5 Habits for Successful Relationships
Myth: We shouldn’t have to work so hard on this relationship. If we have too much conflict and fighting, maybe we shouldn’t be together. Maybe it’s just not meant to be.
Fact: We can enhance our relationships with patience, understanding, empathy and a little work (we probably don’t have to “work so hard”, but we do need to actively care for our partner and our relationships).
We’ve learned a great deal about love and relationships over the past 2 decades. We know that a healthy and happy relationship or marriage is grounded in safety, security, and a true sense of caring and emotional support. Some of the information in this article is based on research findings by leading relationship experts and studies of marital satisfaction (John Gottman, Ph.D.; Dr. Sue Johnson; and others). We’ve also learned a lot about mindfulness – a very focused awareness of self and others – from important studies about meditation, the brain (“mind”), and mental health.
I’ve grouped these findings together with my own experience in working with couples over the past 30 years. Here are the 5 most important habits of marriage enhancement and relationship success:
1. Practice Loving Kindness
Love is a feeling – it’s also an action. Love is what we do when we practice acts of loving kindness. How often do you actively, mindfully show your love? We’ve learned that the happiest couples know each other deeply, and show respect and appreciation on a daily basis. Couples who are happily married after many years know each other’s “love maps” (John Gottman). Do you know your partner’s favorite color, book, or song? Love maps include preferences in music, movies, food, clothing, and many other interests and inclinations. These preferences include all areas of life, such as spiritual or religious beliefs, politics, and the more personal, intimate aspects of communication, affection, and sexuality. When we know our partner’s love maps, we can practice loving kindness on a daily basis – by recognizing and validating our partner’s needs and wishes.
* Create love maps (each partner writes a list of favorites or preferences – they share the maps with each other)
* Daily acts of loving kindness (love notes; massage; cards, flowers, and small gifts; and doing things for your partner that you don’t usually do)
* Daily gratitude exercise (each partner tells the other what they are grateful for; other variations include “What I love about you most today is ______”)
2. Connect, Respond, Empathize
In our busy, hectic lives, when we’re stressed out and overwhelmed with so many demands, it’s easy to neglect each other. When we have conflict and problems in our relationships, it’s normal to be frustrated, angry, and blame each other. These feelings can lead to distressing patterns of arguments, fighting, and distance (shutting down, avoidance, sulking). To keep the love alive, and to heal the emotional wounds, we need to connect with compassion and empathy. We feel safely attached to our partner when there is a loving connection – and when our partners are responsive, understanding, and empathetic. How do you demonstrate your love? How do you show your partner that you support them – that you’re truly there for them?
* Loving touch and hugs. Did you know that loving touch is necessary for good health, both physically and emotionally? Give hugs and get hugs every day – at least twice a day. Touch or caress your partner gently on a daily basis.
* Daily check-up (In the evening, at dinner, or before bed – tell your partner what you appreciate about them today, and what you most need from them. For example, “Thank you for calling me today. I would really like you to sit and have coffee with me in the morning.”)
* Listen actively with empathy (let your partner know you care by simply listening and showing emotional support)
* Actions speak louder than words (show you care with eye contact, touch, and a willingness to spend time together)
3. Practice Relationship Mindfulness
Mindfulness is the practice of focused awareness – awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. In mindfulness practice we pay complete attention to our present experience on a moment-to-moment basis. It’s an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and non-judgmental acceptance. We can also practice relationship mindfulness – focused awareness of our partner and our relationship. When we are mindful in relationships, we practice non-judgmental acceptance and compassion. We recognize and understand our feelings and reactions to each other. We create space and time for loving kindness and empathy.
* Loving Touch – Sit close together and take turns gently touching each other on the arms, hands, shoulders and back. Maintain a heightened and focused awareness of each position – being touched and touching.
* Loving Hugs – From a standing position, hug each other closely, bodies fully in contact, and focus first on your own breathing. Breathe naturally and normally. Then focus on your partner’s breathing. Gradually, extend your focus to the feelings in your body and your partner’s body. Maintain this hug for no less than 2-3 full minutes.
* Eye Contact – Stand or sit together, and look into each other’s eyes for 1-2 minutes. Tell each other what you felt – what feeling did you see or feel in your partner? After your partner tells you what they felt in you, tell them what you were feeling in yourself.
* Unconditional, Non-verbal Love – Stand or sit together, holding hands as you face each other. Decide who will go first (it’s suggested that the male partner go first). The first partner then sends unconditional love to his partner for about one full minute. No words are spoken – send the love silently through your eyes. Then reverse – she sends all of her love to him.
* Assume There Is Love – When things get rough – when there are disagreements, tension, and doubt about your partner or the relationship – go deep inside your heart and you will know if there is love. When we’re honest with ourselves, we have a deep knowing – we know if we truly love our partner, and if our partner loves us. So, when there is distress, anger, even alienation, assume there is love and act accordingly. For example, couples who say they are happily married after many years will say they still have fights – but they know they are loved, and they show their love for each other even during the fight (with a smile, a gentle touch, and taking responsibility for their own actions).
4. Turn Problems Into Solutions
With a little love and understanding, it’s much easier to find solutions to all kinds of problems. One reason for this can be understood by the “90-10 Rule”. Have you ever noticed that you tend to have the same argument over and over again? The content may be different each time – money, the kids, sex, household chores, etc. – but the argument sounds the same. The content of the argument is the tip of the iceberg – but 90% of the argument is under the surface. It’s not really about money, the kids, etc. – it’s about the feelings and underlying needs that are not being addressed. With some empathy and compassion, the conversation can dramatically change, and solutions to old problems tend to arise naturally and without distress.
* Begin with a soft start-up. Approach your partner with love and a true desire to find a solution together as partners. Start with something positive, like “Honey, can we talk about ____________?” (Instead of starting with a complaint or criticism.)
* Talk about your underlying feelings and needs – and show a true desire to understand your partner’s feelings and needs. The feelings are under the anger and blame (usually hurt feelings, anxiety or fear, not good enough, etc.).
* Each partner talks about the problem from the “I” position – “I am concerned about this problem. I’d like to see this kind of solution because ______.” The other partner listens carefully and shows understanding and appreciation for that position. Then the other partner talks about the problem and suggested solution from the “I” position, as above.
5. Create A New Dance
All relationships have patterns of interaction – often referred to as a “dance”. There are positive, neutral, and negative patterns. A positive dance is based in love, trust, and a feeling of mutual support. A neutral dance occurs when there is little emotion involved – for example, when you cook together and you both seem to know each other’s moves (and you don’t get in each other’s way!). A negative dance is distressing. Arguments, fights, and distancing are common dance steps. These negative patterns are generally
created by hurt feelings, and an emotional reaction – anger, blaming, complaints, and defensive reactions. A new, caring and compassionate dance can be created using the following steps:
* Identify the current, negative dance steps.
* Talk about the underlying feelings – the hurt, sadness, and fears under the anger. Empathize with each other’s feelings.
* Understand the needs that often drive the dance – a need for connection, a need to be heard and understood, and needs to be cared for, respected, appreciated, etc. Talk about these needs with understanding and compassion.
* Make a commitment to do it differently – let your partner know that you understand deeply, with loving kindness, their feelings and needs. And let your partner know that you are there and that you care.
These 5 keys to relationship enhancement can help almost any relationship to move from distress to success. Practice these exercises with patience, and remember to mindfully use forgiveness and gratitude every day. You will create the loving partnership you want and need. Please let us know your thoughts about this article. We’d love to hear from you!