According to a study by Matthew Johnson et al. (2019) of the University of Alberta, the idea that you’re in a relationship that can last can influence the quality and outcome of your relationship. This makes sense, as the level of confidence influences how we interact, whether in positive or negative ways. So how is your level of confidence in your relationship? And, if this needs sprucing up, how can you do this?

Smiling couple.

Smiling couple.First things first, find out what your level of confidence in your relationship is. Test yourself with the five questions the authors in the study used to measure relationship confidence. Use a 1 to 7 scale of strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (7) regarding your current relationship:

  • I feel good about our prospects to make this relationship work for a lifetime.
  • I am very confident when I think of our future together.
  • I believe we can handle whatever conflicts will arise in the future.
  • We have the skills a couple needs to make a marriage last.
  • We can handle anything that comes our way.

Now, what to do about the results. Identifying strengths and weaknesses is the first step. Take a moment to celebrate any areas of strength and share any gratitude you have with your partner! See “How to Create Appreciation and Gratitude in Your Relationship” for a refresher.

Lower scores identify areas you may want to improve. If your level of confidence is low in, for instance, your ability to handle conflict, then working on conflict management skills would be a great thing to focus on. Check out these blogs: “Contempt, the Battery Acid,” “How to Get Rid of Criticism and Defensiveness,” “3 Ways to Keep Calm When Your Partner is Driving You Nuts!”, and “Do the Same Arguments Keep Coming Up Again and Again With Your Partner?

Smiling couple.

Smiling couple.If you are concerned about other skills you will need, such as keeping romance alive, or building and maintaining trust, read up on these topics. You could start with “How Healthy is Your Sex Life?” and “How to Create Trust and Maintain Trust in Your Relationship.” Take time to reflect as honestly as you can, then have a conversation or two with your partner. If it feels daunting to do this on your own, participating in a workshop that focuses on these skills can make a world of difference. Or, if you would prefer more individualized support, consider a couple retreat.

Whatever the results of your assessment, this is an excellent time of year to look under the hood of your relationship and tune up any areas that need addressing. This will help ensure you have a reliable and healthy ride for the year to come and beyond.

'In life and in business, you need to be good-hearted and trustworthy, and to have integrity. This is the way to build long-term relationships. It is also important to be optimistic and to look at challenges as opportunities.' — Henry Sy

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Couple holding sparklers and kissing.

Couple holding sparklers and kissing.For making significant changes in your relationship, the good news is that doing “small things often” will get you there. Dr. Gottman’s research shows that tiny moments in couple interactions make a big difference in the relationship over time. The first few moments in a conversation, for example, around a disagreement, predict not only how that conversation will go, but how the relationship will go (whether “happily ever after” or in divorce). I’ve talked about the four horsemen of the apocalypse in other blogs, and if you guessed that these were the things that predicted divorce, you would be right!

Eliminating the four horsemen.

Eliminating the four horsemen.So, if I had only one recommendation to couples for a new year’s resolution, I would choose this one: get rid of the four horsemen in your relationship. Start by choosing one to work on. For instance, criticism. Step one, notice if you use any “you” statements (e.g., “You never take out the trash.”) or global statements (these include words like never and always). Step two, keep a journal of the times you notice when you use a criticism (a simple tally on your phone would work great). Step three, work on replacing these with I statements (“I feel       about      , I need      .”). For example, “I feel irritated that the trash is overflowing, please help me by taking it out.” You can start small by practicing starting statements with “I.” Bonus step, tally the times you remember to use “I.” Step four, continue previous steps for at least six weeks.

Once you have “you” statements reduced, you can focus on other horsemen, like defensiveness. The same steps above work for this one, in this case, replace the I statements with taking responsibility; for example, “You’re right, I haven’t taken out the trash yet.” Taking responsibility is the antidote for the second horseman. That “I statement” is also handy in avoiding defensiveness (which can take the form of a counter-attack, a critical statement or whining). After taking responsibility, it may be helpful to continue the conversation with your own perspective on the subject. So, the above example could be: “You’re right, I haven’t taken the trash out yet. I’ve been feeling stressed lately and would like to talk about how to handle household chores when we are so busy.”

If you focus on one horseman at a time, for six weeks each, it would only take you half the year. This will result in significant changes in your relationship for the better!

'Resolutions require only words. Results take action.' — Tony Robbins

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'The holidays stress people out so much. I suggest you keep it simple and try to have as much fun as you can.' — Giada De Laurentiis

The holidays are notoriously stressful times, even though they are touted as being joyous occasions. Indeed, the expectations are that they should be full of happiness and meaning. But the holidays can be a time of loss (if someone is no longer with us to celebrate), conflict (with family members we may otherwise avoid), and dashed expectations. In some cases, someone may struggle with substance use, which can tilt events into chaos when folks have had a bit too much. So, what to do? Here are some things to consider:

    Dinner party
  • Have a conversation about the holidays in this way: Choose a holiday or tradition and have a conversation about how it should be celebrated. Discuss these questions: 1) What is meaningful about this for you? 2) When will this be done? 3) How often will it be done? 4) How long should it last each time? 5) Who will initiate it? 6) What will happen next? 7) How will it end? 8) How can we integrate this into our lives so we can count on it? These questions are useful for discussing any ritual of connection—these are events (daily, weekly, or annual) that connect you as a couple or family. Rituals of connection span things like how we say goodbye, bedtime, what happens when someone is sick, or dinner parties. Bill Doherty’s book, The Intentional Family, is an excellent resource on this topic. Once you have such a conversation as a couple, then the next tip may already be on its way.
  • Dinner party

  • Set limits and expectations. Around the holidays, this is a must, both for ourselves and with others. If you are hosting an event in your home, consider setting clear expectations around allowable topics of conversation (leave politics at the door, for example). Choose a menu that limits problem areas and/or choose seating arrangements that may limit conflictual interactions. If you are someone else’s guest, have an exit plan in place. Agree ahead of time with your partner when, or under what circumstances, it would be best to say goodbye and leave; this could be very important. Also, have a conversation about the kind of support you want to provide one another. For example, “When your mother says      , please say/do       [be as specific as possible] to show you support me.” Or, “I need you to call me to another room when you see       getting on my nerves.” You can also agree to take a break (the bathroom is a great option) of at least 20 minutes if needed (see 3 Ways to Keep Calm When Your Partner is Driving You Nuts!).
  • Have ways of managing stress as a couple. One study found that couples who can buffer each other from the stresses of life do better over time. So, having conversations with your partner that allow you to vent (about things outside the relationship), or release stress, is essential. Be aware: problem-solving, in this case, is counterproductive; you need to slow things down and taking a break from problem-solving. It is hard to shift out of this mindset, particularly for men, who are generally socialized to be more comfortable solving problems (versus talking about feelings). Instead of problem-solving, focus on active listening (see A Simple Listening Exercise to Help You Become a Great Listener). Make sure to avoid the Four Horsemen (see Contempt, the Battery Acid and How to Get Rid of Criticism and Defensiveness). Listen intensely and offer support; more than anything else, show your partner that you are there for them. And only provide problem-solving tips (aka advice) to your partner if they ask you to. Take turns listening to one another for 10 minutes each. I recommend doing this as often as you experience stress outside your relationship—sounds like the holidays, right? Better yet, make this kind of conversation a daily ritual and take turns listening to one another year-round!

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Have you ever heard anyone say, “I should take my own advice, shouldn’t I!” It turns out that giving advice to others actually can benefit you. A recent study in the journal PNAS showed that giving motivational advice raised academic achievement for the advisor. Here is the thinking about how this works:

    Ideas.
  1. People who advocate for specific opinions or beliefs come to believe what they say to mitigate cognitive dissonance. In other words, if I give someone advice, but I don’t follow it myself, this causes psychological discomfort. This makes it less likely I will not heed my advice.
  2. The reflection entailed in generating advice may prompt advisors to formulate concrete plans for enacting the recommended behaviors in their own lives. For instance, if my goal is to buy a house, I can think about what advice I would give to someone else in this situation. I will ignore things that are out of their control (and mine). So I might suggest opening a savings account to save for the downpayment and automatically deposit into it, with every paycheck, before spending on anything else. What just happened is that I created a practical plan for reaching my goal!
  3. Giving advice, unlike taking advice, can increase confidence. It feels good to be able to show expertise and help others. And feeling confident in this way can improve motivation.

Ideas.

So how can this work in your relationship? If you want to improve your relationship in a particular area, say, improving your love life, you could write your own advice column on the subject. You might do some research, see what is out there, and choose some things that make sense to you to include in your column. (By the way, for ideas on this subject check out: “How Healthy is Your Sex Life,” “Sex and Relationships,” and the guide “Things Your Mama Never Told You About Talking Dirty…”).

Once you have your article completed, consider sharing it with your partner and having a conversation about it. Though I would caution against giving your partner advice—if they haven’t asked for advice, it may come across as criticism or worse. Or maybe you have a friend who would be interested in reading it. Or simply write it down in your journal. Whatever you choose to do, check back in a few months and see if you have followed any of your own advice!

'When we teach, we learn.' — Seneca

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Couple underwater.Dating can be exciting and fun, and being in love can be magical. But is there something you should be doing to see if this is the right person for you? Well, yes, as a matter of fact. Dating is about getting to know one another and, in this way, seeing if there is a good match between you, finding out how compatible you are with one another. Don’t get me wrong, no matter who you partner with, there will be differences that will need to be negotiated. Knowing about these ahead of time, before making a long term commitment, can help you decide if you are a good enough match for one another. This will improve the chance of your relationship being successful in the long term.

Couple underwater.

Image of card deck.I love the card deck 52 Questions Before Marriage or Moving In designed by Ursula Burton. The card deck has four categories: romance, social life, work, and money. Each card has questions to help you have meaningful conversations around these topics. For instance, a card under romance asks: “What are your views about having children? Pets? How strong are your positions about this? What, if anything, would change your mind?” Under social life, one card asks: “In what ways do your religious and/or political beliefs and practices, if any, differ from your partner’s? If you have children, with what beliefs and practices will you raise them?” Under work: “What reasons might there be for one or both of you to cut back on work hours or not work for money?” Under money: “How do you feel about any existing debt? About taking on more debt as a couple?”

Image of card deck.

As you can see, the card deck has great questions and conversation starters to help you explore life together. This will help you understand how good a match you are for one another, and what areas might be challenging to negotiate as a couple. It is crucial to know if there are any “deal breakers” in any of the differences you explore. Deal breakers are differences such that one of you will not be able to meet a core need; for example, one person wants to have kids, the other one does not. But keep in mind, outside of deal-breakers, differences do not mean your relationship won’t work. Differences are unavoidable. It is how you manage these differences—how you talk about them—that makes all the difference in the world. Knowing about these sooner rather than later can help you evaluate the next steps, such as further exploration, getting help from a trusted other to talk about difficult topics, or taking time to do some soul searching about your relationship.

'quote'We recognize a soulmate by the supreme level of comfort and security we feel with that person. That doesn't mean that there aren't issues that remain to be ironed out. Rather, it means we know intuitively that we can resolve issues with our soul mate without losing his or her love and respect.' — Linda Brady

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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