In my practice as a psychotherapist, I love working with couples because, as the saying goes, there’s never a dull moment. I’ve had people yell so loud that therapists in adjoining rooms were concerned; I’ve seen couples start making out on the couch right in front of me or pull bizarre moves like answering phone calls or obsessively tying and re-tying their shoes in the middle of a partner’s emotional disclosure.
Couples therapy is tough, dramatic, tricky, and unpredictable. But we learn so much about ourselves in the context of relationships – they challenge us, poke at our soft spots, and bring out our vulnerabilities. And that’s a good thing.
Of course every relationship has its own quirks, but there are some tried-and-true principles that help lots of couples stay close and work through tough spots. Even if you and your partner are doing great, it can’t hurt to have some food for thought:
- Soften your start up: Easing into tough conversations is almost always more productive. Instead of kicking off a discussion with a criticism or a harsh negative tone, soften your approach – it’s less likely to put the other on the defensive. With a huge body of research, psychologist and marriage expert John Gottman has found a “soft start-up” to be a key component of healthy couples. Also keep in mind that a specific complaint, like “I really need more help folding laundry,” will get you further than a broad-sweeping accusation like “You never help around the house!”
- Don’t be afraid to fight: Infrequent fights aren’t always a good sign. Maybe one of you is conflict-avoidant, or doesn’t like to rock the boat (sound familiar?). Or the other person has a hard time tolerating anger. It’s a common dynamic, and it can lead to emotional distance, resentment, or the feeling that one person is stifling his or her own needs for the sake of the other or to maintain the peace. It’s important to know how to fight and be okay with making the other person upset or angry.
- Know what you’re really fighting about: It’s hard to catch yourself in the act, but sometimes when we bicker about one thing, we’re really upset about something else. That “something else” usually has to do with basic attachment needs like security, responsiveness, or safety. You might be arguing about who folds the laundry or whether the TV should be on, but you might be talking about bigger feelings, like can I count on you, are we a team, are you here for me?
- You don’t have to fix it, you just have to listen: Easier said than done. Lots of men and women feel the impulse to fix. It’s actually so much harder (but in the end, so much more helpful) when we can just listen and hear our partner, not put on our problem-solving hats. This takes practice and it helps to call each other out directly by saying “I just need you to listen right now” when the other person jumps to fix it mode.
- Silly is seriously helpful: One big secret of happy couples is that even though they fight, they know how to break the tension and communicate by making a funny face, saying something sarcastic (humorous and light, not critical). It’s not always appropriate to do this, but using humor to get your point across is a really helpful skill.
- Lead with empathy: How often do you say, “How are things going for you (with the kids, work, or elsewhere)?” We want our partner to be tuned in to our emotional needs, but it sets the tone if you’re the one to start. Get curious about how your other half is doing.
- Make it a priority to never stop getting to know each other: This goes hand-in-hand with the last point. Don’t stop trying to learn more about your favorite person, even if you’ve been together for a decade. Happy couples know a lot about each other – their histories, their likes and dislikes, and so on. We don’t stop changing and growing as people, so think of your relationship the same way.