How reflecting on your relationship this past year can help you in the future.

Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. Ph.D.

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For a stronger relationship in the new year, take a look at what went right last year.Aaron Burden/Unsplash

Before you start a new year with your partner, learn from last year.

To start building the life we truly want to lead, we have to first focus on what truly matters—and for many of us, that's our romantic relationship. Your romantic relationship impacts nearly every aspect of your life, so getting it right is critical.

As December winds down, we optimistically look ahead to the New Year as a chance to reset and renew. Unfortunately, the promises we make to ourselves often don’t stick. We may lack follow-through because our resolutions are built on a shaky foundation. The result is a wish list that’s mostly wishful thinking. Sadly, it’s not helpful. There has to be a better way, but how?

It would be simple if we knew ourselves and could leverage that insight. Unfortunately, we don’t know ourselves as well as we think (Vazire & Carlson, 2010). Similarly, you may not know your relationship as well as you think. When was the last time you truly looked at your relationship in an objective and analytical way?

To see things more clearly. You need to take an honest look at where you’re at now and your progress over the past 12 months. It’s time for a “Past Year Relationship Review.”(1) Think of it as conducting your own "Spotify Wrapped" for your relationship.

Here’s your chance.

  1. Find the Right Time. Timing is everything. Typically, you probably only sit and contemplate your relationship when things aren’t going well (e.g., after a fight). That’s not the best time, much like it’s not ideal to assess the state of your union right after an amazing anniversary celebration. Your mood not only impacts how you perceive others, but the amount of effort you’re willing to put into those assessments (Ziegler, 2014). Instead, review your relationship when you’re feeling as neutral about the relationship as possible. Objectivity and clarity are the goals. Don’t start from a biased place where you’re being too hard or too forgiving of your relationship.
  2. Don't Take the Good for Granted. There are plenty of great things in your relationship. But they’re easy to miss in our chaotic day-to-day lives. In your review, you’re going to take the time to catalog all the good stuff, the positives, the fun times, the ways your partner made you feel valued, supported you, and helped you grow as a person in the last year. If you need reminders, look back through texts, social media posts, and pictures. Reread birthday or anniversary cards. Remind yourself why you fell in love with this person and of all the good that’s transpired in your relationship. Remember, the good stuff doesn’t have to be an amazing trip or an expensive gift. It can be the quiet moments of love, support, and a stable, reassuring presence. Research from 2020 shows that partner’s support during the positive experiences helps make them feel more like a couple, which enhances their relationship’s long-term well-being (Pagani et al., 2020).
  3. Review Your List: What Are You Thankful For? You need to do more than just note what’s good. Rather, you need to have an attitude of gratitude. Most of the time we casually overlook all that we have. But appreciation is important. A recent meta-analysis confirmed that people who express more gratitude report greater well-being (Portocarrero et al., 2020). Step back and take a moment to be grateful for all the ways your relationship and your partner enhance your life, support you, care for you, accept you, and help you to improve. Finding problems is easy, but seeing what’s going right in your relationship takes some effort. There’s a lot there if you take the time to notice.
  4. Apply the 80/20 Rule. Also known as the Pareto Principle, the 80/20 rule states that 80 percent of the outcomes come from only 20 percent of the inputs (Pareto, 1896). In business, this means that 80 percent of sales come from 20 percent of the customers. In your relationship, 80 percent of what benefits you as a couple comes from 20 percent of the effort you put in. Use this to your benefit by identifying that 20 percent. For every five things in your relationship that are going well, what’s the one that yields the most positives? Find those high-leverage activities, and make sure they’re a bigger part of your relationship going forward. Be more efficient. Do more with less by focusing on the most reliable ways to benefit your relationship.
  5. Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself. In your quest to put together your relationship’s past year's greatest hits, you’ll inevitably stumble upon some less-than-stellar moments. Relationships aren’t always easy, so lowlights happen right alongside the highlights. Be careful to not overreact. It’s all too easy to succumb to a negativity bias where we pay more attention to what’s wrong, especially when evaluating others (Amabile & Glazebrook, 1982). When you do find problems, take the opportunity to recognize their triggers so you can lessen their impact going forward. Also, recognize that no relationship is perfect, and even the best relationships benefit from improvement.

Full disclosure: There’s no research (that I know of) that directly assesses the effectiveness of this exact type of end-of-year relationship review. That said, there is abundant research on the benefits of writing about our experiences (e.g., Pennebaker, 2018). We also know that telling one’s life story relates to well-being (Baerger & McAdams, 1999) and that self-reflection is an important part of development (Ardelt & Grunwald, 2018).

But to really see the benefits of self-reflection, we need to visit a call center (Di Stefano et al., 2016). There, researchers found that when employees took 15 minutes at the end of the day to reflect back on their day, they were 23 percent better at their jobs. It seems the intentional review provides new insights and makes people feel better prepared for the future. Who wouldn’t want that for their relationship?

Ultimately, a “Past Year Relationship Review” is about finding what works, relishing it, emphasizing it, and using it to foster further improvement. Relationships take work, but you want to make sure your effort focuses on the right areas. Lean into the good, while leaving out the bad.

Footnote

(1) The idea of a “Past Year Relationship Review” was inspired by Tim Ferriss and his “past year review.” I used his premise as a jumping-off point; I applied it to relationships and expanded it a bit, relying on research along the way. This idea is also similar to Spotify CEO Daniel Ek's "mental closing of the year," where employees look back on the year to discuss their successes and areas of improvement.

References

Amabile, T. M., & Glazebrook, A. H. (1982). A negativity bias in interpersonal evaluation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 18(1), 1–22.

Ardelt, M., & Grunwald, S., (2018). The importance of self-reflection and awareness for human development in hard times. Research in Human Development, 15, 1-13.

Baerger, D. R., & McAdams, D. P. (1999). Life story coherence and its relation to psychological well-being. Narrative Inquiry, 9(1), 69–96.

Di Stefano, G., Gino, F., Pisano, G. & Staats, B. R. (2016). Making experience count: The role of reflection in individual learning. Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 14-093 http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2414478

Pagani, A. F., Parise, M., Donato, S., Gable, S. L., & Schoebi, D. (2020). If you shared my happiness, you are part of me: Capitalization and the experience of couple identity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(2), 258–269.

Pareto, V. (1896). Cours d’Economie politique. Droz, Geneva.

Pennebaker, J. W. (2018). Expressive writing in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 226–229.

Portocarrero, F. F., Gonzalez, K., & Ekema-Agbaw, M. (2020). A meta-analytic review of the relationship between dispositional gratitude and well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 164.

Vazire, S., & Carlson, E. N. (2010). Self-knowledge of personality: Do people know themselves? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(8), 605–620.

Ziegler, R. (2014). Mood and processing effort: The mood-congruent expectancies approach. In J. M. Olson & M. P. Zanna (Eds.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 49.(pp. 287–355). Elsevier Academic Press.

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Dr. Gary W Lewandowski Jr is the author of Stronger Than You Think: The 10 Blind Spots That Undermine Your Relationship…and How to See Past Them. His TED talk and relationship articles have been enjoyed by over 6 million people.

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