Marriage and/or long-term intimate relationships have the potential to be incredibly rewarding and people generally do the best they can with what they know. Couples can generally do well over time but many hit emotional speed bumps. No matter when or how a relationship feels strain, ideally there is some reflection and curiosity by one or both partners around the sources of distress. And a desire to do something about it.
For those who want to take accountability and be proactive in their relationships, having vision into their role is helpful. Mistakes are often made that impact the emotional safety of the dynamic. The key is to be able to successfully heal any inadvertent wounds that may have occurred. It’s also important to be able to understand where some of your patterns and behaviors come from, possibly stemming from your family of origin.
Just like many learn relationship habits from years ago (possibly reinforced in later adult relationships), new habits and practices can be learned. Learning improved ways to behave together as a couple can help you have a better relationship than you’d even imagined. You can start right now taking your steps to achieve that.
5 Steps to Create Positive Change in Your Relationship
- Learn to communicate effectively. Be sure you’re clear on the basics of good communication. If you are not, educate yourself. Work on approaching your partner with kindness, sensitivity and openness. Learn to listen well. Disagreements and conflict happen in relationships but the key is to be able to move through those situations as effectively as possible, ideally without doing damage to each other with harsh words or criticism and with no resolution. If a conversation gets too heated, it’s ok to take a break to take the temperature down in your nervous systems (when it becomes hard to pull back). Sometimes compromise or agreeing to disagree is how things land. This is better than emotional wounds inflicted on each other that never get repaired, which can become a build up of resentment. Left unchecked, resentment leads to further damage that can be increasingly difficult to repair. Do your best to validate and empathize with your partner’s experience. This will create less reasons for defensiveness and hostility. We all want to feel heard and understood.
- Fully own it. Owning it means taking responsibility for any intentional and unintentional harmful actions and the emotional impact on your partner. Sometimes people almost get there but then negate much of it by following up with explanations for why they behaved in a certain way. It’s ok to flesh out the situation a little further but you can’t skip over the validation and empathy part. They won’t be able to hear you at that point. If you’ve owned your role and validated their experience, be sure to follow up with a heartfelt apology. It can feel vulnerable to open yourself up in this way but it’s an important part of this process.
- Understand it. Take an honest look at yourself and the behaviors in your relationship that have been problematic. Why have they happened? People tend to operate in learned ways and often times when we “act out,” they have been hurt, possibly in a way that feels familiar and stems way back. Maybe you grew up in an environment where you simply weren’t modeled healthy communication. Working through your own family of origin issues can help you not only feel better about yourself but show up in a healthier way in your relationships. The more clarity around who you are, your influences, trauma and the psychological defenses you’ve used to protect yourself, the better equipped you’ll be to create lasting change.
- Give yourself a break. As you work to make a positive impact on your relationship, you will make mistakes. Be sure to practice self-compassion. Humans are inherently flawed and you are no exception. If your intentions, effort and open communication with your partner are there, you’re on the path. If you make a mistake and revert to old behavior, notice it aloud (to yourself and partner), apologize and stay the course.
- Seek help if you need it. Making changes in your relationship can be tough. Ideally, your partner is onboard with you to address your issues as a couple. But if not, you can still have some influence by putting energy into the above steps. But if you get hung up on some of the challenges of your own past, a therapist can help you address that individually or work with you and your partner together if it seems your efforts on their own aren’t enough. If therapy doesn’t resonate with you for whatever reason, I have a few tools that might also help.
- The Marriage Refresher Course Workbook for Couples is my therapist guided alternative to marriage counseling with guidance by me.
- Family of Origin: Untangle Your Unhealthy Roots is my therapist guided exploration into how and why you function the way you do. And how to make changes as needed.
- I offer email Relationship Consultations for those seeking guidance around a specific question.
- See my book recommendations on the right side bar of this page by highly respected helping professionals, for a deeper dive into the above topics.
It can feel daunting when your relationship is struggling. Couples can go in circles through the same issues without seeming to get anywhere. Sometimes it takes new ways to interrupt the negative cycles with coming back to the basics of healthy relationships, emotional safety and the ways people feel connected (vs disconnected). Do the work yourself or better yet, try to get your partner on board to invest the time and energy it takes to get back on track. Those who successfully navigate through their challenges have the potential to not only have a revitalized relationship but renewed hope for their future together.