In our nonstop worlds, it can be a challenge to carve out time for our relationship.
Valentine’s Day can be a great reminder of the value of time together but we owe it to ourselves (and our partners) to maintain focus on our relationship well beyond February! Below are some practical ideas for how to make this happen in your relationship
Don’t just love them; like them!
One tip for relationship success is to cultivate friendship with your partner. Both men and women alike correlate quality of friendship with satisfaction with intimacy and closeness.
Also, friendship aids a process called “Positive Sentiment Override” which means we’re able to let go of the annoyances and frustrations towards our partner because we think they’re overall good and worthwhile. Friendship can be cultivated through some simple practices:
Set aside time to ask each other open-ended questions, or questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. Open ended questions allow for deeper than surface level conversations with your loved one. Some examples include:
“Where would you vacation if you could go anywhere?”
“What is the best show/movie/documentary that you’ve seen recently and what did you like about it?”
“When do you feel most connected to me? What is it that I do that makes you feel loved/admired/appreciated?”
“Who do you most admire and what trait is it that you strive for?”
Find a hobby or activity that you and your partner enjoy doing together and can develop at the same time. For my wife and I, it’s going to the gym. For other couples, it could be an art class, wine tasting, bike riding, escape rooms, bird watching—whatever you and your partner are interested in. The point is less the activity and more the time together deepening your quality time together and your friendship.
Make time for microdates together. We don’t need a candlelit dinner at a French restaurant to connect with our partner and for those of us with kids, it’s a good thing--we’d be long overdue for that dinner! As relationship expert John Gottman (2018) puts it:
“We know it’s the small, positive things done often that make a true difference in relationships…too often, date night becomes a random, freak act of nature—when the twin fates of childcare and work schedules align to give them a respite from an endless ‘to-do’ list”.
Microdates can be just as meaningful as long as we’re present with one another and are enjoying one another’s company. Examples of microdating could include:
Going to the grocery store together
Doing the dishes
Sitting outside together
Another crucial factor in successful relationship is communication but this goes beyond the “I feel statement”.
Communication starts with seeing your partner as an individual person worthy of respect. Martin Buber (1923, 2004) called this an “I/Thou Relationship”.
We have little trouble regarding ourselves as “I’s” meaning that we know our thinking, feeling and behaving is nuanced and unique. During times of successful communication, we acknowledge that those we’re communicating with are of equal complexity and accept that they will have differing (not necessarily “wrong”) viewpoints.
In contrast, Buber describes an “I/It Relationship” in which the other person in the conversation has been reduced to an object only to serve the other. Think of an aggressive customer at a restaurant berating a server for not getting their order right. This customer is not taking into account that the server may have other things on their mind, may have made a simple mistake, may have misheard the customer or may not even be the cause of the issue! Instead, the customer is regarding the server as an “It” that failed to fulfill its responsibility (i.e. get the right order to them). We see examples of this in everyday life—people barely acknowledging one another in public, adults negating or dismissing a child’s complaint or worry, partners arguing until they’re exhausted because they’re both so clearly “right” and the other just won’t see it!
Maintaining the “I/Thou Relationship” while talking to your partner is crucially important to successful communication. Researcher and speaker Brene Brown uses the phrase “the story I’m making up” to ground herself to a healthy regard for her other and to convey the desire to know what’s really meant by the other, instead of being defensive, accusatory or “right” (Brown, 2015).
In a relationship, arguments aren’t necessarily a bad thing and the absence of arguments is not necessarily a good thing. Moreover, the way a couple argues matters. Gottman (2015) identifies factors that mean certain doom for communication within relationships as well as four remedies we can all learn and practice. The communication missteps include:
Defensiveness, or shifting blame from yourself to your partner.
Contempt, or negative regard for your partner; even superiority over your partner.
Criticism, or pervasive negative comments about your partners character/personality.
Stonewalling, or shutting down in an argument. Becoming dispassionate/disconnected.
As a remedy for these communication traps, the following are recommended:
Avoid the harsh startup. It’s a tough sell to start a conversation with “we need to talk”. A gentle start is an invitation and an acknowledgment that the conversation (and the person behind it) is important to you.
Remind yourself of your partner’s positive traits. Nurture fondness and admiration—even during conflict.
Practice physiological self-soothing. Take a break. Take a breath. Take a bit of perspective. No conversation needs to be settled immediately. If it’s important, it can wait until cooler heads prevail.
Take responsibility for your wrongdoings and practice acceptance towards your partner’s different (but not “wrong”) viewpoint.
The concepts written about by Gottman, Brown and others are beyond the scope of this blog post, but I’d encourage you to look into some of the great resources mentioned here if your relationship could use a boost.
Happy Valentine’s Day (everyday)!
References and Recommended Reading
Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead”. Random House: New York.
Buber, M. (1923, 2004). I and Thou. Continuum: London.
Gottman, J. (2018). Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Workman Publishing: New York.
Gottman, J. (2015). The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. Harmony Books: New York.