Many couples are skilled at complaining and arguing. Our brains tend to focus on the negative to keep us safe. The problem is that we need to be vulnerable rather than safe in intimate relationships. We need to be open rather than protective. In arguments, there ends up being one winner and one loser. Winning is losing in relationships. What we want to do is express ourselves with love and respect at all times, even when we are fighting.
Terry Real, who created Relational Life Therapy, identifies five winning strategies for healthy relationships:
LISTEN AND RESPOND GENEROUSLY: Listen to understand. Acknowledge what you can. Give what you can.
Listen to what your partner says and validate their perspective, even if you disagree. It’s essential that you don’t correct your partner’s inaccuracies or defend yourself when listening. If you want to be heard, understood, respected, cared for, etc., first model it. You will have your time to share.
EMPOWER ONE ANOTHER: Let go of control. Support your partner.
The tables turn, and the listener now speaks up about what they need to help them make good on their intentions. (Ex. “teach me how to comfort you,” or “express appreciation soon after I _____ to positively reinforce my behavior”)
COMPLAIN CONSTRUCTIVELY: Get past the complaint and make a request. It’s the only way to get your needs met.
Make your requests specific, behavioral, and reasonable. Move from negative past-oriented statements (“You never appreciate the things I do for you”) to positive future-oriented statements (Ex: “It would mean a lot to me if you expressed appreciation for the things I do for you and our family.”)
CHERISH WHAT YOU HAVE: Remember that you are speaking to someone you love. At the very least, remember you have to live with them.
Partners rarely let each other know how much they appreciate the effort or the positive qualities they enjoy in each other. They often don’t even allow themselves to acknowledge the many wonderful aspects of their partners- until they face the possibility of loss. Don’t wait for a crisis to cherish your life’s abundance.
GO AFTER WHAT YOU WANT: Ask yourself, “What do I want right now?” Ask for it.
Let yourself think about what it is that you want in your relationship. Allow yourself to ask for what you want with love and respect. It takes patience and practice to push through the desire to stay safe and complain to move towards a healthy request.
While incredibly powerful and transformative, these strategies take time and effort to implement. It is imperative that you are patient with your partner and yourself while you make mistakes and work towards more healthy relational patterns.
Relationships are tough, and most of us had a dysfunctional model in our family of origin. Remember that you and your partner are doing the best you can with what you know at all times. Your relationship is worth the effort.