Monica glanced past the computer screen in front of her to her husband, Will, at the other side of the room. The distance she felt between them was like a vast ocean. She blinked and looked back at the movie show times on her screen. Tomorrow was Valentine’s Day and it had been their tradition since they were first dating to go catch a flick together on this day. She wondered how she could be so close to another person but feel so far apart.
Was he thinking the same thing?
She wanted to feel cherished and desired. "At the very least," she thought, "I want to be like other couples that do something together on Valentine’s Day." She was going to tell him this at that very moment; but the words were on her lips when his phone rang. She shut the screen of her laptop as he walked to the other room to take the call.
What if there was a way to redeem moments like this? To freeze the inevitable slide toward more distance and isolation and breathe fresh life back into a relationship that’s struggling. According to professionals who help couples, there are several important ways to respond to relationship problems that can set you apart from couples that aren’t successful. Below you’ll find seven keys to a stronger relationship that you can begin today.
The Seven Keys to a Stronger Relationship Takes C.O.U.R.A.G.E.
C – Create an intention to make things better.
It’s my experience from working with hundreds of couples that no relationship succeeds out of pure luck or because of finding the mythical Mr. or Mrs. Right. If you want to make things better in your marriage, create measurable, attainable, specific, and time-limited goals. Focus on using a positive voice and write down perhaps five or 10 items in your relationship vision statement. An example is "for the next two weeks I intend to appreciate the little things you do for me by texting you a note of thanks at least seven times."
“Focus on using a positive voice and write down perhaps five or 10 items in your relationship vision statement.”
O – Overlook some rough edges to see your partner’s heart.
Your brain is naturally designed to detect problems—threats to your physical and emotional security—and in your intimate relationship this function of survival shows up as criticism of your partner. All couples get frustrated with one another and have areas of chronic disagreement called "gridlock." However, the most successful couples are able to focus on the traits of their partner they are most compatible with, treading softly on gridlocked topics. Remember: You can be right or you can be in a relationship.
U – Utilize self-compassion before giving it to your partner.
Some of us are born "pleasers" and tend to compromise easily to make peace with our partner. However, when you give to others habitually, perhaps even compulsively, it doesn’t feel real to our spouse. You end up feeling under appreciated as a result of giving something you didn’t really have much of to give in the first place. This can lead to your feeling resentful or acting in passive-aggressive ways. Make sure you find ways to meet your own needs and trust that being kind to yourself serves your partner as well, by making sure your tank is full.
R – Repair the easiest ruptures first.
When your house is on fire you may feel tempted to fight the flames in areas of most intense heat. Don’t make this mistake. According to important research about how successful couples juggle serious disagreement, the best way to conquer conflict is to focus on areas that have good chances of finding middle ground. It’s not easy to do, but forming the discipline of being consistently able to walk away from the temptation to escalate a disagreement into a battle is the best way to build long-term trust. Couples that have practice remaining cool about issues that are of monumental importance are able to remain credible and worthy of respect in the eyes of their partner. By choosing to focus on what is solvable now you invest in the possibility of creating enough trust and safety in your relationship for your spouse to stretch and grow—to take a risk—on the things that mean the most to you.
“Your brain is naturally designed to detect problems—threats to your physical and emotional security—and in your intimate relationship this function of survival shows up as criticism of your partner.”
A – Accept the smallest bids for connection.
When you’re feeling frustrated with your partner the last thing you usually want to do is show your softer side. However, researchers have carefully studied hundreds of hours of videotape of couples in heated conflict. What we learned from these studies is that successful couples willingly "let go of the rope" during tug-of-war arguments whenever the other partner lets go, even slightly. The result is that de-escalation happens easily and frequently—even if they’re really angry with one another. Couples that end up separating or ending their relationship aren’t able to do this. Instead, if one person says during an argument, "You know what? I shouldn’t have done what I did. I don’t want to fight anymore," their spouse doesn’t read this as a cue for de-escalation, but instead opens up a new quarrel.
G – Give better back.
Think of your marriage like an airplane with two engines—you and your husband or wife. At any given time one of you may not be totally yourself and strong emotions might take over, making you anxious, inflexible or fearful. Your "engine" begins to sputter and you stop contributing to the forward momentum of the marriage, but your relationship needs lift from somewhere. Where’s it going to come from? In these moments, as long as one of you is able to say "she needs me now, I can’t break down or we’ll lose altitude," your marriage will motor on, staying aloft. Neither one of you are perfect and you’re both going to flip your lid, be inconsiderate, or act selfishly at some point. Instead of giving back the negativity you’re getting from your partner, choose to give better back. Long-term, committed partnerships only work when both of you can take turns being the pilot, so to speak, taking on a leadership role for the sake of the relationship.
E – Experiment with doing the caring behaviors you’ve stopped doing.
When you first fell in love you were probably doing dozens of caring behaviors each day for each other. Gradually, as our idealized image of our partner is replaced with reality, we do fewer and fewer caring behaviors. If left in a relationship devoid of caring behaviors, we find other things or people to give us pleasure, making an emotional separation that often flowers into real separation. You can change this. Start remembering what your husband or wife likes and start doing it. If you can’t remember, ask!
“Start remembering what your husband or wife likes and start doing it. If you can’t remember, ask!”
Express C.O.U.R.A.G.E. on Valentine’s Day
Satisfied couples have habits that contribute to their longevity and happiness. It takes courage to implement these elements into your marriage, but the good news is that it’s never too late to form new habits—and this Valentine's Day is the perfect time to start.
Monica was discouraged when her husband answered his phone and walked away—just as she was about to announce her plan to work harder on their relationship. Instead of letting her feelings of rejection stop her, she waited until his call was over and took action. Her small act of courage didn’t allow negative feelings to ruin a chance to have a great Valentine’s Day.
"I think you’ll like Fifty Shades of Grey," Monica said to Will. I hear Dakota Johnson is naked a lot. Will’s smile dissolved the tension between them and made Monica laugh. They made it to the movie and saved their Valentine’s Day tradition. More importantly, they started a new habit of not letting their love for each other get cold.
Keith Miller, LICSW is the director of Keith Miller & Associates Counseling in Washington, DC. He specializes in both mindfulness psychotherapy and couples therapy and is the author of "Love Under Repair: How to Save Your Marriage and Survive Couples Therapy." His blog is called Love Good.