Happy New Year 2022!
Consider the marriage vow you never took: When a pandemic comes in the future and you are required to be in quarantine with your partner and your future children (who will be home from school), do you accept that you will drive each other crazy and commit to summoning up your best self to ignore those small annoying habits that will make you cringe, and read all those articles on how to enhance your relationship that will have been building up on your nightstand?
After almost two years of unprecedented challenges in this global pandemic, many relationships have been stressed to the max. There’s never been a better time to reflect on what can create the most resilience in your relationship. Along with your commitment to spend more time exercising and eating healthier, here are some suggestions for making a positive impact on your relationship.
1. Share an Appreciation Every Day
Sharing what you appreciate can accomplish what a hundred conversations can’t. Undoubtedly, things cross your mind that your partner has said or done that mean a lot to you. Small and large. It’s likely you don’t always express them. Sharing what pleases you can perform small miracles in how the atmosphere feels between the two of you.
Simple expressions such as, “I appreciated you patiently listening to me about my work frustrations,” or, “I appreciated how welcoming you were to my parents when they visited,” or “I appreciated your text telling me you love me today,” easily bring warmth and smiles.
A note of caution: It can be tempting to say, “I really appreciate you remembering to pick up the dry cleaning, ‘cause I usually have to remind you several times.” Your partner will only hear your complaint. A simple “thanks for making the coffee this morning - perfect timing - I’m so short on time” will bring warmth and a smile. And probably more coffee.
2. Create a Powerful Minute, Three Times a Day
This is an important ritual that does wonders for creating and maintaining a feeling of connection. When you leave in the morning – or go to your work station in the next room, seek each other out for a hug and offer warm wishes for the day. Try to make the hug last at least 20 seconds.
When you arrive home at the end of a workday, greet each other with a smile and a hug. If you’re home first and sitting at your computer or cooking dinner, pause what you’re doing, get up from your seat. Even when you’ve never left home to work these days, mark the end of the workday with a hug. The air kiss or shout from the other room doesn’t qualify. If your kids are all over you, find each other soon after.
Do this same ritual when you turn in for the night. If you go to bed earlier than your partner, find them first for that hug goodnight.
Having had a tough day, not feeling like it, or in a rush are not reasons to stray from this ritual. If you greet your partner with a heavy “hello” with your tales of woe written all over the tone of your voice, your partner will feel anxious, not knowing what’s up. The details of your bad day may be important to share, but not in the tone of your voice when you first greet each other. You don’t really want your partner to bear the brunt of your bad day. Save that conversation for later - let each other know you’re glad to see them first.
These powerful minutes, three times a day are crucial in protecting your bond with each other and creating a relationship space that feels safe, connected and loving. Isn’t this what it means to be “home?”
3. Listen. Really Listen
Really listening is listening without interrupting, until your partner is finished (not just until the end of the sentence). It’s asking questions to make sure you fully understand before you respond. Let them know you heard them, even if you disagree or have a different spin.
Good communication is about listening, not talking. When conflict is afoot, it’s the hardest time to really listen. It’s also the most important time. On a good day, you might hear 80% of what your partner said, on a more typical day, maybe 60%. Many misunderstandings continue because you’re already preparing your response while attempting to listen at the same time.
4. Make Your Partner Your Priority.
Having been thrown together with your partner in closer quarters than ever before, and without many of your usual pastimes available, may still be feeling like a pressure cooker. We tend to be comfortable in acknowledging our need for independence and time apart from one another. We don’t tend to be so aware of our discomfort with closeness. And now you’ve been close, physically anyway. Balancing our need for autonomy and our need for closeness is a dance we do.
This is the perfect time to become of aware of how vulnerable you feel, both in relation to the ongoing uncertainty of Covid-19 and to being too-close-for-comfort with your partner. It’s the perfect time to build a tolerance for feeling vulnerable, so that all your defensive maneuvers - read snarky comments, being grumpy, withdrawn - can soften.
Many people don't really know what it means to form a committed partnership. After all, who had any relationship education?? In our culture we prize individuality. This doesn’t seem to shift easily when people couple up. It’s a huge transition from two “me’s” to an “us”. Being committed partners means that your job is to keep the other feeling safe and secure. This means prioritizing your relationship and protecting it from outside forces that pull you away.
Your experience in the early - and infatuated - part of your relationship doesn't offer foreshadowing either. During infatuation you prioritize your relationship above sleep, laundry, paying your bills, and you easily tolerate the fact there's no food in your refrigerator. Fast forward and the lack of food in the fridge leads to incriminations with at least one partner sensing they've stepped onto a minefield.
Being partners means if one person is distressed, both work together to find a solution. All too often you might think, “they’re going to have to figure that one out” because you see it as their issue. Or “they’re in a mood, so I’ll leave just leave them alone (until they perk up).” The brutally honest thought is more likely, “I feel helpless because I don’t know how to help you, so I’m backing away from you so I can get away from my discomfort.”
Partnership is about staying in connection and being part of the solution. It’s about asking, “You seem down, what’s up?,” followed by, “What do you need?” or “How can I help?” Being “all in” is what sustains your relationship.
5. Speak Your Partner’s Love Language
The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman contains a real pearl of wisdom - what makes us each feel loved and cared for is not universal. Just as what floats your boat doesn't necessarily float mine, the same is true for how we express caring for our partners.
Do you ever think to ask, "What do you need from me that would let you know I love you?" More likely, you do unto your partner as you'd like them to do unto you. You're speaking to them in your love language, not theirs. Those things you say are nice, but they may be longing for that quality time with you. You're missing the target.
What makes you feel loved?
These descriptions of Chapman’s five languages may help answer that question:
Words of Affirmation. These people appreciate the spoken word.
Acts of Service. Actions speak louder than words. This means doing things you know your partner would like you to do.
Physical Touch. This includes sex for some, and for others it may mean affectionate touch.
Quality Time. This means undivided attention, not just being in the same air space.
Receiving Gifts. The kind that you can touch, perhaps wrapped up in a box with a bow!
When you speak to your partner consistently in their love language, it’s amazing what transformation can happen. Your tendency to feel defensive dissipates. Fights just don’t happen as much and a spirit of generosity grows.
6. Spend Quality Time
How high on your list of priorities is spending quality time with your partner?
The lives of most families have been upended during this time of Covid. What were already very busy lives have been brought to the brink by seemingly impossible demands. With all the blurred lines between work and personal time, and kids underfoot while trying to work, it’s amazing that families functioned at all. Most likely you have little down time, little sex, and an overall lack of fun and relaxation. And this may have been true before the pandemic.
Sometimes it appears that other couples seem like they're juggling all this just fine. Do you feel something is wrong with you for not figuring this out better? Or do you buy the idea that ‘marriage is just like that, get used to it?’ Unfortunately, what's 'normal' is that many couples are not doing so well. This 21st century uber lifestyle carries a lot of stress. What gives way is the relationship - yet it's the relationship that is seen as the culprit.
Consider the following:
Does your partner have your undivided attention at dinner or is your phone part of the 'conversation'?
Is the TV always on when you eat a meal together or when you’re going to bed - or just on most of the time?
Do you bring your full presence to the time you do spend together? If it’s distracted time - texting, email, online videos - you might as well not be there. This time doesn’t go on the list as “time spent with partner.”
Invite your partner to spend time with you. Find activities you can both enjoy. This has been harder during the pandemic as many favorite activities have been prohibited. Nevertheless, simple ones are close at hand – a walk, hike, cooking, playing a game. Bigger ones are fun to plan for in a future not in the grips of Covid – a day trip out of town, tickets to a show, travel, socializing freely.
7. Repair Your Arguments
It’s never too late to repair arguments, even ones from long ago. Whatever happened way back when often keeps showing up in current tensions. Without a solid attempt at repair, hurt feelings are added to the underground heap, lying in wait for the next match to ignite.
Repair starts with an apology. Even if you think you only contributed two percent to the argument, you can make an apology. It’s an apology without an explanation. Not explaining yourself can be very hard. “I’m sorry I was so harsh,” followed by “I was just so upset by what you said,” pretty much cancels out any apology.
There may well be a good reason to have a fuller conversation about what happened. It doesn’t belong in the apology. Apologizing opens up the possibility that later you can listen and step into your partner’s shoes to understand – once you’ve allowed your nervous system to settle down. This is when things start to make sense.
8. Physical Touch is Bonding
This special bond of physical touch provides a lot of the glue in your relationship. It’s also a crucial part of creating a vibe and connection in which problems don’t become bigger problems.
Prolonged hugs, a casual arm slung over their shoulder, an affectionate swipe across their back as you pass by are ways to make your partner feel connected. An element of flirtation in the air and showing enthusiasm for each other in all ways creates a spark of closeness.
The Bottom Line
Getting back on that track of enjoying each other isn’t about the stars aligning just right. It’s about attending to your relationship in an active way. It does take effort to make sure your partner feels safe and secure with you. Deliberate daily attention, really listening to each other, repairing arguments, expressing appreciation are essential. Physical touch is both pleasurable and bonding. Some of these might be outside your comfort zone. Outside of that zone is also where you find excitement and fulfillment. And the feeling of being home.
Happy New Year 2022!