For those of us who have been in long-term romantic relationships, we’re intimately familiar with the agenda of “keeping the spark alive.”
Choosing to embark on creating a more conscious connection (and you can shift onto this path no matter how long you have been with your partner) can open up doors you never thought possible in your relationship. Building a more present and emotionally attuned relationship has the possibility to transform your relationship from the inside out.
In addition to enjoying a more rewarding relationship, there are all kinds of mental and physical benefits of being in healthy relationships. Here are 9 practical ideas and exercises to get you started on a conscious relationship path:
1. Check-ins. Making time to check in with each other is an opportunity to work through difficult content that may go unnoticed. It’s not that we forget about what happened, but when we talk about the hard stuff productively, we can set it down so that it doesn’t slowly eat away at our relationship like a slow-burning fire.
2. Be thoughtful and intentional in the language you use when communicating. An “I statement” will take us a lot farther and is far more productive than a “you statement”. Make space for each other’s reality when you are communicating. For example, “my experience of this…” or, “I remember you saying…” feels a lot better for your partner to hear than “you said this” or “you did that.” You are less likely to engage their defenses when you are not telling them what their experience was.
Furthermore, we all have our own memory of what happened- and science says we most likely are not remembering it the same way. At no one’s fault; it’s just the way our memories work. In fact, research has shown that we don’t even remember an event accurately. Add another human to the mix- and we are counting on not one, but two unreliable memory sources. Researchers at Northwestern University found that when participants remembered something- they actually were remembering the last time they recalled the memory- and not the initial memory, suggesting that our memories get increasingly distorted with time and recall. Each time we remember, we are remembering what we last recalled.
This would suggest that if you had a disagreement with your partner, and spent days thinking about it- your memory of the event is probably pretty distorted. In sum: it’s not about being right, it’s about making space and validating your partner’s perception of things. Accepting this duality of experiences will go a long way, especially in more heated conversations. The tone shifts from trying to “win” the argument to being heard and listening.
3. Make a point of creating intentional physical intimacy with each other. Sustained eye contact has been shown to lead to greater intimacy. Set a timer and hop onto something comfortable- and look into each other’s eyes. Make a point of giving each other prolonged hugs. The magic number here is 20 seconds for alleviating stress. It may sound long to you depending on your hugging style- but I encourage you to try it and notice if you feel closer to your partner afterward.
4. Practice curiosity. Over time, especially as life gets busier, it is natural to unintentionally grow farther apart. Often after marriage and kids and burgeoning careers, we find ourselves with less time to spend with one another, and the time that we do have, we are more preoccupied. If we are not intentionally growing closer to our partners, we are likely unintentionally growing farther apart.
Making a point of practicing curiosity with each other on an ongoing and frequent basis helps with continued closeness. Practically, practicing curiosity means setting aside time together where each person takes a turn and talks about something important or interesting to them- and their partner listens openly and asks agenda-free questions. For example, if your partner is writing a book- ask questions such as What’s been difficult for you in this process? What are you finding meaningful?” and then listen to what your partner says. Swap and take turns.
5. Choose love daily. It’s not always easy. The people who remain in love actively and consciously choose it. They are deliberate in how they act and talk to each other. They prioritize their relationship. They don’t ignore the hard stuff and do seek therapy if they feel like they could use it. They are interested in one another. And most importantly- they know staying in love is a choice and they choose to make it. As Mandy Len Catron said in her viral TEDx talk, Falling in Love is the Easy Part, choosing to love is where the relationship rests. As she beautifully says in her talk, we have to choose to love and hope that they will choose to love us back.
6. Respect ground rules in your relationship. It’s imperative to have set rules and lines that you both agree to simply not cross. This is most relevant in moments of conflict. Examples of ground rules can include name-calling, ultimatums, or yelling. It’s relationship-specific. This is important because in the heat of the moment, we are much more likely to do serious damage to our relationship that we then deeply regret when things have cooled down. When we break ground rules in a moment of dysregulation, the intensity of the conflict may have passed fairly quickly, but the hurt that was done can remain for a long time and erode the foundation of your relationship. Not crossing ground rules is about trusting one another, trusting in the relationship- and choosing to intentionally not damage something that is far more important and ethereal than indulging in our egos in the heat of a conflict.
7. Practice transparency. This one can be difficult for many people. In short, it not only means no secrets but also involves a commitment to sharing the important thoughts and feelings that transpire within each of you- even when it feels hard or scary to do so. Being transparent with your partner involves talking more intimately about things you might feel a sense of embarrassment or shame around sharing. Of course, practicing transparency requires a couple of implicit agreements around trust: 1. That the sharing is reciprocal and the value of practicing transparency is shared and, 2. We hold each other’s share with love, emotional regulation, and non-judgement. After all, we can’t expect our partner to practice vulnerability if we can’t promise them a safe space to do so.
8. Respect each other’s boundaries. How were boundaries treated in your home of origin? If they weren’t respected- or didn’t exist- there is a good chance that as an adult you struggle in some capacity with boundaries, whether it’s in setting and respecting your own or being okay with your partner's boundaries (or both). Be mindful of how you feel about boundaries and make sure they are present in a healthy way in your relationship. This means adequate and agreed upon space, respecting our partner's divergent opinions, and being able to find mutually agreeable solutions. After all, good fences make good neighbors. Secure boundaries comprise the foundation of close relationships. Think of a time when you set a boundary and had it respected. It helped, no?
9. Learn and live each other’s love languages. We can know our partner’s love languages, and not really practice it enough….Knowing and practicing is an art. Ask your partner how they would like their love language to be expressed. Get specific about context and frequency etc. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being seen and known by another human….and speaking your partner’s love language is one way to gift them this feeling.