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Making a Difference in Love

Small steps toward major relationship changes.

Source: iStockPhotos

New beginnings and fresh starts are on many radars this time of year. We vow to get fit, lose weight, and some of us envision building stronger, more loving relationships. Despite our best intentions, however, our optimism and resolve tend to fade as the weeks go by and we feel overwhelmed by the burden of our own expectations.

So how can you make a major difference in your life this year?

Take small steps toward your larger goal: Make the choice to take a walk when you’re stressed out instead of inhaling potato chips; opt for meals at home instead of grabbing fast food; choose to exercise more days than not each week and make that choice easy with exercise you enjoy (or hate least). These small daily choices can add up over time to much better health.

It’s the same with relationships: There are small steps you can take now to make a major difference later on. What are some steps you can take to improve your relationship with your spouse or significant other?

1. Listen in a new way.

Watch your partner's body language. Listen for nuances. Don’t rush in with advice. Sometimes a partner just wants to vent in a safe place. Sometimes he or she needs encouragement and support in solving a problem. And if the problem involves you, listen before you rush to defend yourself or your actions.

It’s important that your partner feels heard and understood before you try to make sure that he or she hears and understands your point of view. Avoid distracted listening as you scan items on your phone. Make eye contact. Give your partner your full attention.

2. Learn and experience something new together.

Particularly when your life as a couple is feeling stale, discover a new interest or skill together. Run or bike together. Take up a new language by watching instructional videos or signing up for a class. Explore wine-tasting or learn chess or bridge together. Take walks as a family after dinner to talk and enjoy being outdoors together.

3. Apologize first.

The pain of a disagreement or misunderstanding can linger if you and your loved one get into a standoff, each waiting for an apology. Break the cycle. Apologize first, even if you’re convinced your spouse is wrong. Saying something like, “I’m sorry I reacted the way I did. That was over the top,” can go a long way toward resolving whatever issue sparked your conflict.

4. Let go of the need to change your partner.

It’s so easy to see how life could be wonderful if only one's partner could change in some way. But we have no power to change another’s behavior, only the power to change our own.

If you have found yourself nagging a partner, step back and consider what you could do differently. Invite a sedentary partner to take a walk with you for the pleasure of his or her company. Express love and support rather than criticizing or being directive when a spouse announces a self-improvement plan.

If someone you love drinks too much, do everything you can to cut down on the temptations: Stop drinking yourself or saying “yes” to situations where drinking is likely. Suggest alternate activities. Let your partner know what you value about him, how you love her, and your concerns. Seek guidance from Al-Anon or a similar organization that will help you to cope constructively with your spouse’s issues and in making healthy choices of your own.

5. Delight your partner with little surprises.

A text with a heart, fresh flowers, a favorite food, an invitation to do something he or she has always wanted to do. All of these gestures work best not as penance for past wrongs but as a sign that your loved one is always in your thoughts.

6. Give each other breathing space.

Love doesn’t mean constant togetherness. Make time for interests and friendships you don’t necessarily share and also for time alone to relax, meditate, and recharge. Help make this possible for your partner by watching the kids, taking on an additional task, or decreasing your demands on his or her time to create space for your partner (and for yourself) just to be.

7. De-escalate conflict with quiet compromise.

Don’t try to outdo each other in decibel level, blame, and vitriol. Take a breath and step back. Listen to your partner instead of springing to your own defense immediately. Look for a way to calm down and compromise, working out your differences quietly and collaboratively.

8. Show up in your loved one's life.

Even when you’d rather not, making the choice to show up, to make your partner a higher priority in your life, can make a big difference in your relationship. So you hate his or her family get-togethers. Find a way to tolerate them some of the time and encourage him or her to participate alone the rest of the time. So you find your spouse’s passion for Scottish Country Dancing unfathomable and the concerts unbearable? Go anyway. Honor his or her passion. If there are parties you’d rather skip but he enjoys? Take pleasure in the enjoyment it gives him when you choose to attend—perhaps not always but at least some of the time.

9. Be merciful rather than critical of the small ways your partner isn't perfect.

Make your home a safe place for both of you to be less than perfect. Picking at your spouse over minor things can have a corrosive effect on your relationship. If small things are looming large for you, you have several choices including the choice to let it go or the choice to say something to your spouse in a gentler, more collaborative way. For example, “I know it seems crazy that I get so upset when I see the toothpaste tube squeezed in the middle. I’m trying not to obsess about it. Any suggestions?”

10. Try doing just one small thing different every day that has meaning for your relationship.

This might mean quietly doing a household task you usually ignore. It can mean letting go of an expectation or of a source of irritation and changing your own behavior—to encourage rather than to try to control another; to pick up the towel you usually drop on the bathroom floor; to take a deep breath and count to ten rather than meeting his or her anger with equal vehemence; to take on a task you know that he or she dreads; to look up from the evening newspaper or your iPad or cell phone to listen, to smile, to engage with your loved one.

There are so many small steps you can choose to take each day that can make small differences daily adding up, over time, to major changes in the ways you live together and love each other.

More from Kathy McCoy Ph.D.
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