As a therapist working with couples I find that they often fight about similar topics. Can you guess which ones? You might have guessed money, chores, parenting and sex. Though these fights sometimes get in the way, couples really do want to improve their relationships. My experience has been that when each person in the relationship is willing to address the underlying feelings that contribute to these arguments, progress can be made. We all get so upset that our partner spent too much money, didn’t pay enough attention to us, or slacked on the household chores that we sometimes stop doing the most important thing: listening. I had the pleasure of discussing some of the ways that people can improve their relationships with internationally renowned couples therapy expert, Dr. John Gottman. He believes that the most important aspect of a successful relationship is respect for and attention to your partner’s feelings.“You need to be ready to put everything down when your partner is in pain and address their hurt,” he says. Dr. Gottman’s method helps couples to internalize this idea, and to be willing to be responsible for attending to each other’s needs.
In order to bring this collaborative support into your relationship, the first step is to make sure you understand any emotional pain or stress that your partner is experiencing both as a result of and outside of the relationship. Interestingly, Dr. Gottman notes that the speaker has a lot of responsibility in making sure that thoughts and feelings are effectively communicated. If you criticize, blame, or accuse your partner as you express what you are feeling, it is hard for your partner to listen.
I suggest that you take one hour during the week to have what Gottman calls a “State of the Union” meeting, in which you and your partner can discuss your state of mind, and the ways that day to day interactions have shaped it. If an hour is too much time at first, you can begin with a shorter discussion. Any time spent working to improve communication will be helpful.
Though talking about your daily experiences and feelings is certainly important for your relationship, there are a few tips I can give you that will help you being to make positive changes today:
1) When your partner is upset, tell them it is important for you to understand what they are feeling. Ask them to use “I” language instead of “you” language. Things will go much more smoothly if you use statements like: “I feel lonely when you don’t answer my texts,” instead of, “You used to always answer my texts and now you never do.”
2) If you have a hard time concentrating or have the urge to argue, Dr. Gottman recommends that you try to write down everything your partner is saying. This could help you make sure you focus on your partner’s feelings and resist the desire to disagree.
3) When your partner expresses a feeling, try showing them that you hear what they are saying. Rather than just saying “I’m sorry,” you can say, “I hear you saying that you felt upset because_____.” The latter will be a much more powerful expression of empathy.
As Dr. Gottman says, “Everything Positive you do in a relationship is foreplay.” If you are having problems in your relationship, try looking for positive ways to engage your partner. Even if there is conflict, making a kind remark, or a thoughtful gesture can go a long way if your relationship is stuck
in a rut. When some couples have conflict, they stay away from positive things like sex. Gottman’s got this covered too! Learn more about the Gottman approach’s ideas to invigorate your sex life here.
Dr. Jonathan Fader is a psychologist with expertise in Motivational Interviewing, Sport Psychology, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. He and his colleagues operate a dynamic practice providing psychology and psychiatry in New York City. Dr. Fader frequently appears in the media as an expert on psychological topics.
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