Over the years I have been practicing counseling in San Diego, I have helped many couples recognize and repair relationship issues, which has subsequently allowed them to rekindle the romance in their relationship and strengthen the bond between them. Through the process of couples counseling, I have noticed that there tends to be four common, recurring trends, which I refer to as “relationship ingredients”. These key “ingredients” allow for a successful and fulfilling partnership. The first two are things that you can do to encourage a healthy relationship with your partner, while the latter two are things you should avoid doing in your relationship. I will name and describe these four ingredients below, which I encourage you to practice and work on with your partner in between relationship counseling sessions.
Ingredient #1: Acceptance and Validation
Feeling accepted and having your actions validated by your spouse or partner are important components of any relationship. Everyone likes to feel as though their behaviors are meaningful and effective, and by frequently validating your partner, you are sending a message to him/her that what they are doing is acceptable and valuable to you. Whether you are in a long-term relationship or are married, accepting one another is a key ingredient to your relationship’s overall success. For instance, if you have perhaps gained a little unwanted weight (which tends to happen over the holiday season!), your partner can show acceptance by saying something like: “Well, I still think you look great” or “It doesn’t matter to me if you’ve gained or lost weight – you’re still you”. This displays to the recipient that you are accepted for who you are, regardless of what you may look like on the outside. Keep in mind, however, that acceptance doesn’t always have to be about appearance – there are many other ways in which you can demonstrate validation and acceptance in your relationship with your partner. In my counseling experience I have noticed that conflicts in relationships often begin when one partner fails to validate or accept the other. Things such as criticism or devaluing another’s actions or behaviors can, in turn, weaken the bonds in your relationship. While certainly it is unreasonable to expect validation and acceptanceall of the time in your relationship (since after all we are humans who make errors from time to time), the majority of your interactions with your spouse should be positive and include components that validate and display unconditional acceptance of his/her behavior, actions, and choices. Doing so will strengthen the number of positive interactions in your relationship, which will subsequently strengthen your relationship overall. One tip which I always suggest is to try to focus on positive things your partner is doing, and speak to those behaviors. For example, you could say something like: “I really appreciate that you took it upon yourself to tidy the house today”. This not only shows that you noticed your partner’s positive behavior, but that you are acknowledging and praising it. Doing so will make your partner feel good about himself/herself and also more likely to repeat the desired behavior in the future. Keep in mind that your validating and accepting remarks should be genuine and from the heart. Don’t say something just for the sake of saying it. Mean what you say and say what you mean!
Ingredient #2: Feeling Influential
We all enjoy feeling like causal agents over another’s behavior, particularly our partner’s behavior. However, being influential is different from being pushy and wanting things done your way all the time. You can be positively influential by encouraging your partner to behave in a certain way which benefits you both. Being pushy or demanding takes away from the overall relationship dynamic and hinders (rather than helps) the bond between you and your partner. To be influential does not mean that we have to force our partner to agree with everything we think or say all the time. Instead, we can be influential by politely stating what we believe and by knowing that regardless of whether our partner agrees, he/she has heard what we have said. Remember, your partner is exactly that: a partner. The two of your should be on the same team and fighting for the same common goal. If you are constantly butting heads and not listening to one another, conflict is inevitable and could even be detrimental to the survival of your relationship. You may state your beliefs, opinions, and perspectives respectfully, keeping in mind that your partner does not always have to agree with you. However, as long as he/she is listening to you and being respectful of your thoughts in return, you can still feel satisfied knowing that your partner has given serious thought to what you have said and taken your perspective into consideration. By doing so, you can still be influential without being pushy and causing conflict. For example, even if you don’t agree with what your partner has said to you, you could say something like: “While I’m still unsure about how I’m going to handle this problem, I’ve been thinking about what you have said and considering your thoughts”, or “While I disagree with you about __________, I agree with you about __________”. The aforementioned statements show validation, acceptance, and consideration of your partner’s thoughts and feelings. In a relationship, you are never going to agree on every little thing 100% of the time, but there are definitely ways in which you can listen to one another and feel as though what you have said matters. This is the key to being and feeling influential in your relationship.
Ingredient #3: Avoid Stating the Obvious
In any relationship or partnership, it usually causes conflict when one partner “states the obvious” to the other partner. Doing this can be interpreted as “rubbing it in” or nagging. For instance, telling your spouse something that he/she already knows can be irritating to the recipient of these comments, and will often cause a response that is clouded with anger, frustration, or complete withdrawal. It is very easy to let our own frustrations about something our partner has (or has not) done affect our interactions with our partner about these things. Most of the time, we cannot help ourselves and end up using “you should have” or “you could have” statements. Remember, remarks like this are unhelpful and often counterproductive, particularly in situations where it is too late to correct what has already been done. A good example of stating the obvious is the common: “You should have just pulled over and asked for directions like I told you to because now we’re lost”. Just about everyone finds themselves in this situation at some point. However, if the two of you are lost while driving, chances are you are both already frustrated and angry.
Therefore, saying something that includes the phrase “you should have” typically adds fuel to the already-burning fire. Emotions are heightened, tempers are flaring, and you are sitting there stating the obvious and pointing out your partner’s mistakes when he/she is already upset and probably knows deep down that he/she has screwed up. This is not to say that you are not allowed to feel angry or frustrated yourself, but instead you could express your feelings differently and in such a way that it does not come across as a personal attack to your partner. Doing so will likely avoid conflicts and arguments, and possibly even deescalate the problem. Using the above example with the directions, this could be re-phrased as: “It is frustrating that we’re lost, but we could always pull into this plaza and ask for directions now”. In the latter statement, you are acknowledging your feelings about being lost, but are avoiding conflict since your statement is not accusatory in nature. You are not blaming your partner for being lost, but are instead trying to help find a solution to get yourselves out of the current dilemma. Stating the obvious and telling your partner what he/she should have or could have done differently does not usually help in situations like these. Instead, try being present-focused and solution-oriented. You will find that your interactions with your partner are more positive and that the conflicts between you are lessened.
Ingredient #4: Avoid Passing Negative Judgments
Judgmental statements are often reflexive, meaning that half the time, we pass judgment on our partner without realizing that we are doing so. It is within human nature to judge. We judge others based on our past experiences and because we have been judged by others ourselves. Thinking before you speak is the easiest way to combat this often instinctive ritual. Statements like: “You don’t ever pick up after yourself, you’re so lazy” or “You must be deaf because you never listen to a word I say!” imply a negative judgment of your partner, and will most likely be received poorly. Your partner will either retaliate with a counter judgment, or withdraw from you completely. Both are negative responses and can be detrimental to your relationship. Judgmental statements can be hurtful, and as well all know after certain things are said, no amount of apologies can erase what has already been said and done. Of course saying that you’re sorry is worth something if you truly are regretful for what you’ve said, but it still doesn’t negate the fact that what you did was pass a negative judgment onto your partner. The old saying “Think before you speak” could not be more accurate in instances like these. If we all thought about the potential repercussions before we spoke or negatively judged one another, we would be living in a perfect world. Therefore I am not suggesting that it is possible to never judge another person, either positively or negatively, because this is unrealistic and not within the nature of human beings. However, I am suggesting that you attempt to make yourself aware of the power that your statements hold, and the possible effects they could have on your partner’s ego. There are other ways to get your point across in most cases, and this can be done without insulting or negatively judging your partner’s character or behaviors.
Overall, the four aforementioned “ingredients” in a good relationship are helpful to both resolve and avoid the inevitable conflicts between you and your partner. By practicing these key ingredients in between your couples counseling sessions, and being mindful and respectful in both your actions and words, you and your partner will soon be on the road to an enjoyable, healthy, and successful relationship!
Copyright ©2012 Jan Rakoff. All Rights Reserved.