8 Relationship Secrets

When it comes to relationship improvement, pain is the best teacher.

Posted Mar 03, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

Nearly four decades of work with highly distressed couples has taught me a great deal about the shadows of relationships. More important, it’s taught me about the light. As my couples mired in chronic hurt and resentment work toward the light, they’ve revealed a few secrets.

1. Give your partner’s intentions the most benign interpretation realistically possible.

Realistic is the key. Partners can’t assume benign intentions when there’s frightening or shaming behavior. But most negative interactions between partners are not deliberately abusive.

Partners’ reactions to each other’s behavior are based on assumptions about the intentions behind the behavior. In turn, the assumptions we make about our partners' intentions are based on how we feel at the moment we make the assumption. 

When we feel good, we assume the best about our partners’ intentions. When we feel bad, we assume the worst.  

This is important because intimate partners tend to live up to positive interpretations and live down to negative ones.

If you’re hurt or offended, ask your partner if that was the intended outcome. This gives your partner a chance to be compassionate, without feeling accused or defensive.

2. Change your partner by changing how you regard your partner.

Chronic resentment makes partners regard each other negatively and project negative attributes onto each other. The most troubling projections are those about character: You’re lazy, selfish, brutish, a nag, a hypocrite. In addition to the invidious bias inherent in character projections, they are the most susceptible to projective identification.

Projective identification occurs when we identify with the projection: You get irritable when your partner says that you’re irritable, and notice for the first time how hot the actor is, after your partner suggests that you’re attracted to them.

The projections we make onto people we live with are mostly habituated. To reverse the pattern, mindfully project qualities you want to see more of from your partner. Whatever you project, you’re likely to get more of; so project what you want, not what you don’t want.

3. Appreciate as many differences as you can and tolerate the ones you can’t appreciate.

The biggest mistake partners make is assuming that events and behaviors mean the same to both of them. If you do that, you’re likely to judge your partner by how you would react. Partners differ in temperament, metabolism, hormonal levels, family history, life experiences, sensitivities, vulnerabilities, and habits, all of which greatly influence the emotional meaning they give to events and behaviors.

Most arguments in love relationships are tantamount to both partners claiming, “You have to be more like me, see the world the way I do, think the way I do, feel the way I do.”

4. Replace “getting my needs met” with commitment to your deeper values.

Most perceived “needs” are to relieve, in one way or another, guilt, shame, and anxiety that comes from violating the most humane values.   

5. Realize that you can’t be happy in love without being compassionate and kind to loved ones.

Compare a time when you resented your partner with a time that you were compassionate or kind toward your partner. Which made you like yourself better?  

6. Your only chance of getting the partner you most want to have is to be the partner you most want to be.

Due to the principle of emotion reciprocity, we're likely to get back what we give. Compassion, kindness, and affection tend to breed compassion, kindness, and affection. Resentment and anger more forcefully breed resentment and anger. 

You'll be resentful if you give more than you get in love and if you get more than you can give. 

7. To love big, think small.

Small moments of connection are more important to happy relationships than large gestures like romantic weekends or vacations. The latter can actually do harm if followed by the letdown and emptiness of routine disconnection.

8. Instead of blame, denial, and avoidance, choose improve, appreciate, connect, and protect.

The toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance are the foundation of resentment and, eventually, emotional abuse in relationships. These must be replaced with habits of:

  • Improving—trying to make a bad situation a little better.
  • Appreciating—recognizing the ways in which partners enhance each other and provide meaning to their experience.
  • Connecting—caring for each other.
  • Protecting—tending to the emotional and physical health of each other.

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