it would help me if you did _____. Also try and sort out the problem under the problem – problems are bad solutions. If you feel angry about ____ what are you worried about or hurt by or afraid of? Talk about that instead of the anger. What is the one thing you want your partner to understand and need about you?
Lots of suggestions, a tall order perhaps. If this seems too difficult, too overwhelming consider short-term couples counseling just to have a safe place to sort out what you both need and find out where you get stuck.
Take care of the baby.