One of the first questions couples often ask me when embarking on couples therapy in my office is, “What kinds of behaviors can we practice when we are at home?” Although a couple may have endured a specific painful event or pattern of dysfunction as a lead-up to trying therapy, their nuanced, day-to-day treatment of each other is also often a place to start the healing.
Read on for three tips that you can begin today in all of your relationships – including friendships, parent-child relationships, and your family-of-origin!
1) Consider your partner’s personality objectively. In relationships, even the most clear-headed of us often fall prey to the dreaded P-word: “Personalizing.” You may have wants and needs in your relationship that are not being met, and it can feel like your partner is consistently dropping the ball. While this might be the case, I encourage you to take your partner’s whole personality into consideration.
For example, you may be a person who loves to find a note in your suitcase when you go out of town. As soon as you get out the door, you might sneak a peek into the side pocket, hoping for a sign that your partner will be thinking of you when you are on your business trip. When the search comes up empty, your mind might immediately jump to, “Wow…I guess I was wrong about him/her missing me.” As you notice these thoughts of resentment bubbling up, I encourage you to pause momentarily and consider one thing: “Is my partner objectively someone who expresses his or her love through random acts of kindness? Is he or she the note-writing type?”
Upon consideration, you may recognize that your partner has trouble remembering to pack socks on a vacation, close the cupboard doors, or make a grocery list before heading out the door. In many instances in relationships, we may jump to making it about us: “He/she must not care about me as much as I thought,” rather than about the nuances of our partners: “She’s very forgetful, so she prefers to give words of affirmation to show her love.” This might be your partner’s pattern with everyone in his or her life, not just you.
However, this does not mean that you can’t have your own preferred ways of being loved, and request these acts of love from your partner. A willingness from both you and your partner to honor one another’s needs and be willing to grow is essential for the health of the relationship. But being realistic about our partners’ personalities on an objective level can help us keep from personalizing the little things, communicate our needs more clearly, and minimize resentment in the relationship.
2) Get to know your triggers, and figure out how to work around them. Arguments in relationships often include a heavy dose of mindreading, and partners often assume their moods are clear without offering any verbal indication to their partner. Perhaps you find yourself in your moodiest state when you’re hungry, have had a long commute, and know you have a big day to follow the one you’re presently in. It’s your work to identify that information and communicate it. It is not your partner’s job to mindread it!
Particularly in instances where you have been with your partner for years or decades, you may expect him or her to know how you’re registering emotionally at all times. While this is often a bonus of being in a long-term relationship, communication is still key. If you’re able to identify your triggers independently and in advance, you will likely have an easier time asking your partner for a few moments of silence when you walk in the door, extra help with the kids, or a supportive hug - rather than exploding when he or she does not offer the help that they did not know you needed.
3) Honor apology attempts, even if you can’t forgive just yet. Take a moment to imagine your most recent argument with your partner, particularly taking time to explore the emotions you were feeling in your mind, heart, and body. In most instances, you were likely feeling a lot – and so was your partner. One of you may have chosen to break the ice, come forward and apologize, despite knowing that both of you were at very low places emotionally.
Apologies are often delivered at the “wrong” time, contain the “wrong” words, or aren’t said with the “right” tone. There may be a significant amount of pain left to explore that cannot be wrapped up with a simple apology, especially for heavier arguments that could touch upon loaded topics, past hurts, or ongoing issues. However, as a therapist (and a human!), I encourage all partners to consider the bravery and effort that is put forth when a person attempts an authentic apology. Ongoing distance and disconnect often have even more space to grow in relationships when attempts are made towards resolution and those attempts are shamed, criticized, or shut down.
An apology is not necessarily the magical elixir to closing out an argument. However, a simple statement such as, “I appreciate you trying to apologize. I’m really not there yet and I still need space, but I see your effort here,” can go a long way when it comes to healing deeper wounds.
The common thread to these three tips? As humans, we are not perfect or infallible – this applies to both you and your partner. Making space for acceptance, understanding, and communication are key to keeping the peace at home. Practicing these reminders on a daily basis will help create a new foundation that is built upon loving compassion, and will give you both an established roadmap for navigating future bumps in the road.