Or, maybe they’re doing a few things differently than most other couples.
Marriage and commitment are challenging. That’s true for everyone. All marriages have challenges and difficulties at some point. Chances are, the longer the marriage, the more challenges there have been. Anyone you meet in a long happy marriage will tell you there were times, sometimes long periods of time, when it was downright painful and scary. That’s just the human condition. If you’re on the planet, you’ve had some relationship challenges. As a marriage and family therapist, I often tell the couples I work with, “Let’s face it, people are irritating. And the most irritating people are the ones you’re living with right now.” There will be times when even the happiest couples are getting on each other’s last nerve. It’s not easy living with other people.
Still, there are a few things happier couples have learned and remember to do routinely that help them get through the rough patches. These tips could help you, too.
Ten Habits Of Happy Couples:
2. Get Past It. Most couples have at least one and sometimes several unresolved long-term issues or differences. The one issue they will never agree on. If this isn’t a deal breaker, such as domestic abuse or addiction, then it may be time to agree to disagree. Successful couples don’t agree on everything. They don’t always agree on how to raise kids, how often to have sex, the division of household chores, how to deal with in-laws, manage money, or which way the toilet paper roll should face. What they do agree on is to disagree and keep moving forward. Together.
3. Figure Out What’s Really Bugging You. When we’re anxious, stressed out or upset, sometimes the easiest place to point that stress and frustration is towards our spouse or our lover. Often, it seems like the easiest answer is to jump out of a relationship or blame the relationship for our stress and unhappiness. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are pointing our hurt and disappointments from the past, from our families of origin, from work stress, or parenting concerns at our partner. They’re just the easiest and closest target on hand. You owe it to your spouse and to yourself to explore where your feelings are coming from. To figure your own stuff out and own it, rather than ask your partner to carry it for you.
Second, give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Hold in your mind your memory and experience of their best and highest self, their best qualities, no matter how they’re looking to you in this moment. Trust in who you know them to be at the core. Who your Love really is. Respond to THAT version of your lover, not the one who is being a perfect shit and disappointing you right now.
Third, catch them doing something right or pleasing. This works for dogs, kids, husbands, wives, partners, and pretty much everyone but fish. Catch them doing something right and appreciate them for it. We call this behavior modification in the therapy biz. What it boils down to is what you pay attention to in terms of behavior is what you’re going to get more of. You want more small and large courtesies, more showers before bed, more nuzzles and kisses, more observance of the household budget, more help driving the kids around, more loving behaviors, then notice the ones that are already happening. And do so out loud.
5. Date Nights. A surprising number of the couples I work with think Date Night is the hour they spend with me once a week. Not. An hour of couples therapy is a lot of things, but date night isn’t one of them. Even though we do laugh a lot. Date Night is really a stand-in term for any scheduled time you spend exclusively on nurturing your relationship. Because, you know, it needs nourishing and it needs it consistently.
So as nice as it might be to go out to dinner and a show, Date Night doesn’t have to be dinner, doesn’t have to be all evening (although that IS fab!), and doesn’t have to break the bank. What we’re looking for here is scheduled, consistent time for the two of you to spend together enjoying one another: walks, picnics, a meet up for a drink or coffee and a board game. Your pick. Just do it. Use this time to just enjoy each other. This isn’t the time for discussing the finances, hashing out parenting concerns, or working on your relationship issues. Those things all deserve a time of their own. Your relationship deserves a weekly or at least bi-weekly Date Night.
Do-Overs are a great parenting technique, as well. Our children learn from us. When you’ve snapped at your child you can always stop and ask for a Do-Over. In the process you demonstrate that everyone, even adults, makes mistakes. Your children may witness you ask your spouse or partner for a Do-Over. Soon your children will ask for them too, as their own self-awareness grows and they hear themselves and realize mistakes can be made and mistakes can be owned and remedied. Too often we actually corner ourselves into a fight with our Beloved by being at a loss as to how to fix something that is in the process of spinning into something bigger and unnecessary. Do-Overs can do this nicely. It’s your relationship Safe Word.
7. Take a Time Out. Taking a time out when your fight has become heated and you’re losing control of your temper and your mouth can be a very important relationship-saving strategy. The trouble we have with Time Out as adults is that it really takes much longer than you would imagine for your anger induced chemical state to settle down completely. Hours. Some sources say it actually takes days for your nervous system to return to a complete resting, pre-anger state. Why is this important? Because flying out the door for a walk around the block isn’t going to be long enough to actually cool you down. In fact, it’s more likely you’ll be reviewing the argument and coming back with your second volley and an improved defense. Not exactly the stuff of conflict resolution. Besides, if you’re still in a state of even partial angry arousal, you are much more likely to get angry again and to do so quickly. If you’re very angry, it can be a good idea to remove yourself from the situation for a couple of hours to cool down. Even then, be aware that you may be easier to anger for the next couple of days. It’s physiological.
Allow each other the right to withdraw and take a break. Having some space in the relationship is important and can be particularly important when you are having difficult discussions. Some of us will become more flooded and overwhelmed in difficult emotional moments than others. Once we’ve entered overwhelm, not much more is going to be accomplished. We need the time to settle down. We need the space to breathe and think.
Often those that are easily overwhelmed emotionally, which is a physiological response, will pair up with someone who can’t stand to leave an argument or difficult discussion unresolved. They can’t stand the anxiety of the discord and will follow their partner from room to room, demanding they “finish” the conversation. When you need time to withdraw, have an agreement with your mate to do so with the understanding that the discussion can be picked up again later. You’ll be more productive when you can respect each other’s needs and limitations.
8. Learn and use the Clean Apology. What is a clean apology? There are a couple of steps to a clean apology. First, recognize you did something to apologize for. Second, own it. Especially if you care about the person you’ve offended. It sounds something like this: “I know I did this and it hurt you.” It does not sound like this: “I’m sorry if your feelings are hurt.” What IS that? It’s not an apology, for one thing. It’s something else. If your spouse is even half-awake, they’re not going to feel good about that statement. Third, and this is where the super clean comes in, no “buts.” No “I’m sorry, but…” No excuses. No reasons. Keep it clean. There may be context and contributing factors, etc. There may be other things that need to be said later. Say them later at another time. For this moment, attend to your relationship. Offer the clean apology, keep it clean, and make amends. Apologize when you screw up and work to change your behavior. Don’t keep doing the same thing over and over and apologizing for it. So in summation, Know it, Own it, Apologize for it without qualifying statements, make amends, and commit to a change of behavior. That’s what constitutes a relationship-saving apology strategy.
9. Follow the Rules of Fair Fighting. What? Shouldn’t this be the “No Fight” tip? No. Nope! Couples who aren’t disagreeing about something are probably not communicating about anything at all. Any two people are going to disagree from time to time unless they have such a passive, conflict-avoidant style of relationship that nothing much is going on in any sense of the word. No conflict at all means someone is swallowing a lot of frustration and not taking a stand for themselves.
Fighting isn’t bad for your relationship. Ugly fighting is. Fair fighting is a topic that deserves to be explored more fully on its own, but we can still review some basic concepts here. 1) No name calling, 2) Be respectful, 3) Attempt to speak in a moderate tone and avoid yelling, 4) Stay on the issue and avoid roping in every disagreement or grievance you’ve ever had in the relationship, 5) LISTEN carefully with an ear to deeper understanding, not just formulating your rebuttal, 6) Ask questions and make sure you have a clear understanding of your partner’s position and opinion, 8) Be as non-reactive and non-defensive as possible, 9) Let go of being “right” and be solution oriented, 10) Identify the points you both agree on, 11) Make concessions when possible, 12) Remember you love each other. Anything you tear down or tear apart in this fight is going to require you to rebuild and heal later. Save yourself some time and misery now and don’t fight in relationship-destructive ways.
10. Get Physical. While sex may not be the most important aspect of your relationship, it can be a very important super-glue when times are tough. When you have a solid sexual connection with your spouse, you can lean into it to help carry you through the rough patches. But it’s not just about sexual contact, is it? Remembering to touch, touching often, in sexual, nonsexual, and affectionate ways is a potent relationship saving habit. Touch keeps those bonding hormones flowing.
True, there may be times in your relationship when you retreat to opposite sides of the bed and sex seems impossible. The majority of marriages and long-term committed relationships will experience seasons of low or reduced sexual contact or attraction. Keeping the touch going—patting your partner's shoulder on the way by, a quick hug, a kiss on the cheek, cuddling on the couch in front of the TV, holding hands—keeps the bonding hormones flowing and helps maintain some connection with your partner while you figure things out together over time. Allowing too much time to pass without affectionate touch is a risky proposition and a way to fall out of connection with each other. Touch is one of the ways you can nurture your relationship and keep it alive, even in the midst of a temporary sexual desert or very troubled times.
There Are Lots Of Ways To Create Happier Relationships.
Sometimes extra help and a third set of eyes and ears is the exact thing you need to regain, sustain, and grow your relationship. If you’re wondering if couples therapy might be right for you and your partner, give me a call. I’m happy to chat with you and answer your questions.