From the clinicians and staff at Central Iowa Psychological Services
1. Be honest (with yourself and the other person).
This is sometimes the most difficult part of a relationship because honesty requires vulnerability. Brene Brown, an expert on vulnerability and shame, says, “Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.” If you are honest with yourself, you may have to acknowledge your own flaws. Being honest with the other person may risk them being upset with you, which is completely ok. Relationships aren’t about making sure the other person is always happy. They are about being your honest, genuine self and accepting the other person for their honest, genuine self (flaws included).
2. Spend some time away from your phones (and other distractions) to be present with each other.
You can’t build a relationship if you’re not spending quality time together. This means removing distractions. For couples, this might mean a date night without the distracting kiddos. For parents, it could be quality time with your children just listening to them talk about the exciting events in their video game. When your partner, friend, or child is talking to you, put your phone away and make eye contact; this conveys that you truly care about what they are saying.
3. Be direct and sincere in your communication, making an effort to have your nonverbals (like facial expression, intonation, etc.) match the content of what you’re saying.
Research has shown that the actual words a person uses are far less impactful than their body language and tone. When you are upset, it may take extra effort to communicate your feelings in a loving tone, but that slight change can be the difference between an argument and a conversation.
4. Be empathetic. Don’t try to fix – just listen.
When someone you care about is hurting, it’s natural to have the desire to try to take away their pain. You want to solve or fix their problem, but often times, that can make it worse. First, know that it’s ok for people to feel. Second, instead of trying to take away the feelings, help validate your loved ones feelings. Let them know that you understand why they feel the way they do. If your kid is upset about an incident at school, tell them you get it rather than “Get over it.” If your friend just got in a fight with their partner, remember you are on their team, so validate versus correct. The last thing anyone wants to hear when they are upset is about all the things they could’ve done differently. (After you’ve connected with them emotionally, you may have more room to problem-solve).
5. Use “I feel” statements rather than placing blame.
Blame or criticism is one of Dr. John Gottman’s “Four Deadly Horsemen” when it comes to relationships. It implies there is something wrong with the other person and it immediately puts them on the defensive (another deadly horseman). Instead, tell the person how their actions made you feel. “I felt hurt when you did not respond to my text message” rather than “If you would’ve responded to my message we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
6. View the issue(s) separate from the individual(s) and then collaboratively work together to solve it.
Humans are imperfect. We all make mistakes, including you. So, when your loved one does something you dislike, don’t generalize it to be a characteristic of them. That will not be productive. Rather, identify what the issue is and see if you can come up with a solution together. For example, if your colleague is always playing their music too loud, instead of assuming they are rude, remember it is just one behavior (hopefully). And then refer back to number 5 in order to communicate your feelings and work towards problems solving.
7. Patience – relationships, like many worthy investments, take time and effort.
Your relationship will have problems. All relationships do. It’s how you work together to get through those issues that is a sign of a healthy relationship. Remember to be patient with your loved one and that a relationship goes two ways. Both individuals have feelings that need to be attended to. While it may be tempting to discard a relationship when things get tough, remember that working through those tough times can make the relationship stronger. But it also takes both people wanting to work on things. (Note: If you are in an abusive relationship, you should not “tough” it out.)
8. Say thank you and make time each day to tell one another something specific you appreciated today.
“You know I love you, why do I need to say it?” Because everybody needs to be reminded that they are loved and appreciated. Many conversations are centered around what’s going wrong, so make sure you take time to tell your loved ones what they are doing well. Thank your children for cleaning up after themselves or your spouse for making dinner, or your friend for calling to check-in. Let them know that you appreciate the small things, even if it’s what they are “supposed” to be doing. Plus, if you reinforce these positive behaviors through praise, they are more likely to continue doing them.
9. Try to share the feelings that live beneath the surface of the issue you are raising with your partner.
I often tell people, “It’s not about the garbage.” When a couple gets really upset over taking out the garbage, it’s not about the garbage. It’s about deeper feelings. One partner may feel neglected that their partner did not remember to do what they asked. The other partner may feel disrespected because their partner doesn’t trust them to remember. It’s not about the garbage – it’s about all those other things that contributed to feelings of neglect, abandonment, and disrespect. By acknowledging those feelings, you can really begin to identify the core issues and work through them. Underneath anger is often hurt, shame, or fear. Those feelings are difficult to express because it takes vulnerability. If you’re feeling anger, try to identify what’s underneath it and express that. If your loved one is angry, understand that a more vulnerable feeling is likely underneath it.
10. Remember that you cannot fix or change the other person. We are responsible for our own thoughts, feelings, and actions. When each partner is accountable for their own positions, you can have a healthy relationship.