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Relationships

Falling in love is a wonderful human ability to bond with another and to view him or her in the most positive light, often to the extent that outsiders might comment that we’re loosing perspective. This process is often helped along by our tendency in the early stages of a relationship to show our most positive side, and perhaps hide or minimise our less desirable aspects or habits. Many couples find this overly positive perspective hard to sustain over time. Reality kicks in and we start to notice things we don’t like about each other. How we deal with this reality has enormous consequences for the stability and happiness of our relationships.

Because human beings are natural problem solvers, we tend to dwell on problems in order to find solutions. If we start to apply this too much to our relationship or partner, we develop an overly negative perspective. We may even start to take the positive qualities of our partner for granted. The strength of a long-term intimate relationship usually depends on our ability to rebalance this perspective, to notice the good and learn to tolerate the inevitable not so good. Relationship counselling may help you to develop this balanced perspective.

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Strengths & Virtues

Generally our partners fall in love with us because of the strengths and virtues they perceive in us. Spend some time identifying what these are. Think about the strengths that you value in you partner; what strengths and virtues does he or she have that made you fall in love.

Often we gain satisfaction from living up to our own ideals and strengths, but we also gain a lot of satisfaction when we realise that our partner notices our positive characteristics and strengths. When we see that our partner notices our strengths we feel good and we become motivated to work harder not to disappoint our partner’s faith in us, thereby strengthening the relationship further.

How often do you comment on the things you like about each other?

Be optimistic | Talk it up

It is worth paying attention to the way we think and talk about the ups and downs in our relationships. Studies of optimism and pessimism in marriage reveal that couples that have positive explanations about both the good and the bad events in the marriage score higher on marital satisfaction. Optimism for bad events explains such events as being temporary and a one-off occurrence.

For example, when a partner did something that displeased the other partner; an optimistic explanation would be “she’s tired” as opposed to “she’s always inattentive”. Conversely, optimistic couples tend to talk up good events in the relationships. For example when one partner achieves something that pleases the other partner it is explained in terms of a permanent positive character trait; “He’s brilliant!” as opposed to “he was lucky”. Couple therapy may help you become more aware about the way you think and talk about your partner and how that affects your relationship.

Think about the story you tell of your relationship and your partner. What do you say to yourself about your partner, and how do you talk about your relationship to your friends? Are the stories you tell of your partner and the relationship pessimistic or optimistic?

Positive and negative behaviours

Couple therapy may be helpful in pointing out problematic behaviours in your relationship. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute studied hundreds of couples, observing their behaviour together and from this identified factors that predicted relationship difficulties. These included:

  • A harsh start to a disagreement
  • Criticism of partner
  • Displays of contempt
  • Defensiveness
  • Lack of validation (particularly stonewalling)
  • Negative body language
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On the positive side, behaviours that predicted successful and lasting relationships included some of the following:

  • Partings | Before these couple say goodbye every morning, they find out one thing that each is going to do that day.
  • Reunions | At the end of each workday, these couple have a low stress reunion conversation.
  • Affection | Touching, holding and kissing.
  • One weekly date | Just the two of you in a relaxed atmosphere updating your love.
  • Admiration and appreciation| Everyday, genuine affection and appreciation is given at least once.

To what extent are these positive and negative behaviours part of your relationship?

Listen to each other

A simple rule to attentive listening is to avoid having conversations when you simply are not able to attend to what he or she is saying: e.g. when the TV is on, or when the kids are crying, or when you’re tired or have other things on your mind. One of the traps we commonly fall into in conversation is focussing on our reply rather than on what is being said. In constantly preparing an answer in or mind before the other person has finished speaking, we fail to listen to what is actually being said. One way to force this attention is to paraphrase or repeat what the other person has just said.

Good listening is letting your partner know she has been heard and understood. Simple responses such as “Mmhmm, I understand”, “I see what you mean,”etc, convey a message that you have heard and understood her. Nodding or saying “Right” also lets you partner know you agree or are at least sympathetic to what she’s saying. Try not interrupting or offer solutions too quickly. Avoid negative gestures or facial expressions.

Applying these tips to everyday life with your partner may help with the quality of your communication. However, special care and attention needs to be placed on talking about the more emotional issues in a relationship. A number of topics in a relationship can be highly emotionally charged to the extent that a discussion can easily escalate into an argument. Common “hot” topics in a relationship can be money, sex or the in-laws. Couple therapy may help you to communicate better on the sensitive topics in your relationship.

What are the “hot” topics in your relationship? How do you and your partner handle these?