Good relationships thrive when our ratio of positive to negative interactions is something like 5:1. And it’s not just your relationship that will flourish; you will feel the benefits on a personal level.
In the very initial stage of a relationship (aka the "honeymoon phase, or what I call the “merge” cycle), our hormones are flowing madly, and we see our partner as a source of wonder. We appreciate everything and can’t find enough ways to let them know it. We gaze, gift, surprise, touch and praise lavishly.
But when we cycle out of euphoria into ordinary daily life together that our elation is no longer there to fuel an active practice of mutual appreciation. More often than not, we start to find our partner irritating, annoying, even disappointing.
Is the solution to suck up grievances, shove any frustrations we feel under the rug, and slap on a happy face? Of course not. That kind of self-suppression and phoniness just creates another set of problems in a relationship. The approach to take is twofold:
1. Make sure that the lion’s share of your communication is positive.
If you’re a numbers person, you might think in terms of a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative exchanges. This might include sharing your day-to-day experiences, engaging in conversations about common hobbies or things you both enjoy, and taking an interest in what’s going on in your partner’s life. We can show appreciation not just in words, but also in a show of body language, touch and making love.
2. And when it's not, learn how to deliver a complaint skillfully and sensitively.
Because let me tell you: much of the time, the blame game underlies most common relationship challenges. The key is to communicate your needs in terms of you, not by finger pointing.
When our partner is quick to criticize (and does so frequently), we may experience a sense of destructive fallout. You may find yourself reacting in some of the following ways:
- You detach and pull away: If you assume you’re going to hear a litany of all the things wrong with you when you spend time with your partner, you’re likely to find ways to withdraw and shut down. This can have detrimental effects on your sex life: if you’re feeling constantly castigated by your partner, the last thing you want is to be more exposed to them, or to give them pleasure.
- You counterpunch: When you feel like you’re always wrong in your partner’s eyes, you build up a wall of resentment. You’re also likely to feel the need to defend yourself, so you start to take note of all the things they’re doing wrong. You develop your own list, and you have it at the ready to call out your partner’s own flaws and shortcomings.
Over the years that I’ve worked with couples, I’d say the most common "problem" I've diagnosed is that one or both members of the couple doesn't feel valued by their partner. And that's why I invite you to take what I'll call the 30-Day Relationship challenge, a simple practice to cultivate gratitude and appreciation for your partner.
The Rules Of The Game:
Given that it takes practice to form a new habit, consider the following "rules" ...
- Once a day, ask yourself this: What is it about my partner’s actions, words, or behavior that makes me feel grateful?
- Then once a day, ask yourself this second question: What can I do to show my appreciation?
Now do this every day, for 30 days. Try asking these questions as if through your partner's eyes. For example, if my partner were going to please me, he’d take me to dinner. If I wanted to do something for him, I’d cook something wonderful. What you give, in other words, should be something your partner would actually appreciate, because the gift is for them, not you.
Although we focus on our partner during this practice, we benefit too. In 2009, researchers at the National Institutes of Health looked at blood flow in different regions of the brain while the subjects of their study were expressing gratitude. The researchers noticed higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus, which controls body functions but also has a significant influence on metabolism and stress level. They also found that the neurotransmitter dopamine (the feel-good chemical) increased when the study participants expressed gratitude.
For some of us, criticism seems to come more naturally. We see what doesn’t work more readily than what does. But you can train yourself away from this seemingly automatic way of being. I did it: For years, my husband would spend an afternoon at work in our garden. At the end of the day, I didn’t see the planted veggies, the new flowerbeds, or the pruned trees. I saw the hose he hadn’t put away. Finally, I realized how skewed my vision was and was able to celebrate all the work he’d done, not the one thing he’d overlooked.
The good news is this: we can teach ourselves to notice what’s good and working well in our connection with other people. When we express our appreciation for those good qualities, we can even bring back some of those delicious feelings of amazement and luckiness that we felt when we first fell in love.
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