5 Strategies to Improve Your Relationship and Avoid Separation

Improve your relationshipAs a couples therapist, I have repeatedly seen the impact that separation or divorce can have on couples and families. This article focuses on 5 perspectives and strategies that can help improve your relationship and avoid separation. As a precursor to this article, I invite you to first read a blog I wrote and is published on my website entitled 5 Mistakes Couples Make that Lead to Separation or Divorce, which might provide additional context to the strategies shared herein.

Strategy #1 to improve your relationship: Nurture the friendship. Improve your relationship

Improve relationship

One way to help maintain the health of a romantic relationship is to nurture the friendship with your partner. Consider couples you currently know. Some might appear to really like each other and be good friends. Others seem to take every opportunity to bad-mouth their partner and no longer seem to enjoy spending time together. Even if you fall into the former category, learning how to nurture friendship with your romantic partner can increase happiness in the relationship and support long-term success.

We’ve all had friends come and go in our lives for various reasons including relocation or intentionally distancing from a friend you see as toxic. But sometimes friendships fade away simply because time and effort are not put into maintaining the friendship. This can be particularly challenging in a long-term romantic relationship where we often have multiple roles in relation to our partner (e.g., roommate, financial partner, parenting partner, etc.). With so many other roles that demand time and attention, friendship can easily be neglected.

Why is friendship important in a romantic relationship?

We tend to treat our friends differently than people we do not particularly like. We enjoy spending time with people with whom we share interests, deep conversations, or activities. And let’s face it, we are often more tolerant of annoying behavior and give the benefit of the doubt to people we see as friends compared to those we do not see as friends. The benefits that come along with friendship help promote connection and positivity in a romantic relationship in ways that the other roles we have in relation to our partner cannot. For example, a recent study concluded that companionship in older couples was associated with higher emotional wellbeing and closeness.

How to nurture a friendship with your partner.

There are numerous ways couples can nurture their friendship. The key is finding effective, sustainable strategies that work for you and your partner. For example, looking for opportunities to do mutually enjoyable things together; things that you both enjoy and give you opportunities to laugh together. Scheduling a night each week or month that you look forward to spending time together as friends. Intentionally sharing details of your life with each other and turning to each other for advice or support…you know, like you would with friends.

If you aren’t sure what you can do together as friends, I encourage you to take time together to make a list; brainstorm activities or days/times you might set aside to nurture the friendship. You might start with things you used to do together that help build your friendship in the first place. Perhaps you can identify a recurring activity or event to make spending time together as friends a more regular part of your lives. You might think of something new you can learn together such as painting or pottery. There might even be an opportunity to work toward a common goal together, such as volunteering together to give back to your community. Regardless of the specifics, make hanging out with your important friend more of a priority in your life and your relationship.

comfortStrategy #2 to improve your relationship: Accept and offer comfort.

One of the most important benefits of a romantic attachment relationship is that your partner can represent a safe haven in your life. Someone you can turn to that can help provide comfort and safety in a sometimes-inhospitable world. (If you like to consume research and are unfamiliar with the concept of attachment and how this concept manifests in our adult lives, this brief summary of selected research articles might be a good starting point – https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/adult-romantic-attachment.) Sometimes, the ups and downs of a relationship might lead to a hesitance, or even stubborn refusal, to offer or receive comfort from your long-term partner.

Learn together how to best provide comfort.

Different people like to be comforted in different ways. The trick is to learn how to offer what your partner experiences as comforting and how to help them learn what feels comforting to you. Some people respond well to hugs or other physical touches like holding hands or resting your hand on their leg or shoulder.  Others feel more comforted by encouraging words. Still others might feel comforted by hearing that you really understand what they are saying and how they are feeling.

It is not a simple rubric either, as someone might feel comforted by a hug in one moment and by encouraging words in another. Using metacommunication (see strategy #5) later, can help you figure out how you might comfort most effectively.

Hesitance can come when you are feeling hurt or frustrated with your partner at a time when comfort is warranted. You might pull away from their efforts to comfort or you might withhold comfort from them, which creates distance in the relationship. It is important to keep the larger picture in mind. The relationship grows in healthy ways when you remember to care for your partner even in moments when you might not feel particularly warm or empathic and allow them to care for you when you are the one needing comforting. Draw upon your love for the other person and a humanistic goal of helping another human being through difficulty. You can always circle back to address the hurt or frustration later, if necessary.

Since you might not naturally give or receive comfort in the very same ways your partner does, teaching each other how to offer comfort in your relationship might require patience and effort. You might need to be explicit about what you hope to get from your partner during moments of distress. You might also need to give feedback to your partner when they have successfully offered or provided comfort. Positive reinforcement (rewarding behavior you hope will recur) can be as simple as thanking them and letting them know that the hug they gave or the words they offered felt good.

Strategy #3 to improve your relationship: Share the hard things with consideration.Avoid separation

Things left unsaid in a long-term relationship can sometimes have as much negative impact (although perhaps less immediate or acute) than hurtful words that are said in the heat of the moment. If we do not share our feelings and perspectives, our partner is left to interpret our body language, actions, or lack of words. And, as you might well know, other people sometimes come to inaccurate conclusions, which can leave you feeling even more alone and misunderstood.

Communication is usually the master key to successful relationships. Building a separation-resistant relationship requires saying difficult things and engaging in hard conversations. There may be reasons you avoid saying difficult things to your loved one. Perhaps you fear the other person’s feelings might get hurt. Or you might want to avoid experiencing the negative emotions you anticipate would come with the conversation. Sometimes, you might simply not know what to say or how to say it.

Pushing through the anxiety of initiating a difficult conversation or saying difficult things might take time and practice. In the meantime, I want to offer you one template of what to say and how to say it. Although this communication skill might go by a cheesy name (pun intended), a ‘feedback sandwich’ can offer a simple and useful guide to follow as you work to share with your partner things that might have previously been left unsaid.

As the name implies, the idea of a feedback sandwich involves putting the difficult feedback between more easily digestible thoughts. For example, suppose there is something your partner does that really bothers you. Your partner seems to think it is cute or funny or playful, and that you enjoy it. By NOT sharing that this bothers you, your partner might continue to think you enjoy it and believe you feel closer to them when it happens. With even this lighthearted example, you can imagine how months or years of this pattern can begin to erode the relationship, rather than strengthen it.

The feedback sandwich offers a template that can help you find ways to say difficult things to your partner and help you stay on track once you start talking. A feedback sandwich can be put together in many ways, and one structure for the feedback sandwich includes the following:

  • Why you are sharing this information or feedback in the first place.
    • In other words, why is the other person, the relationship, or the situation important enough to say the difficult things.
  • What is the difficult feedback.
    • Stick to the facts of the situation and how you feel. (read near the bottom of the blog entitled _________ for some tips on effectively expressing feelings).
  • Possible ways this information or feedback can be useful to you, the other person, or the relationship.

Using the example of a thing your partner does that bothers you, you might open with, “I really care about you and know you care about me. I also want our relationship to be the best it can be, that’s why I want to share this with you.”

Then share the difficult part. “When we are both at home, I notice that you often hide and jump out to startle me. While I believe you are doing that in a fun-loving way, and perhaps there was a time when I found it cute and playful, I find that I really do not enjoy it anymore. In fact, I sometimes feel on edge when we are both at home.”

Then the last part of the sandwich. “I enjoy being playful with you and would love it if we can find another fun way to engage when we are both at home. I think that will help me feel more comfortable when we are home together.”

Practicing this strategy might feel a bit awkward at first and just like anything, will become easier with practice. Again, the key is to find what is sustainable and effective for you and your partner.

positive lensStrategy #4 to improve your relationship: Develop a positive lens.

Imagine you have a pair of glasses that have blue tinted lenses in them. You put the glasses on. Someone holds up a lemon and says, “what color is the lemon.” With the glasses on, you might see the lemon as green or blue. However, the lemon itself is still yellow. You just see it as a different color because of the lens through which you are looking.

It is not a mystery why some people might have developed a tendency to be alert to threats from other people, particularly if they’ve felt intensely hurt or betrayed in previous close relationships. However, maintaining that negative (e.g., defensive) lens in the context of a long-term relationship could be a mistake. If your goal is to enjoy a loving, understanding, and joyful relationship, you might need to change the lens. You wouldn’t use the same lens to view the moon as you would to peer into the distant galaxy.

This is not to overlook the reality that some people and some relationships are abusive. If you are in an abusive relationship, the strategies presented in this blog are not for you. Please seek help to protect yourself immediately. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE (7233), www.thehotline.org) might be a good start and can offer some information about what the different types of domestic abuse might entail.

If you are not in an abusive situation, working to develop a positive lens might help interrupt a negative pattern in your relationship. While nurturing the friendship (strategy #1) will also support the development of a positive lens, there are some steps you can take in the meantime to work on this directly.  

Recognize that a negative lens has developed in the first place.

There is no foolproof way to determine if a negative lens has developed. Experiencing negative thoughts about your partner more often than in the past could be a clue. Sensing that your partner has changed without being about to identify exactly how. Noticing that words and actions you used to see as cute, positive, or loving are now seen as hurtful, stupid, or manipulative. And don’t be afraid to ask a trusted friend to help you gain perspective.

Remember the larger picture.

Let your larger goals inform your motivation and your perspective. For example, you might ask yourself if your goal is to have a healthy relationship or is your goal to be right? While being right can be important in certain situations, in our long-term relationship, it is often more desirable to be understanding and forgiving rather than right. Afterall, righteousness makes a terrible bedfellow.

Challenge automatic thoughts that come through the negative lens.

Automatic thoughts are those thoughts or ideas that we accept without evaluation. “They are just trying to control me again” might be an automatic thought about your partner. If you accept this thought as accurate without even pausing to reevaluate, you might very well be misinterpreting your partner’s intentions. This might leave you feeling frustrated or angry, or make you distance yourself from your partner.

To develop a more positive lens, it can be crucial to challenge those automatic negative thoughts. Ask yourself if the thought is accurate by examining what evidence you have supporting the accuracy of the thought AND which evidence would dispute the accuracy of the thought. Ask yourself if the thought is useful to you right now, particularly in the context of your larger goals. If the thought might not be accurate or useful, replace that thought with a more accurate, useful, and positive thought.

Strategy #5 to improve your relationship: Engage in metacommunication. Communicate better

The term metacommunication is used to refer to communication about communication. Being able to talk about, understand, and fine-tune communication with your partner might be the most important aspect of maintaining a healthy long-term relationship.

What we express, how we express it, and how we interpret our partner’s words can be influenced by many factors. In the “heat of the moment”, it can be difficult to recognize these factors at play, much less overcome them and employ more effective communication strategies. Thus, being able to revisit conversations/interactions, understand what factors were at play in those conversations, and brainstorm how to make interactions more effective in the future is a worthwhile exercise.

Many people are influenced by the impact of messages long-received from parents, society, or previous unhealthy partners. This can affect the way people respond in certain situations. Some people tend to shut down and clam up. Others tend to easily feel blamed and become defensive. Words can have different meanings for different people. And numerous factors can overlap or become tangled deep within, resulting in reactions or responses that can feel confusing or displaced.

When an interaction or discussion seems to go wrong, reflecting on the interaction with your partner after the fact can help develop insight and understanding as to why the conversation went the way it did. Sharing your perception of the conversation, being curious as to how they experienced the interaction, and being open to new perspectives and ways of communicating can be a powerful set of tools to promote healthier, more understanding, and more effective patterns of communication. A recent study demonstrated that for some couples, metacommunication after a conflict can lead to more closeness and greater intimacy in the relationship.

For example, suppose your partner asks you to do something for them today. It happens to be a busy day for you, and you have carefully planned out how you will get it all done. Perhaps you respond with a sharp, “fine.” Or maybe you hardly respond at all and ghost your partner for the rest of the day. Metacommunication might involve coming back later and sharing with your partner that you realize your response was ineffective in that moment. You might arrive at a simple understanding that next time your partner begin a similar future request with, “do you think you might have time to do me a favor today?” That way, your partner is communicating consideration that you might have a lot going on rather than implying that you have time to do whatever they want/need you to do for them.

While there are many possible ways to use metacommunication to improve patterns of interaction, the point is to be thoughtful about why things might not have gone well in an interaction and how future interactions can be more caring, informed, or considerate for both of you.

Hopefully these strategies and perspectives can spur ideas and conversations with your partner that help your relationship become closer and more effective. While there are many additional strategies to be shared in future blogs, consider how you might incorporate the strategies shared here into your relationship. If you’d like more information about any of the concepts shared in this blog, do not hesitate to reach out (contact info below). If you need more direct support in understanding and/or implementing effective strategies in your marriage or relationship, do not hesitate to try therapy. You, and your relationship, are worth it!

Dr. Mike Talks Psych

Dr. Mike Ghali, owner of Individual and Couples Therapy, has been practicing therapy for over 20 years. He recently moved to Colorado Springs, CO with his family. While physically located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he holds in-person sessions, you can also schedule telehealth sessions with Dr. Mike from anywhere in Colorado or Florida.

If you’d like to schedule a free 15-minute consultation call INC Therapy, please click here., then click Schedule, and choose the available time that works best for you and your partner. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Mike at info@inctherapy.org. Please do not include sensitive clinical information in emails.

If you are looking for a presenter for a training or event, please visit www.drmiketalkspsych.com