Even the healthiest relationships have arguments. Frankly, I worry more about couples who never argue. When couples first start out, they tend to de-emphasize communication hiccups. Over time, if this continues, the lack of connection, growth, and understanding that comes from positive communication skills can begin to erode a couple's bond, leaving them feeling unfulfilled and even uncomfortable in the relationship.
On the flip side, some couples have been together for so long that they begin to swing in the opposite direction—judgment and jabs at each other become the norm, and affection and gentleness become forgotten relics of the past. Over time, it can feel like you're always in a bit of a sour mood when you're together, and it seems impossible to get back to that space of levity and romance from days past.
No matter how long you've been together, if you feel like there's a lot of bad energy in your relationship right now, here are a few powerful yet simple ways to move through these difficult moments and tense emotions:
1. The praise sandwich.
Most of us feel more comfortable offering praise than criticism. Yet, on a regular basis, it's the praise that falls by the wayside while we shoot off quick criticisms or reminders throughout the day. It's an easy pattern to find yourself in; most couples are so busy with work, social obligations, managing a household, or raising a family that they overlook what all those seemingly innocuous comments add up to over time: feeling unappreciated.
To offset this buildup of negative energy, try using a "praise sandwich" when you have a complaint and offer a bit of constructive feedback to your partner at the same time. For instance, "I love that you think ahead and make plans with our friends. We always have so much fun." Then mention what you'd like to be done differently: "Next time, before you buy tickets and invite people, can you let me check my calendar? I have such a hectic schedule that day, and it's going to be a stretch for me to get there in time." And follow that with another piece of praise: "I appreciate so much that you schedule social engagements. I love spending time with you and our friends."
Be brief, and try not to belabor the subject. No one enjoys a lecture. This approach makes it easier for you to address something you'd like to see change and makes it more likely your partner will hear you openly without taking the criticism personally.
2. Resentment clear-outs.
Like anything else, relationships naturally experience ebbs and flows. There are times when one partner feels like they are carrying most of the weight while the other seems to be floating along. There is nothing wrong with someone putting in most of the effort while their partner enters a graduate school program, starts a new job, or is managing difficult family matters. However, no one person can hold up a relationship by themselves for too long; it's not sustainable, nor is it healthy or fair. When someone feels like they have been caught in the role of keeping the pair afloat for too long, tension can build. Resentments tally up, and mild irritations begin to feel like major infractions.
Many are oblivious to these things until a conflict occurs, and words and emotions begin to spill out. By then, you and your partner are feeling defensive, and the ability to hear and be heard dwindles.
Try scheduling time to share thoughts or tough emotions you are withholding with your partner. It might look like sitting down over a cup of tea to take turns sharing. After one person expresses their grievances, set a timer for the other person to respond. Another approach is to write a letter introducing topics and feelings, and then set aside a time to speak. The idea is to be open, receptive, and ready to clear the way for understanding and problem-solving. When done on a regular basis, this habit can drastically reduce the kind of day-to-day bickering that leads to larger and more dramatic conflicts.
3. Laughing medicine.
If the issue doesn't seem to warrant a sit-down talk, bring a little lightheartedness to the situation. The bottom line is that you and your partner are friends. And good friends set aside their desire to vent and instead defuse the tension because they prioritize the relationship and their love over all else (even though they may not be feeling loving in that moment).
Rather than succumb to a moment's outburst (no matter how tempting it may be at the time), find a way to make it funny. Make an observation, reference an inside joke, or draw a parallel with something humorous you two experienced recently.
Turn it around and reframe your thoughts. Instead of focusing on the challenges in your relationship, try practicing levity. The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that some couples will never resolve certain topics, but that doesn't mean their relationship doesn't work or that they shouldn't be together. It's an issue that has the power to be divisive if they let it. There's always a choice to have a good laugh and draw closer together instead of harping on the negative.
Here's an example of how my husband Michael and I avoided a fight: Together with our youngest daughter, Abigail, we drove to Pennsylvania to visit our two middle kids at sleep-away camp. We had a great visit with our teenagers, but it was a very long day. Then the traffic on the way home was brutal; we were hot, grimy from the day, and hungry. Then Abigail got carsick. Is it any wonder that my Waze app navigator, Jane, started to get on my nerves? (In my defense, she's incredibly bossy.) Just as we were about to lose it, we discovered the "Boy Band" navigation voice setting, which sings directions at you. (Think of Justin Timberlake crooning, "Turrrrn left, turrrrrn left. In half a mile turn riiiiight, then turn riiiight." If you haven't tried it, I recommend it wholeheartedly and implore you to do so.) Michael and I also tried Hebrew and Farsi speakers, but boy band proved hard to top. The next thing I knew, we were laughing so hard that the long day was completely forgotten.
Be likable, and be a friend. Happy relationships rely far more on how much fun you have as a couple rather than successful conflict resolution. As Mark Twain said, "Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand."
4. Compliment practices.
In long-term relationships, we have a tendency to take one another for granted. But we should be doing the exact opposite. Sharing your gratitude for one another is one of the most effective ways to keep bad energy out of a relationship and keep the love growing. Everyone enjoys feeling appreciated, and when we do, we are more likely to listen, connect, and show concern for one another. The act of expressing gratitude also increases closeness.
Research tells us showing gratitude can foster greater feelings of attachment and satisfaction in couples. The benefits are not exclusive to the one receiving the appreciation; the people who share gratitude report feeling more physically, emotionally, and mentally connected to their partners, regardless of how long they've been together.
Try adopting a practice of sharing three things you appreciate about your partner at the end of each day. Over time you will find that the things you once fought over daily seem less significant, and your love for each other has become richer and stronger.
Relationships are gifts that can bring enormous blessings and happiness into our lives. When our day-to-day routines are laden with bickering and conflict, we can begin to disconnect from our partners, forgetting about the positive aspects that drew us toward them to begin with. Successful relationships are the result of being our authentic selves and by creating a space in which our partners can do the same. Small annoyances and miscommunications are normal between couples. Knowing how to move through them makes space for clear and honest communication—the key to relationship success.
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