Flourishing relationships don't just happen. They take effort. We must nurture them like we do our physical and emotional health to make them stronger, more flexible, and resilient. If we don't nourish them they will likely weaken, fracture, and eventually fall apart.
Maybe we are unconsciously ignoring our relationships. Or perhaps we are making herculean efforts to do something grandiose that we feel may improve a relationship, whether it's going on a luxurious vacation together, buying our loved ones an expensive gift, or throwing them an elaborate surprise party.
While nothing is inherently wrong with any of these actions, these behaviors are not likely to guarantee any big change, other than perhaps making a significant dent in our wallets.
Sometimes we expend so much energy and effort (and dollars) trying to make a positive impact on a relationship and then are disappointed that our partner either doesn't seem to appreciate it, or only experiences fleeting feelings of happiness but no lasting improvement in their bond with us.
Many of us may wonder why, despite all of our hard work and grand gestures, nothing seems to draw us closer. It may cause us to make bigger and bolder gestures or to give up altogether.
What we may not realize is that often it's the little things that, when done repeatedly, add up over time to make the biggest impact — positive as well as negative — and longest-lasting impressions on our relationships.
While building strong relationships isn't always easy, there is one simple thing we can do that may drastically improve all of our relationships – those with our spouses, children, friends, and colleagues.
Imagine the following scenario: Every day your partner comes home from work, asks you a question, or relays something important to you. You are caught up in your own thoughts and automatically say you're too busy right now to pay attention, or are stressed and snap with a quick, "Why in the world would you do that?" While you weren't necessarily yelling, your partner takes that as a signal to retreat. Your partner shuts down and walks abruptly away into the other room.
Days, weeks, months, and years of this sort of interaction with your loved one wears and tears on the relationship. This negative habit doesn't bode well for mutual relational satisfaction. There's no real connection here, but rather small daily collisions that continually drive you farther apart.
While you may think it's not a big deal – after all, you weren't yelling or lashing out – these small negative moments, when one person is constantly getting snapped at, can do much damage over the years and cause irreparable wounds.
React vs. Respond
Now, imagine this scenario instead: The next time your partner approaches you for conversation, you consciously take time to stop what you're doing and actively listen. You take it all in and think about what they are trying to communicate to you. After pausing for a few moments, you take a few deep breaths and, rather than emotionally reacting, you try to rationally respond to what they said. (If you are feeling especially stressed or the timing really isn't ideal for you, pause for a few moments and calmly tell your partner that while you'd like to speak with them, you'd like to do it later when you can give them your full attention.)
Practice this healthy habit of responding, not reacting, on a daily basis. You'll notice how much better you feel in the moment and how much more present and attentive your loved one will likely become as well.
By being calm and not reflexively reacting, your partner will feel better heard — after all, being loved and understood is one of the greatest needs we all have in life.
Over time, you and your partner will likely experience an upward spiral of positive emotions, and a stronger, more satisfying, and lasting connection.
In sum, practice pausing, reflecting, and responding for greater relational well-being.
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Maisel, N.C., Gable, S.L., & Strachman, A. (2008) Responsive behaviors in good times and in bad. 15(3), 317–338. Personal Relationships.
Pileggi Pawelski, S & Pawelski, J. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.