Bettering your bond with your partner can feel unachievable when life keeps buzzing along. But you can implement these bite-sized tips daily.
Isn’t love grand? Well, at least the beginning stages seem pretty grand, when you’re falling in love and everything is smooth-sailing.
As for the stuff that comes afterward, well… that doesn’t always seem so grand.
Maybe the arguments have more frequent and you’re having trouble conveying your needs. It may be time to reassess your ingrained habits in the relationship.
Working to save a relationship can take a lot of work, but if you and your partner approach it from a place of empathy, you’d be surprised at the progress that you can make.
“Every couple argues to a certain degree,” says Dr. Elana Hoffman, a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C.
“However, it can start to feel hopeless if one or both people feel like things can never be resolved… and it’s also often indicative of one or both people feeling as though their needs are not being met.”
Here are some general themes to keep in mind when working to improve your relationship:
- Think about what could be fueling your partner’s present emotions beneath the surface.
- Don’t take things personally, even if negative emotions are directed toward you.
- Remember to verbalize gratitude and apologies.
- Be mindful of your own biases and scars from previous relationships.
- Ask open-ended questions.
- Practice active listening and reflective listening.
- Learn your mate’s love language, and become fluent.
If you look at this list and ask “But how?,” you might begin by trying these approachable tips.
Identify your emotional triggers
Everyone has their “Do Not Push” button in an argument — the one topic that can launch us completely into the irrational stratosphere of anger in mere seconds.
The reason that these things hit so differently is likely tied to a past hurt or trauma that you experienced.
For example, say that you grew up with an abusive parent who took advantage of the other hardworking parent. If you feel like your partner has stopped contributing to the housework lately, you may become disproportionately mad if they don’t clear the table after dinner.
Suddenly, something relatively insignificant like an unclean table is the launchpad for a major fight.
Learning to identify your emotional triggers, and more importantly, why you react to them, will help you become a better communicator. Self-reflection is key to anyone’s emotional growth and the more you can understand your reactions, the more productive your conversations could be.
Here’s a helpful primer on going from identifying your feelings to articulating them.
Know when to yield
One of the hardest things to do during a conflict is to stop and redirect the focus. We’ve all said the wrong thing that we wished we could take back after we weren’t so angry.
Have you ever drafted a “strongly worded” email to a colleague in frustration, but after calming down, took some of the venom out of it before hitting the “Send” button?
Being able to brake, downshift, and reassess your feelings is a good way to maintain healthy social connections, so why shouldn’t you apply it to your romantic relationships, too?
If you’re in an argument with your partner that seems to be getting a little too heated, see if there’s an opportunity to hit pause, go for a walk, and revisit the issue once both of you have had a chance to breathe.
Let’s be honest, your partner is a pretty special person to you. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have chosen to be with them. You were likely drawn to qualities in them that made them intriguing. Being intimate with someone means staying interested and ever-curious about who they are and how they think.
This kind of curiosity and interest can be applied during communication too. While it may be tough to do during a fight, you can take some time afterward to connect with your partner and objectively explore the choices they made and allow them to explore your thought process as well.
Sometimes exploring how communication devolved can navigate your choices the next time you two talk.
Become an expert in empathy
One of the earliest lessons that we learn growing up is to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” because it introduced you to the concept of empathy.
Empathy is about more than just acknowledging someone’s feelings. It’s also about trying to understand how those feelings are influencing their actions.
It’s easy to lose sight of empathy in the heat of an argument because your partner’s point of view stands in the way of yours. If you could only make them see it your way, then the argument would be over. Right?
This kind of thinking stops you from showing empathy because it tries to simply remove your partner as an obstacle and doesn’t stop to question why they were pushing back in the first place.
“When someone feels listened to and empathized with, they’re more likely to continue to open up and share more, which leads to more intimacy and closeness overall,” explains Hoffman.
“When a person feels shut down, like they are never listened to… they will shut down over time. This can erode a relationship and result in very surface-level communication and increased emotional separation.”
Read between the lines
An argument between strangers is largely two-dimensional because you don’t know them and they don’t know you. One person hurls their insult, another may give them a piece of their mind, and then it usually fizzles out.
This isn’t the case for romantic partners who can bring years of baggage, expectations, resentment, and history into quarrels. Often with couples, what they’re arguing about on the surface isn’t what they are actually fighting about if we were to dig a little deeper.
“It can be difficult to identify what is underneath the surface of arguments about ‘trivial’ things,” explains Hoffman.
“Most of these arguments are actually about an unmet need, which is often that one or both people feel like they are not being taken care of in some way… In order to help identify what’s happening under the surface, couples need to think deeply about what they are really asking for, and communicate that.”
Be slow to anger, quick to listen
During a spat, tempers flare, egos inflate, and a battle gets underway. A heated argument can sometimes feel like going to war. But, as we rush to fortify our defenses and deploy our secret weapons, are we stopping to actually hear our partners out?
When talking to your mate, it’s easy to fall back on old exaggerations or hold our partner’s past behavior against them. We might even get mad all over again when we think back to their past actions.
The problem is that we allow our anger to cloud out our partner in the present. Even if they may have acted selfishly in the past, it doesn’t mean that selfishness is what is driving them today.
When we don’t listen to our partners, we deny them the opportunity to be validated and feel loved. Your relationship can’t move into the future if you’re still fighting someone from the past.
You know them best, why not anticipate their needs?
In order for a relationship to heal, both partners need to actively want to work toward improving their relationship.
Doing the work is hard, but it’s a hardship that you must frame as a positive challenge, otherwise you’ll likely be less motivated to keep working when the relationship hits a speed bump.
You might try challenging yourself by anticipating what their needs are and what they may need from you in the future. If you know your partner is going into a challenging work week, for example, you can prepare yourself for being extra supportive during that time.
In fact, a 2018 study showed that when a partner was able to explain a stressful situation to an attentive, listening partner, they were more likely to report higher levels of satisfaction with their relationship.
If you want to strengthen your relationship, don’t just passively listen to your partner — let them know that they’re being heard.
“People often jump to problem-solving and skip the empathy part because they want to fix it,” explains Hoffman.
“The intentions are good because it’s hard to see someone you love in pain… however, often a person just wants their partner to listen and empathize.”
It’s possible to improve a relationship if both partners still believe that there’s a rewarding partnership underneath all the communication breakdowns.
You might try to think back to what initially drew you to your partner in the first place and what about them captured your attention and excited you. Take that spirit of fascination and curiosity into your intimacy and points of contention. You can seek to understand and foster empathy.
You could also make a point to hear them out, pause before reacting in anger, stay in the present, and communicate your feelings, your gratitude, and your apologies clearly.
You both deserve to feel validated.