ladybugsIf you were to guess what men would say they want more of in a relationship, what would you guess? ladybugsSex? Actually, according to research done by C. Northrup, P. Schwartz and J. Witte, and written about in The Normal Bar, it is communication. For men in unhappy relationships, they were asked to choose from nine answers. Sex was not their number-one wish. The top wish was for communication, then affection, and sex was in third place. Complaints weren’t all that different for unhappy women, whose list had communication first, affection second, and then financial stability in third. For happy couples, both women and men said they wished for nothing to be in first place (in other words, all their needs were met!), then there was a tie between sex for men and communication for women, in second place.

couple engaged in a conversationcouple engaged in a conversationSo, for both men and women, communication tops the list of what we want more of in our relationships. Happy relationships, when they are working well, have plenty of this, and we lack for nothing. When things aren’t optimal, we crave more communication. The art of intimate conversation, then, is the key to a better relationship. Check out earlier blogs on how to communicate effectively to buff up on these skills (How to get rid of criticism and defensiveness, A simple listening exercise to help you become a great listener, and Contempt, the battery acid). Make sure there are plenty of moments in your life together as a couple when you take time to foster good communication. This is not just talking about good things, though this is important, but also about things that aren’t perfect. Finding ways to keep communication flowing in gentle ways with one another is the best way to make sure the engine of your relationship has all the oil and gas it needs to run smoothly for the long haul. This takes some time and attention, but it is worth it.

image with quote: 'Many say they are ending a relationship because the ‘fire has gone out…’   But here’s my question: When you run out of gas, do you abandon the car?  Or do you fill the tank?' —Anonymous

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If your partner has ever driven you nuts, you know what I mean when I say, “I’m allergic!” What are some “epi pen” solutions?

  1. catTake a break. When things get a bit too heated, taking a break is a must! Take at least 30 minutes to calm down, doing something that takes your mind off your partner (take a walk, listen to music, take a bath, watch cat videos, etc.).cat Make sure to make a pact with your partner (ahead of the need for a break) to come back together and talk after you both are calm, so that there is no one left hanging with unfinished business.
  2. Meditate/Relax. There is research to indicate that consistent meditation practices help us stay more calm during stressful situations as this builds up our ability to be calm in general.
    meditating and relaxingmeditating and relaxingHere is a quick meditation/relaxation exercise: 1) Slowly take two deep breaths in and out, from deep in the belly. 2) Slowly check in with the five senses (hearing, sight, smell, taste, sensation of the skin) with eyes gently closed or with a soft focus (not looking at anything in particular), taking two slow deep breaths in between each sense. 3) Gently tense and relax major muscle groups in the body (squinch up the face, shrug the shoulders up, tense the arms out in front, tighten abdominal muscles, arch back, tighten leg muscles), doing so twice each area before moving on. 4) Take two deep slow belly breaths. 5) For a few minutes, release focus and let thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, etc., pass by as in thought bubbles that float away. Each time you realize you are focusing on something, let it float away in a thought bubble. 6) Take two deep and slow belly breaths and open your eyes (if closed) when you are ready.  
    I recommend practicing something like this twice a day for at least 10 minutes each, with the goal of twice a day for twenty minutes. This exercise is ideal to practice when you need that break.
  3. Put the situation into context. When things are calm, make a list of wonderfuls that you love about your partner. Pull this out when it’s hard to remember anything good about the relationship. No one is perfect, and any time we partner up, there will be inevitable differences that will rub up against one another. When your partner is particularly irritating, having a way to remind ourselves of the qualities that we love or depend on can help us change perspectives a bit, as in, “Yes, when they do that it drives me nuts, but I couldn’t live without their       (sense of humor, dependability, etc.).” 

All of this does not mean that there are situations or relationships that need to be addressed with professional help, or relationships that need to be re-evaluated due to safety, but most of us have run into moments with our partners that are just plain irritating. When this happens, taking a break and having the other two actions in your resource bag can make a huge difference!

StonewallingStonewalling

For those of you keeping track, taking a break relates to the Fourth Horsemen, stonewalling (when one partner shuts down, either due to flooding and/or attempting to manage a very stressful situation). When one partner shuts down and/or is too upset to interact usefully, it is time to take a break and then be committed to come back together in a calm moment to address whatever concern needs to be addressed.

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Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - woodcut by A. DürerIf you’ve ever heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, you know they mean trouble. In the book of Revelation of the Christian bible these were folks on horses you never wanted to see coming your way: war, famine, plague, and conquest. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - woodcut by A. DürerIn relational terms, Dr. John Gottman identified four interactional patterns in his research with couples that can spell doom for relationships if they run rampant and he called them the Four Horsemen. So these are four things you want to make sure are not a part of your relationship. I’ve talked about Contempt in a prior blog. Contempt is one to get rid of entirely as it is the one most strongly linked to divorce.

Today I want to introduce you to another two, criticism and defensiveness. This unlovely pair is like a match set and generally go together. Let’s say I bring up an issue with my husband by saying, “You never do any dishes around here!” If you heard this coming your way, how might you react? Maybe with defensiveness? This is why these two are linked. Criticism is bringing up an issue or complaint in such a way as to point the finger at the other person. Usually there are global statements involved, like “You always,” or “You never.” You might be thinking to yourself, “Well, it’s true! There are dirty dishes in the sink as we speak!” It is important to talk about complaints we may have. Bringing up issues is necessary in all relationships. It’s the way we do this that is important. The antidote to criticism is bringing up an issue using this formula: “I feel       about      .  I need      .” You may recognise this as an I statement, and you’d be right! “I feel irritated that there are dishes in the sink. I need some help around the house” is a much better way of bringing up those nasty cruddies over there. Using an I statement does not guarantee a successful conversation, but at least it gets the conversation going in a more gentle way.

Criticism and defensivenessCriticism and defensiveness

Defensiveness comes in at least a couple of different forms. When I feel attacked (maybe even when I may not be under attack), I will likely be defensive and may respond with, say, a counter attack. When I hear, “You never do the dishes!” I might respond with, “Well, you never water the plants!” Or I may respond with taking an innocent victim stance (the whiny option), “I didn’t know I was supposed to do the dishes! No one ever tells me things around here!” The antidote to defensiveness is taking responsibility, even for a small part of what is being discussed. For instance, in the example of the dishes, “I saw those dishes in the sink, and it would have been better for me to do them, but I was running late for work this morning, so they didn’t get done.” I once worked with a couple who had been working on getting rid of the four horsemen. One week, one partner said that things had gone better, but couldn’t put their finger on why. It turned out that their partner had decided to work on being non-defensive in their responses. It felt like magic! When one partner felt that their partner had heard them, the tone of the conversation changed and they were able to talk about what needed to be discussed in a calm and productive way.

If we have the habit of being critical and defensive, it might take some time to begin doing things differently, but it is so important to do so! No one wants to live with impending doom! If it feels like this is the case in your relationship, take a look at the way your conversations start, how you respond to one another, and work on talking about things differently. If this proves too hard to do on your own, consider attending a workshop or working with a therapist on practicing different ways to communicate.

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Pizza always in the wayPizza always in the way

I’ve mentioned date night a few times in my blogs, but it is worth spending a little bit more time on it. One of the big differences between couples who have great relationships and those who don’t is that the former continue to date one another throughout their relationship. Dating isn’t just important for starting a relationship, but for making it shimmer throughout the rest of your life! But once you know someone, you might think, why date? Would you be surprised to hear that having good dates leads to greater satisfaction in the bedroom? If you’ve been following along in my blogs, this shouldn’t be a shock. The research has shown that a strong friendship is related to satisfaction with romance, passion, and sex in relationships. Continuing to date on a weekly basis creates opportunities to keep your friendship thriving.

Sometimes couples complain that the spark has gone out in the bedroom. Then they admit that they don’t put much time into their relationship, but expect that passion, sex and romance should somehow just materialize! That’s not the way it works when we’re single and dating, why should it work when we are partnered? Put another way, think back to when you were dating. Were you guaranteed to “get lucky” when you were going on a date? No. But what did we all do? We primped (a little trimming here and there, a bit of “smells-good” over there, …), planned (when and where we were going), and did all we could to get ourselves ready for the possibility of romance. So! Continue dating if you want the possibility of romance and passion to continue in your relationship!

date night at the museumdate night at the museum

If you’ve run out of ideas as to what to do on a date, download the Gottman Card Decks app and check out Opportunity cards for some ideas. The app has other categories that will help you have topics to talk about (e.g., Open-Ended Questions, Love Maps), as well as tips on how to be a good listener and more. You'll find plenty more ideas on-line, such as 70 date night ideas by Mantelligence (e.g., “Go to an interactive play where you’d be part of the story and open the treasure chest of each other’s imagination.”). For those on a budget Dave Ramsey has some suggestions (e.g., “Listen to your throwback records, vintage tapes, or mixed CDs. Pick the ones that were important to you when you two were dating.”)

The weekend is coming, folks. Get out there and go on a date!

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today I am grateful

today I am gratefulThe more couples are able to look for, and acknowledge, positive qualities and happenings in their relationship, the more trust and admiration is built in the relationship. One example of a benefit of this is demonstrated in a study that found that folks who took time to express gratitude for their partner felt more positive toward their partner, and this helped interrupt negative communication patterns in their relationship that resulted from stress. This is because fondness and admiration helps build a strong bond that makes it easier to weather the storms of life.

So how can you create more of this? Here is a simple exercise. Look for ways to give appreciations, at least once a day, and make a point to share these with your partner. Here are some examples of what you can say when you notice something to appreciate:

  • Thanks for being such a great mom/dad. (Give specifics)
  • I really appreciate you being so affectionate lately. (Give specifics)
  • Thanks for helping out with the dishes (or other task)!
  • Taking a walk together was really nice.
  • I want to thank you for the card and the great words on it.
  • You look great in that.
  • Thank you for caring about what I need.
  • Thanks for making me feel like I come first in your life.
  • I’m really proud of you. (Give specifics)
  • Thanks for just being there when I needed to feel support.

thank youthank you

For more examples of how to give appreciations check out the Gottman Card Deck App and look for the give appreciation deck.

It is important to keep practicing! Gratitude helps us refocus on what we have instead of what we don’t have. Even though an exercise like this may feel a bit contrived at first, this “attitude of gratitude” grows stronger with use and practice and has great benefits for our relationship!

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LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT
LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT About LeMel...
SFBayCounseling.com
LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist MFC 42162
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor LPC 1534
Certified Gottman Therapist