How to Change the Emotional Climate of Your Relationship

Robert Taibbi

This information is drawn from my clinical experience and not from any other sources.

If you live with a partner, in a family, with roommates, or simply spend time around the same work colleagues day after day, you naturally generate your own emotional climate together. Like the weather, it’s something you can’t not notice—the tension your partner carries home after a hard day, the sugar-driven mania of your kids—and is often quickly changeable—the depressing morning staff meeting almost evaporates by the time you’re halfway through your lunch with a close friend or are surprised by a loving text from you partner. 

For many of the couples I see, the climate of their relationship is one of endless gloom—gray clouds of constant bickering, criticism, micromanaging; thunderstorms over whose reality is right; blizzards of discontent and disappointment that leave them socked in and isolated for days at a time. There is little sunshine. But while you can’t shape the weather, you can shape the emotional climate of your close relationships, which often becomes one of the goals of therapy treatments.

If you are living in a relationship where there is too little sunshine, here are some things you can proactively do to change it:

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Put chronic problems to rest

Often what’s dragging your relationship down are problems that are never solved. You argue, make up, and sweep the issue under the rug to avoid repeatedly restarting the argument. Over time, these problems are like landmines that you are constantly stepping around, creating constant tension. 

Ramp up the positives

Research has shown that couples need to have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments in their relationship to feel like it is positive. You may think you’re doing a good job with your 2:1 ratio, but your partner may say that you are always critical and complaining. To change the climate, you need to ramp it up. Notice the small things: thanks for taking out the trash, for bringing me a cup of coffee, making my lunch, taking time to listen to me debrief about my day. Notice and highlight those small things that other person is doing that show concern and appreciation for you.

Increase physical affection

We’re not talking about sex here, though sex may be part of the mix. More often, it is about quietly increasing those spontaneous hugs, that pat on the back, the squeeze of the knee, the snuggling on the couch while you’re reading the Sunday paper.

Do more together

This is about couple's time—sitting down with a glass of wine after the kids have gone to bed and talking about your day, planning now to do a family hike on Saturday afternoon, or taking an online class together. 

It’s all too easy for our lives to run on autopilot, and while some autopilot provides structure and stability, too much over the long term can kill intimacy and the positiveness you’re missing and need.

Create new memories

The two-hour walk in the woods or around the city may do it. So might a late-night spontaneous conversation about the meaning of life or ten-year goals. Or maybe you need to plan something different—deciding to stay home together for a holiday rather than doing that routinized twelve-hour drive to your parents—or something bigger—a breakout, bucket-list trip to Paris. 

The themes here are to actively solve problems; break out of the old routines; make your time as a couple a priority; notice, appreciate, and acknowledge the positives that slip by to offset the negatives that we are all so easily wired to focus upon. Be deliberate, be proactive.

You have the power to shape your own weather. 

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In my 45+ years of clinical practice, I've always found myself wondering: Where do individuals, couples, families get stuck running their lives, what do they struggle to do that gets in the way of their solving their own problems. Sometimes it is about communication skills, sometimes struggling with regulating emotions, sometimes being triggered by old wounds from the past. My writing focuses on concrete behavior -- what you can do to break old patterns, apply positive skills, and override those stuckpoints in your life.

Charlottesville, VA
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