Relationships are hard, no doubt about it.
There’s no magic elixir or method to making them work. But there are certain skills and insights you can learn when it comes to communicating better, resolving conflict, building real intimacy and having an all-around healthy relationship.
For wisdom, we spoke with several couples specialists, who reveal the valuable lessons they’ve learned in their profession along with what makes happy, solid relationships.
1. Relationships are complex.
This seems like a no-brainer, but many of us don’t appreciate a relationship’s complexities. Think of it this way: Each person has their own multilayered thoughts and emotions, which bring a variety of intricacies to the table, said Robert Solley, Ph.D, a San Francisco clinical psychologist. In fact, “Some estimates place the number of possible interconnections in the brain at more than the number of particles in the universe.”
Then add to that social interactions, relationships with loved ones and your partner, other experiences and even language (which tends to be ambiguous), Solley said.
Plus, we’re even unaware of many of our own feelings and thoughts. According to Solley, “A surprising amount of what we think, feel and do is simply not available for our own self-observation.” Take the example of a son who acts just like his father — something others see clearly — but he’s oblivious to. These off-the-radar patterns of thinking, behaving and feeling originate from templates that “were established in us in infancy before we even had language.”
We also tend to create inaccurate or distorted explanations for our partner’s behavior. “We may think that our partners are doing something uncaring, or to punish us, when in fact they are just doing what is natural for them and it has very little to do with us.” We also might be collecting evidence to substantiate these distorted beliefs. “In relationships all of these things can serve to sustain negative cycles and keep us stuck in painful patterns.”
In other words, as wonderful as relationships are, difficulties are expected, Solley said.
2. “Mutual respect is the bedrock for long-term, happy, successful relationships.”
This is according to Michael Batshaw, LCSW, relationship expert, psychotherapist and author of Before Saying ‘I Do’: The Essential Guide to a Successful Marriage.
Mutual respect doesn’t only strengthen the relationship, but it also helps couples overcome conflict. Why? Because “Your partner respects your point of view and tries to work through the issues with you.”
3. “Empathy and being able to see things from your partner’s perspective” are indispensable, Solley said.
These two ingredients aren’t just essential for healthy relationships, but they’re the “keys to your children’s emotional health and lifelong well-being,” he said. “In the end these are what really make the difference in all relationships.”
Empathy is important in building a strong, resilient relationship.
Both empathy and perspective-taking provide “a fuller, more realistic, multidimensional view of our partners and their connectedness to us.”
Similarly, also important is the ability to hold down multiple conflicting perspectives at the same time, he said. For instance, say you want to go out with friends but your partner wants to read together at home. “Can you dampen your own desire to socialize, even if it feels really urgent to you, enough to explore and entertain what it would mean for your partner to be able to read together?” Solley said. Another simple example is being able to have a courteous conversation with someone who believes differently than you.
4. “Attachment may indeed be the linchpin of relationships,” Solley said.
The idea of attachment comes from John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s. Basically, a person’s experiences with their parents largely determines their attachment, which also contributes to “our basic ability to trust ourselves, the world and other people,” Solley said. If you weren’t that securely attached, you’re less trusting. And this affects your relationship. “Without a certain level of trust a balanced, reciprocal, interdependent relationship is impossible.”
5. Taking your partner for granted is “simple to understand but really hard not to do.”
Especially if you have kids, you can start to become business partners who solely manage your household, finances and family, she said. The solution? Healthy couples find ways to reconnect and have couples-only time regularly, Blum said. This doesn’t have to be a date night out; you can just as easily connect on your living room couch. Instead of vegging out in front of the TV, though, pick a special movie and order your favorite pizza.
Even just being present with each other for five minutes helps, Blum said. She gave the example of talking over coffee.
6. The little things can help you stay connected.
“Having little predictable rituals that can be counted on as a point of connection” is essential for couples, Blum said. This includes anything from walking the dog on Sunday mornings to having brunch after church to breaking out a bottle of wine every Thursday, she said.
Little gestures, like texting your partner that you’re thinking about them, also go a long way. Blum likens it to keeping plants in your home: You must take care of them regularly, so they don’t wither away. “Small loving affirmation” is “the oil in the engine of a happy relationship.”
7. Checking in with each other helps you stay connected, too.
It’s important to regularly ask: “What have we done to nurture our relationship today?” Blum said. Batshaw referred to this as tak[ing] each other’s pulse and temperature about where you are in the relationship.”
Take stock of your strengths in a relationship.
When thinking about your relationship as a whole, Batshaw suggested taking stock of your strengths. Separately, ask yourselves, “What do I do well?” “What do I feel I’m bringing to the relationship that’s really positive? What do we do as a couple that’s really positive?” Take an honest assessment of your weaknesses, too. “In what areas do I feel like I need to improve? As a couple, what areas do we need to focus more attention on?”
8. Be able to talk about tough topics.
This advice comes from Kristen Morrison, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist at The Colorado Center for Clinical Excellence.
Communication is key to making relationships work. Couples need to be able to talk about “areas of disagreement without it turning into a big fight or avoiding [the topic],” she said. And there’s “no need to be afraid because you’re going to be attacked by your partner,” Batshaw said.
9. Resolve conflict “early and often—don’t let stuff accumulate ‘under the rug,’” Blum said.
“If you can’t resolve conflicts productively, you’re really in trouble,” she said. Not surprisingly, unsettled conflict just simmers, festers and creates a deep divide between couples.
Conflict is inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be the enemy. “If you can resolve conflict in a way that both partners feel heard” and like their feelings and needs matter to the other person, then conflict is “an opportunity to get to know each other better and to grow together.”
Even though it doesn’t look like it on the surface, most conflict is “about trying to express needs,” which “we do through swinging the sledgehammer,” Blum said.
One of the best ways to approach conflict is with empathy and compassion—like you would your best friend if they’re having issues with their partner, Blum said. You’d listen to them as they’re relaying what happened, and try to understand the situation from their perspective. With your partner, listen to what’s “making them unhappy.” You might have to dig deep. “It may sound like criticism. But if you can hear [their needs] underneath…it goes a long way to resolving conflict.”
In the same way, partners need to be able to express their needs “without assassinating the other person.” Also, “We need to know how to actively listen, reflect and clarify. It’s being able to be responsive and present to the other person.”
Morrison suggested these communication strategies:
- Use I statements: “When you do ______, I feel _______, because _______.” Morrison shared this example: “When you come home late, I feel sad and disregarded, because I really want to spend time with you.” In other words, “The key is to define a specific behavior, identify how it makes you feel and explain why you feel that way. It can be a helpful tool for expressing concerns, because you’re not presenting the concern as an accusation” or absolute fact.
- Avoid using extremes like “always, never, every time.”
- Don’t name-call.
- “Timing is really key.” Instead of “diving head first into a tough topic when someone walks through the door,” find a good time to talk.
- “Take one specific issue that’s going on and talk about it.” Oftentimes, couples “try to take on their entire world of problems at once,” which is overwhelming. Instead, take one small piece of the problem. You’re also more likely to have success.
If you’re still stuck, try short-term couples therapy, Blum said.
10. Sexual intimacy is important.
A sexual relationship is what separates your relationships with friends, family and close colleagues, Blum said. Also, “put priority on being physical and physically affectionate beyond sexually,” Batshaw said.
11. There’s a difference between real intimacy and codependency.
One of the biggest misconceptions about relationships is the difference “between codependency and closeness or real intimacy,” Batshaw said. Codependency has this us-against-the-world connotation, where couples “do everything for each other,” he said. This creates the expectation that your partner will always attend to your needs.
But real intimacy or closeness involves attending to both needs. Say you come home after a rough day and all you want is for your partner to listen to what happened and cook dinner. But then you notice that they’re also a wreck. If you’re codependent, you recount your worst-day-ever experience and still expect the talk and meal.
If you’re intimate, however, you acknowledge that it’d be great if your partner could do these things, but it’s OK if they can’t, Batshaw said. You’re still honest about your awful day and explain what you need, asking something like, “Are you in a place where you can hear me now?’” If your partner is too stressed, cook together and talk afterwards. Most people, unfortunately, aren’t good at this, and it turns into a debate of whose needs are greatest, Batshaw said.
12. Making small changes may be harder than you think.
Does this example sound familiar? You ask your partner to call you when they’re going to be late because you get worried. But they don’t. Again. Inevitably, you’re left bewildered, wondering why they can’t do something so simple—especially when they know it upsets you and calling is as easy as “turn[ing] off the light switch when they leave the room,” Solley said.
Making small changes may be harder than you think.
But there are many reasons why they don’t call or make another small behavioral change. Solley believes that patterns from the person’s childhood are to blame. For instance, your partner’s mother might’ve nagged and smothered them, so they responded by “forgetting” to call as a way to create “a boundary against potential intrusion.” This “developmental change,” he said, “refers back to emotional patterns learned automatically and unconsciously during childhood development.”
And it goes back to attachment: If you developed an insecure attachment as a child, you might have more issues with developmental changes, he said. (“In insecurely attached relationships both partners tend to demand changes of each other, each thinking it should be easy for the other and feeling hurt—which often comes out as anger—when the other doesn’t follow suit.”)
What can you do? “Provide compassionate support and understanding of the old behavior.” It can take “weeks, months or longer” to make a change, “depending on the intensity and complexity of the underlying developmental emotional experience, and the abilities of both partners to understand and treat it with compassion.”
13. “The connection-protection balance” is a big obstacle in relationships.
People in relationships waver between wanting to connect with their partner and wanting to preserve their identity and protect themselves. As Solley said: “We want to merge together and feel the bliss of unbounded connection, warmth and security, but on the other hand we want to be independent, to make our own choices, have our own ideas, explore and avoid being hurt.”
Here’s a simple example: You say to your partner, “You’re driving too fast.” They respond with, “No I’m not.” Here, you’re being protective of your physical safety and they’re being protective of their skills and against your criticism. “Both are leaning on self-protection at the expense of connection.” The better alternative? Discuss your feelings (e.g., “I get scared when the car is moving this fast” and “I’m hurt that you don’t trust my driving.”); or empathize (e.g., “I know you’re confident in your driving but I need to feel safer,” and “Is my driving making you nervous?”).
14. “Your passion in your life should not be your relationship. [It should be] one of many different passions,” Batshaw said.
For instance, “very successful couples have high job satisfaction,” he said. “They get a lot of nutritive, sustaining and emotional self-esteem outside of their relationship from their work.” Partners also have their own hobbies and time to be with friends.
15. Relationships require “continuous work and maintenance,” Morrison said.
In our culture, couples aren’t taught how to maintain healthy relationships, Blum said. Instead, we think that love just fuels the relationship and it’ll somehow work out. Morrison agreed: There’s “this unrealistic view of relationships that once you say ‘I Do,’ you’re riding into the sunset.”
But relationships require “a lot of skill, attention and energy,” Blum said. Which is surprising to people, even though, for instance, everyone knows that continuous physical activity is key to good health. But we don’t “have the same mindset about a relationship.” In fact, you may need to work harder over time as your relationship experiences changes like kids, health problems and new careers, Morrison said.
Experts also underscored the importance of being compatible and participating in new experiences together.