Relationships go through seasons, and sometimes the winter is so frigid it may not feel like there’s a spring warming in sight. Sometimes reconnecting is a matter of trudging through ongoing minor distractions; other times it requires back-breaking snow shoveling to sort through life’s more trying stressors.
“Here’s the thing; it’s not the distraction or stressor itself that leads a couple to falter. It’s how the couple copes with them,” says Alexandra H. Solomon, a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University and author of “Loving Bravely”. “Maladaptive coping strategies tend to come in two varieties: fight or flight. The ‘fighters’ cope with stress by becoming irritable, critical and impatient, while ‘flighters’ cope with stress by becoming withdrawn, silent or passive-aggressive.”
Instead of defaulting to these coping strategies when times get tough — which leads to disengagement — vow to re-commit to each other and nurture positivity instead. How, you ask? You can start by incorporating the following phrases into conversations with your partner. They will help keep you tuned into each other emotionally, open the lines of communication and navigate conflict in a productive way.
"Tell me more"
The words “tell me more” rank right up there with “I love you,” argues Linda Carroll, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the upcoming book “Loveskills”. This phrase is all about remaining curious about your partner while also being engaged with the things they’re telling you, whether it’s trivial workday drama or a serious dilemma.
“One of the primary reasons relationships falter is because we start to think we know the other person, and the wonderful listening and attention we paid them earlier in the relationship begins to fade,” says Carroll. “By practicing our listening — which is always about the other person and not about us — we remind them we are still here, and we are reminded that they are also still here.”
"Something I’m struggling with right now is … "
In the same way it’s important to invoke curiosity within yourself about your partner, it’s also important to let them in on what’s going on in your world. “They need to know if you’re feeling stressed at work, self-critical, or emotionally exhausted," says Solomon. "Understanding what’s going on inside you helps them practice extra patience and resist the urge to take it personally if you’re quiet or cranky.”
" … is really bringing me joy right now"
This is a supplement to the above question and is a way to breathe happiness into your relationship. “Emotions are contagious, so let your partner ride the vibe of your good feelings,” says Solomon. “Also, erotic connection is stoked by giving your partner the chance to experience you engaged in what makes you feel alive and passionate. Let your light shine.”
"How do you want to feel … ?"
This weekend, on your birthday, on this trip. This variation on the “what do you want to do?” question is all about learning more about what your partner wants to feel and nurturing your love for them on a deeper level, says Rachel Wright, a licensed marriage and sex therapist. “For example, if they want to feel loved, relaxed, and happy on their birthday, but you know they aren’t big on attention, then you know not to plan a big birthday bash with everyone your partner knows,” she explains.
"I am trying to understand your point of view"
Arguments are part of any romantic relationship, and the way you navigate them can either bring you closer to each other or create a wedge. Even if you don’t agree with your partner’s point of view, letting them know you’re trying to understand can be monumental in making headway.
“If you genuinely mean this, it will take you a long way in a relationship, especially when it is suffering,” says Katie Sandler, a licensed therapist and impact coach. “We aren't meant to always agree, but it is most important to try and understand your partner as best as possible so that you can meet in the middle and feel mutually supported. By getting through hard times in a constructive manner, it makes the future more enjoyable because you’re better at navigating hard times due to successfully conquering them in the past.”
"How can I show up for you this week?"
Whether you’re in a chilly winter season or not, it’s all too easy to slip into scorekeeping with your partner (e.g. I loaded the dishwasher last time, or I woke up three nights in a row with the baby). The problem with this is the ‘what have you done for me lately?’ mentality, which can breed resentment.
“If both partners flip the script and focus on ‘what have I done for you lately?’ then everyone’s needs get met, but through the lens of bounty rather than scarcity,” says Solomon. “Ask it weekly, maybe on a Sunday evening as you prepare to roll into a new week.”
"It meant so much to me when you … "
We are hardwired to look for what’s wrong, says Solomon, so we benefit from practices that help us see the best in those around us. She adds, “What we focus on, we get more of, so bringing your attention to what you appreciate will help you get more of that. Gratitude practices like this cultivate positivity in intimate relationships.”
Many of these phrases can seamlessly be integrated into your daily and weekly conversations, but it’s not a bad idea to come together on a regular — even scheduled — basis. Feelings, interests and needs change constantly, so be intentional about consistently connecting with your partner so you can feel united, problem solve together, and remind each other how much you care about one another.
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