- One study found that couples who examined their conflicts from a distanced perspective reported less decline in relationship satisfaction.
- Researchers have found that people who are able to forgive tend to have higher-quality relationships.
- It's easy to fall into a negative reciprocity cycle with one's partner, so taking a moment for genuine appreciation of each other can help.
My husband and I met on my first day of college, and I joined a research lab studying marriage and the family not long after that. For nearly 20 years, I have been researching romantic relationships and trying to apply the research to my own relationship. And after nearly 20 years, I will freely admit that despite all the knowledge I have about what makes relationships thrive—and fail—I am still not the perfect relationship partner. I get irritated about minor issues, make the same mistakes again and again, forget to communicate clearly, and take my partner for granted. I am a living example of the simple fact that even when we know exactly what we should do in our relationships, we are not always able to do it. Navigating life with another person is complicated—especially when that person is your best friend, lover, co-parent, and business partner. We wear so many hats and play so many roles in our romantic relationships that often we are just trying to get through the day, leaving little time to step back and actually pay attention to our relationship.
Although I am not a perfect relationship partner, I do have a few strategies up my sleeve that I use to help me take a step back, pay attention to my relationship, and reset when I feel like I am not bringing my best to my relationship. These are hacks I picked up from the research on relationships and have honed over the years.
1. Step Back and Change Your Perspective
We are designed to view the world through our own eyes, and our relationships are no exception. Because this is our default view, it can be hard to remember in daily life that our relationship partners may see the world differently. A simple change in perspective can be helpful for reminding us that our view is just one of many, and help us see our relationships more clearly.
In one study, researchers had some of their participants write about a recent conflict with their partner from a distanced perspective (a fly on the wall) several times a year. They found that these participants did not experience the same declines in relationship satisfaction as other participants who were not encouraged to see their relationships from a different perspective.
In my own research, I found that couples who fight more are not necessarily less satisfied with their relationships. Instead, it seems to depend on whether or not people feel understood by their partners. Taking a distanced perspective or stepping into your partner’s shoes might help you understand your partner more and help them feel more understood. When I feel particularly righteous about all the ways my husband is not being the perfect partner, I like to force myself to step into his shoes and consider all the ways I am not living up to my end of the bargain. Doing so reminds me that relationship issues are rarely completely one-sided and helps me be more generous when I consider his complaints.
2. Let It Go
Holding onto times when you have been hurt can feel good, and smart—you’ll need to keep track of those for the future. But researchers have found that people who are able to forgive, at least for the small things, tend to have higher-quality relationships (though this is at least in part because people in higher-quality relationships are more likely to forgive; Fincham et al., 2006). This is not to advocate becoming a doormat—forgiving someone who shows no remorse and continues to transgress can be problematic and erode self-respect (Luchies et al., 2010). But if your partner feels bad, letting the small things go might be a relief for both of you. Someone once told me that a little amnesia is good for a marriage, and 20 years into my relationship, I can see the wisdom in those words.
3. Cultivate Gratitude
Psychologist John Gottman has been studying close relationships for many decades and has long advocated that one of the critical ways to help your relationship thrive is to promote a culture of appreciation, and research seems to back this up. Gratitude is a major area of research in my lab and although most of the work by myself and others on gratitude is still correlational, people who are more grateful for their partners tend to be in higher-quality relationships.
When you spend a lot of time with a relationship partner and are trying to navigate the everyday details of life together, it is easy to fall into a negative reciprocity cycle where you begin to see and expect the worst from each other. If you find yourself harrumphing every time your partner does something slightly annoying, and are struggling to just let the small things go, a bit of gratitude could help. Try taking a moment to look for the good in your relationship and your partner in order to jumpstart some genuine appreciation. Often when I am feeling taken for granted, a moment of reflection makes me realize I am not being very appreciative either.
It’s easy to take a partner’s perspective, forgive them, and feel grateful when your relationship is going well. But when you are feeling like your relationship could use a boost, these relationship strategies come less easily and can even be forgotten. Keeping them close and pulling them out if you need a reset this summer might help.
Facebook image: dekazigzag/Shutterstock
Luchies, L. B., Finkel, E. J., McNulty, J. K., & Kumashiro, M. (2010). The doormat effect: When forgiving erodes self-respect and self-concept clarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(5), 734–749. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017838
Fincham, F. D., Hall, J., & Beach, S. R. H. (2006). Forgiveness in Marriage: Current Status and Future Directions. Family Relations, 55(4), 415–427. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2005.callf.x-i1