Ten Tips from a NOLA Couples Therapist
There are so many reasons why love is important. Love is important for human connection and support. Our partners can support us, help us to grow and experience joy with us at different stages of our lives.
In my work with couples, I have found these ten things to be essential to a healthy relationship.
1. Learn to fight differently
Everyone has conflict. Conflict is normal. We all have ways that we are inherently different from our partners. Maybe one person is a spender and one is a saver. Perhaps one of you is organized and the other is not as good at organization. Maybe you have different parenting perspectives. These are not the things that actually cause the issues. What causes damage in our relationships is the way that we navigate our differences. Do you yell? Do you name-call? Do you shut down? Researcher John Gottman found that there were 4 ways that couples damage relationships the most and he calls these the 4 horsemen:
- Stonewalling (shutting down) or tuning your partner out
- Contempt (sarcasm, name-calling, making verbal jabs)
We typically engage in the 4 horsemen when we are flooded with emotion or in fight or flight. This is when our bodies are in physiological arousal. When we are in this mode, we cannot be productive. This is when we are most likely to damage our relationships. In healthy relationships, couples can recognize this type of communication and stop it in its tracks.
2. Listen to understand
Everyone wants to be understood. When our partners are talking, many of us get so caught up in our responses that we aren’t actually listening to our partners. One of the best things that we can do for our relationships is to truly listen to what our partners are trying to convey to us instead of focusing on our response. Next time your partner is talking to you, try to be really present and repeat back what you heard them say. This increases connection in our relationships
3. Create safety in your relationship.
When a relationship is safe, it changes everything. If a person believes that their partner will listen non-defensively to them, this creates a feeling of safety. We have to have safety in order to build other parts of our relationship. Safety is the foundation through which everything else is built. In order to have a safe relationship, you have to be willing not to escalate, no matter what. This means taking a break if a conflict arises. It also means learning how to regulate your own emotions. When we know how to take care of ourselves and our own emotions, it helps us to create a safe relationship.
4. Get into couples therapy before there is a crisis.
Couples therapy does not have to be a reaction to a crisis. It often is. However, it is smart to have a couples therapist on board that you can utilize during stressful times or as needed throughout your life. Couples therapy can also be a proactive way to stay connected and healthy.
5. Notice your partner’s bids for connection.
A bid for connection is when your partner moves towards you in some way. It is common for us to miss our partner’s bids for connection. A bid for connection can be expressing interest, words of affirmation, a gesture, or a question. Here are some common ones:
- How was your day?
- I love you
- Let’s go for a walk
- Can we watch a show together?
- Tell me about your interview
So next time your partner asks about your day, recognize it as an invitation for connection.
6. Catch your partner doing something right.
In his research, doctor John Gottman studied couples in his love lab. Through his research, he separated couples into master couples and disaster couples. Couples often make the mistake of not thanking their partners for things that they believe they ‘should’ be doing anyway. One of the things that master couples do is scan their environment for the positive. They build a culture of appreciation in their relationship. Sometimes we are so busy pointing out the negative that we miss opportunities to point out the things that are going well.
So remember to say:
- Thank you for bathing the kids
- Thank you for picking up that meal
- You were really kind this morning
- You planned an awesome meal
7. Successful couples repair often and quickly.
A repair attempt is any action that you take to de-escalate a situation after a conflict. A repair can be I’m sorry, I love you, or let me rewind. Repair builds connection.
8. Process arguments without getting back into the argument.
One of my favorite couples therapists Elizabeth Earnshaw talks about how to do this:
“Set aside time to process the argument. Do this without getting back into the argument. You are going to process what you observed happening. Say something like, I noticed when we talked about that I felt really sad and I found myself distancing from you. Next, talk about how to make it differently next time.”
9. Successful couples accept influence from each other.
In healthy relationships, couples are open to hearing opinions and feedback from their partners. We can be open without agreeing with each other. When we empathize with our partners, we are more likely to find a solution that honors both parties.
10. Successful couples create shared meaning.
In his research, John Gottman found that successful couples had shared meaning.
Here are some ways that we can create shared meaning:
- When we talk about our shared dreams, this can bring us closer. Remember to be curious and talk about your hopes and dreams together. Ask your partner what their dreams are and spend time talking about your hopes and dreams.
2. Carve out time to be together and spend time together.
3. Implement shared goals together such as gardening, working on the house, or traveling with your children.