By: Keith Miller, MSW
If you want to improve your
relationship, you don't have to wait. Take a look at the following
suggestions I have that can make major shifts in your relationship.
Before you try to put these ideas to work, make sure to be patient
with yourself in the process. Change is possible in any
relationship, but it requires dedication and persistence. If you
have trouble implementing these principles on your own, consider
investing in marriage therapy.
Marriage improvement isn't always linear or clearly observed. Since
the unconscious agenda of committed relationships is to help us
finish growing up, don't expect it all to happen overnight. It is a
life-long journey. This being said, you can make a conscious choice
to start on this path, and I hope some of these ideas may lead the
1) Stop all forms of blaming, shaming, or criticizing your
partner. Criticism is the adult version of crying, our natural,
built-in distress signal that we used to get our parents' attention.
As adults, our infantile shrieking comes out as words and we believe
that inflicting our partners with pain will get them to meet our
needs. In reality, when you inflict pain on your partner, you make
it more difficult for her to stretch and accommodate your needs.
2) Don't wait for your partner to guess what you need. This
worked for us as infants. Our parents responded to our cries and
intuited what we needed. This is the definition of an unconscious
relationship. You won't get what you really need from your partner
unless you are willing to move into a conscious relationship; one in
which you say what you need without inflicting pain on your partner.
3) Do 3-5 caring behaviors for your partner every day with no
strings attached. 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
partner likes, and start doing it. If you can't remember, ask!
4) Close all exits. You open an exit in your relationship
when, instead of telling your partner what you need, you withdraw or
put your energy somewhere else. The relationship won't get better
until you put your energy back within its bounds. There are an
infinite variety of exits, but common ones are affairs, friendships,
work, religion, children, alcohol/drugs and hobbies. Discuss with
your partner how you can gradually commit to close your exits
5) Know thyself. Your partner may be pushing your buttons,
but how did your buttons get there in the first place? No matter how
much you may think that other people in your position would be hurt
by what your partner does, this thinking only diminishes your power.
Take ownership of the way your unique experiences in life have left
you hurt and reactive to certain things your partner does. Admitting
that you are sensitive in some areas will necessarily induce you to
become articulate about what you need rather than expecting someone
else to figure it out for you.
6) Remember that your partner is not an extension of you. We
fall in love feeling that we are one with our partner. It feels so
good that our brains literally get high. We thus minimize our
differences and forget that we are two totally separate people.
After the intoxication of romance predictably fades, the conflict we
encounter may be traced back to our definition of love as being
"when you see/do things my way." Learn from the wisdom of Kahlil
Gibran, who said in The Prophet, "…let there be spaces in your
togetherness. And let the winds of the heavens dance between you."
7) Let the sun go down on your anger. The old adage that you
have to resolve your differences before going to bed does not factor
in brain research that suggests otherwise. When you feel yourself
getting angry or frustrated with your partner, your body may be in
what is known as diffuse physiological arousal or DPA. Every major
system in your body gets prepared to fight, run, or freeze in place.
As social creatures we are genetically wired to mirror the emotions
of those around us, so DPA in one partner quite naturally triggers
DPA in the other. Bottom line: You won't improve your relationship
while in DPA. Both of you have to learn to notice your own arousal
levels and take responsibility to sooth yourself (and allow your
partner to do so without pursuing them). Take a break that does not
include ruminating about the issue that triggered the state of DPA.
Agree together when the break will be over before taking the break.
8) Become a good listener. It's amazing how people respond
more positively to you when you make them feel heard. Generally,
people relax and become more willing to do things for you. See if
you can notice the people in your life who make you feel heard. Pay
attention to what they are doing. You will likely find that real
listening is incredibly hard work and requires much discipline and
practice. The best (and hardest) tool to practice listening is
called mirroring. You may try casual mirroring at first; the goal is
for the person talking to not notice you are doing it. To do casual
mirroring, summarize out loud what you are hearing from your
partner; ask them if you are getting it correctly (and listen to any
clarifications), then invite them to tell you more. Do not interrupt
with your own thoughts until they tell you they have nothing more to
say. (This skill can work wonders when applied to someone
experiencing DPA because it is exceedingly difficult to argue with
someone that is trying to make you feel heard).
9) Receive attempts at repair. According to marriage
researcher John Gottman, couples who have long, successful
relationships are ones that notice and receive their partner's bid
for connection before, during and after arguments. If you hear your
partner say "you're right," or if she pays you a compliment, take
notice of how you receive it. Do you deflect, or outright reject,
these efforts to connect? According to Gottman, couples who are no
longer open to their partner's repair attempts may move predictably
into what he calls the "distance-isolation cascade," marked by
increasing withdrawal from the relationship. If you are harboring
unresolved hurt that makes it too difficult to accept your partner's
bid for connection, find ways to talk about it. If that is too
difficult, you need the help of a therapist.
10) Become the partner that you want to have. It's easier
said than done, but try to turn your critical eye from your partner
to you. Instead of complaining that your partner doesn't pay you the
attention you want, ask yourself, "If I were my partner, what kind
of attention would he want me to pay him?" Then try to do it. It's
the Golden Rule with a twist: Do unto others the way they would want
it done unto them. Notice it is not necessarily the way you would
want it done for you.
Keith Miller, MSW is a couples' therapist in Washington, DC. As a
Certified Imago Relationship Therapist he helps couples forge a
partnership of hope and grace in their life together. He is
available for individual and couples therapy. Contact him and read
more relationship articles at:
Counseling (Washington, DC) - Home.