The Key to Strong Relationships
Movies, books, and television shows can make relationships seem so easy. The reality is that strong and healthy relationships require work. Partners can work together to establish a strong foundation and maintain and develop their relationship. To strengthen your relationship give particular attention to these helpful building blocks:
Be a whole person
Sometimes people talk about partners being two halves of a whole. People will even lovingly refer to their partner as their “better half.” However, relationships rely on both parties being a whole person and bringing their whole self to the table. This means you may need to work on yourself (and your partner may need to work on themselves) before you can have a really healthy relationship.
This also means that you need to be your true and authentic self in the relationship. If you have past hurts or pains that prevent you from being open with your partner and accepting your partner, then you may need to seek your own therapeutic work to resolve your inner conflicts. Sometimes participating in individual psychotherapy can really strengthen you and your relationship.
Really see your partner
Many relationships face challenges because one or both partners does not really see the other for whom they truly are. This could be due to having unrealistic expectations of your partner, perhaps even wanting them to be your idealized fantasy, rather than appreciating them for their natural self. It could also be seeing them through some lens from your past, perhaps projecting onto them the bad experiences you had with another partner or with members of your family.
Get to know your partner for whom they really are, flaws and all. Research actually shows that when you accept and even idealize your partner as they are, the relationship functions better. If you find yourself trying to put unrealistic expectations on your partner, catch yourself. Ask yourself whether this is a reasonable expectation or if it is something skewed by fantasy or fear. Women may have a fantasy of men as a “Knight on a White Horse,” who will come and save them from all their troubles. Men may have a fantasy of a woman as a mix of a nurturing, all need fulfilling caregiver, and also a sex maven. Think things over and then talk it out.
Open lines of communication
It becomes a lot easier to “talk it out” when you have already established open lines of communication. It is not easy to talk openly and accurately and to consistently avoid misunderstandings. It takes a lot of time and work to develop good communication skills. Successful communication is more likely when you both really listen to listen, rather than listening to figure out your response. When you do respond, do so by using “I feel” statements and describing objective facts, rather than interpreting your partner’s intentions.
If you are not familiar with “I feel” statements, they involve sharing your feelings in a way that focuses on the feeling, which cuts down on blaming and defensiveness. “I feel upset right now because…” is easier to hear than “You make me upset when…” The former opens up communication by expressing an opinion. Other types of statements can shut down the discussion.
Communicate to also learn about your partner. Ask lots of questions. You want to learn about who they are and what they value. You also want to learn what may be motivating their behavior. When you face a conflict, rather than jumping to conclusions, ask questions to improve the chances of not only resolving the conflict, but also being able to use the conflict as an opportunity to learn and grow.
If, even with these steps and techniques, you find that you still struggle in your communication, then consider couples counseling. Research has shown that interventions in counseling can help couples to improve their communication styles. This occurs through learning new communication skills.
You might sometimes judge your partner for his or her actions. This could happen when they let you down in some way. It could be anything from forgetting to get milk at the store to forgetting your anniversary. Judgment can lead to anger. That anger can create conflict in your relationship.
Instead of judging, try practicing compassion. Your partner is just like you—human. Just as you might make errors, they will too. Instead of judging and slipping into anger, approach your partner with empathy and compassion. This will allow you to have a more open dialogue with your partner.
In your relationship, it is also important to treat yourself with compassion. You will also sometimes mess up (maybe even forgetting an anniversary). If you allow yourself to sit in regret over your own errors and perceived shortcomings, it can fester and negatively affect the relationship. Research shows that when you practice self-compassion it is easier to display more positive behaviors towards your partner.
Carefully handle differences
It may sound cliché, but in a relationship your differences can get between the two of you or you can let them strengthen the relationship. It all depends on how you handle those differences. Depending on the exact context and situation, the difference may require some discussion to resolve. Sometimes you may be able to compromise and sometimes you might just need to agree to disagree.
Differences that require discussion and resolution could be situations involving an affair or major value conflicts (that might affect daily practices or the way you raise children). Often couples begin counseling to help them work through certain differences. It can be helpful to have another party serve in the role of mediator to help you talk things over and find a resolution.
Often the differences between the two of you can be helpful and a cause for celebration. If you have unique interests, you can share them with one another. You can also maintain activities or interests that are just yours and allow you to have time on your own or with separate groups of friends. This can enliven each of you and help to protect your relationship from stagnating.
Spend Quality Time Together
Early in your relationship, you may spend a lot of time together. This is great because it helps you learn about one another and build a strong foundation. However, you need to maintain that foundation by continuing to spend quality time together. Couples can often get caught up in the business of just living and they forget to still go on dates or just relax with one another. Try to spend some time every day talking. From time to time schedule special time together to do new and fun things outside of daily life.
These are some of the helpful building blocks for relationships. If you are working to develop a strong relationship or want to improve your relationship and you are struggling to do so on your own, then consider couples therapy. A couples counselor can help you resolve any cracks in the foundation of your relationship and stabilize your relationship so you can continue building one that is strong and lasting.