All couples can benefit from learning skills that are taught in couples therapy. That’s because these skills focus on cultivating a deep connection between partners and resolving conflict without shame or blame. And that helps all relationships.
Below two relationship experts share the skills they teach their clients in therapy, and how readers can practice these skills on their own.
Be emotionally available to your partner.
“Emotional availability is about overtly letting your partner know that nothing is more important than how the two of you feel about one another,” said Stuart B. Fensterheim, LCSW, a marriage and family counselor in Scottsdale, Ariz.
So when an issue arises, no work meeting, sports game or night out is more important than resolving that issue, he said. This also means that both partners are 100 percent present during the conversation (no distractions or interruptions). However, “there needs to be trust in the relationship that no one pulls the emotional card unless it is essential.”
Rituals or date nights also are key for cultivating emotional availability. They give “couples the opportunity to have predetermined times in which you know that you will have each other’s undivided attention.”
If you have kids, Fensterheim underscored the importance of engaging in fun, playful, romantic activities after they’re in bed. This can be as simple as cuddling on the couch and watching TV together.
Express your feelings during conflict.
This sounds easy enough. But often our inner dialogue looks something like this, according to Fensterheim: “She doesn’t give two hills of beans about me. She is selfish and only wants what she wants regardless of how I feel. Maybe this is the truth of this relationship. How blind I have been; how could I not see what is really going on? Our relationship stinks, and I am a fool to ever have believed she loved me.”
That is, we tend to view our assumptions as cold hard facts, and we focus on protecting ourselves, he said.
Instead, share your feelings. Share that you want to feel close to your partner and how important they are to you, Fensterheim said. For instance, you might say: “I love you and hate feeling so detached. You are the one that helps my world. I need you even now.”
In fact, often the most painful part isn’t the topic couples fight about; it’s the distance that fighting creates.
When you’re vulnerable with your partner and communicate your love and respect, this changes the nature of your interaction, he said. It doesn’t “feel so desperate or alone.” And it dissipates conflict faster, he said.
Know when to walk away.
Sometimes, you’re unable to be vulnerable and loving, because your emotions are escalating, and you can’t think straight. That’s when it’s best to take a break. “Doing so can allow you to not only calm down, but also to avoid worsening the situation by saying something in haste,” said Anna Osborn, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist who practices in Sacramento, Calif., and virtually coaches couples across the country.
To practice this skill most effectively, couples must decide on a time to return to the conversation, she said. (“If you just get up and storm off, you risk making your mate feel abandoned, deserted or ignored.”) You can even have a code word, which you previously agreed on, to signal you need a break. Taking 20 to 30 minutes gives your physiological system enough time to calm down and helps you gain perspective, she said.
For instance, you focus away from blaming and criticizing your partner (a stance that doesn’t lead to resolutions), she said. And you focus on how you’re showing up in the argument (e.g., resentful and hostile), and whether it’s aligned with who you want to be in the relationship, she said.
During your break, you also might take several slow breaths, walk around the block or do anything else that calms you.
After your break is up, make sure you both return to your original conversation. This way you aren’t “getting into the habit of burying or stuffing unresolved issues…that helps no one.”
Work on a shared future.
“Whether it’s in or out of therapy, couples need to be working toward a shared future in order to ensure both partners are feeling fulfilled and satisfied,” Osborn said. That means sitting down together and setting short- and long-term goals. It’s essential for relationships to flourish and for couples to nurture their connection.
These goals go beyond “let’s travel someday” or “we really should try out that new restaurant everyone’s talking about,” Osborn said. For instance, your short-term goals might include paying off debt and attending a couples retreat, she said. Long-term goals might include saving for retirement and writing your family’s genealogy story, she said.
When Osborn works with couples in therapy, their short-term goals might focus on understanding why they’re disconnected, stopping this pattern, learning how their behavior affects each other and having fun together. Their long-term goals might focus on increasing intimacy and learning to repair any future disconnections on their own.
Whatever goals you pick, make sure they focus “on working as a team and growing together.”
Focus on self-care.
“Relationships are designed to be a joint affair and one of the many perks of being in love is the support of our mate,” Osborn said. However, sometimes partners depend on each other to meet their every need, she said. The problem?
It’s unrealistic and unhealthy. “If we depend on our partner to be our best friend, lover, co-parent, confidant, coach, financial partner, etc., we end up putting so much pressure on them that when they fall short in any way, we’re left feeling disappointed.”
Osborn encourages both partners to practice self-care. This might be anything from taking a yoga class to taking a walk to browsing your favorite bookstore. Doing so benefits your relationship: You are more present and giving with your partner, and feel more fulfilled in your relationship.
“Finding balance of depending on our mate and depending on ourselves is what allows healthy attachment to form.”
All relationships require regular care and nurturing. The good news is that you and your partner can learn healthy ways to grow and keep getting closer and closer.
Check out this previous piece, which features three skills couples can benefit from learning.
Married couple photo available from Shutterstock