All relationships require care and tending. Anything that you want to thrive does. But in the midst of our fast-paced days and family obligations, we may neglect the very actions that are essential to building a beautiful union. Or maybe we miss these vital components because we never knew about them in the first place. After all, so many of us aren’t taught how to have healthy relationships. For instance, we assume that we’re listening to our spouses because, well, we can hear them. But hearing someone’s words and understanding them are two very different things.
Below are three things you might be neglecting to do in your relationship — along with some helpful suggestions from Shelly Hummel, LMFT, a Gottman certified therapist who has worked with couples for 18 years.
You might be neglecting to appreciate each other
How often do you thank your partner or tell her (or him) you appreciate her? How often do you greet her in the morning or when you walk in the door? Most of the time we don’t just neglect to be kind. But we forget good manners and common courtesy, even with the people we love most.
And yet, according to John Gottman, Ph.D, couples in happy marriages had a ratio of 20 positive interactions to 1 negative interaction. As Hummel said, “that is 20 compliments to one complaint.” A number that might surprise you.
You can create positive interactions by expressing your appreciation to your partner. Hummel shared these examples: You might compliment your spouse’s great traits: “You are so good with the kids. They are lucky to have you as their father.” You might thank them for their help: “Thank you for picking up the dry cleaning. That saved me a lot of time today.”
Appreciating each other strengthens your friendship and intimacy, Hummel said. It also adds money to your “emotional bank account.” “This account needs to be as full as it can be when the inevitable happens, and the two of you have a conflict.”
You might be neglecting to really listen to each other
“Most people listen to respond, instead of listening to understand,” Hummel said. That is, as our spouse is talking, we’re not focusing on what he’s saying. We are formulating our response. We are formulating our argument, figuring out the points we want to challenge and gathering our evidence. When we hear something we disagree with or that triggers anger, we automatically get defensive.
Instead, Hummel encouraged readers “to postpone your agenda while your spouse is venting, complaining and yes, even nagging.” Hummel suggested getting curious and asking questions. Try to better understand your partner’s perspective. This doesn’t mean you agree with him. It means that you want to know what it’s like to be walking in his shoes.
“We’ve all had arguments that are so tangential that we can’t even remember what we were fighting about,” Hummel said. “This occurs because, in the end, we are really fighting about not feeling heard or understood.” And all of us want to be understood and validated.
You might be neglecting to fight fair
Many people assume that couples in happy relationships don’t fight. But that’s not true. In fact, “happy couples fight just as much and about the same things as unhappy couples, Hummel said. But there is a difference: It’s how they fight. Gottman found that couples whose conflicts regularly feature “The Four Horsemen” are at risk for divorce. These are: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.
Hummel suggested accepting that discord is part of every marriage and learning to eliminate those four elements when you fight. In this piece on The Gottman Relationship Blog, writer Ellie Lisitsa shares antidotes to the four horsemen.
For instance, she writes that criticism is telling your partner: “You always talk about yourself. You are so selfish.” The antidote is saying: “I’m feeling left out by our talk tonight. Can we please talk about my day?”
Defensiveness is saying: “It’s not my fault that we’re always late, it’s your fault.” The antidote is taking responsibility for your part. Here it’s saying: “Well, part of this is my problem, I need to think more about time.”
Contempt is everything from being sarcastic to rolling your eyes to spewing insults. The antidote is Hummel’s first tip: Regularly show your partner appreciation and respect.
Stonewalling is physically or emotionally withdrawing from the conversation. This piece shares suggestions on what to do when you’re the one who stonewalls or when your partner does.
Some of these tips are easier to implement than others. But either way, they’re certainly worth it. All relationships need work. And that’s a good thing. Because that’s when you as an individual and your relationship as a whole grow and flourish.