5 Steps to a More Loving, Closer Relationship
Wendy Bravo, LMFT
Has your partner ever complained that you don’t listen to them or don’t understand them? Has he/she stopped sharing as much as they used to? Do you sometimes feel frustrated because your problem-solving efforts are not appreciated?
This mismatch between what one partner needs and what the other one gives is a very common problem. As a marriage and couples therapist I see this obstacle quite often and the pain and frustration it creates in relationships. Many couples struggle with how to be more supportive of each other. One partner’s good intentions, trying to problem-solve, can backfire and make the other partner feel frustrated, instead of supported. And the partner with good intentions ends up feeling unappreciated.
After years of helping couples strengthen their relationships, I would like to share with you five steps that can help you be more supportive of your partner and develop a closer, more loving relationship.
Step 1. Ask. Before your partner tells you about a concern, ask them, “Would you like me to listen and be supportive or are you hoping for my input and some problem-solving?”. Although it may feel a little awkward asking this, it shows your respect and allows you to know how best to respond.
Step 2. Honor their Preference. Do what your partner would like you to do. Do not try to convince him/her otherwise. If they want help problem-solving, do that and skip steps 3-5. If they’d like you to listen and provide support, then move on to the next steps. Often it’s much harder than you realize to hold yourself back from giving input or advice, but with practice it becomes easier AND you will be rewarded with a closer, more loving relationship.
Step 3. Active Listening. If your partner would like you to listen, don’t just sit and nod every once in a while. You can do something better, active listening. This means you listen and try to understand your partner’s point of view. You ask questions to clarify and make sure you are on the same page, but DON’T try to change their view point. For instance, “What was it about your boss’ request that bothered you?” You can also summarize every now and then so your partner sees you are following what they are saying. For instance, “Let me see if I understand, your boss raised his voice and was rude when he asked you to have a report by 5 pm. Am I getting this right?”
Step 4. Empathy. It’s helpful to go beyond understanding the content of what happened, by using empathy. You can try to get a sense of how your partner feels about what happened to them. For instance, “I imagine you might have felt ____________ (feelings) when _____________ (situation) happened.” If you have no idea how your partner might have felt, it’s ok to ask: “How did you feel when ____________(upsetting situation) happened?” Talking about feelings is not just for therapists, taking the time to guess how the other person felt, allows you to develop more closeness.
Step 5. Validation of Feelings. Sometimes it’s difficult to see our partners feeling upset. When we feel uncomfortable we tend to rush to try to make them feel better, sometimes invalidating their feelings. Let’s imagine that your partner says: “I’m just so sad that my boss would treat me that way.” Then you reply: “I think you are being oversensitive. I bet he was just stressed out and it was nothing personal.” Your intentions were good, you were trying to stop your partner from feeling sad, but you invalidated her/his feelings. This often ruptures any closeness and can create hostility. This pattern of invalidation of feelings often causes partners to stop sharing their feelings with you as a way to avoid this situation from happening. A more useful approach to help your partner feel better is to understand them, use empathy and validate their feelings. Very often this is all that is needed!
I encourage you to start practicing these steps today. Start with a concern that is not as intense or difficult to deal with. Once you feel more confident you can begin to address harder topics. Remember that you and your partner don’t have to do this alone. Often these skills are much harder to use than it seems and there is no shame in getting help. Seeking out and starting couples therapy where you are assigned effective and practical assignments can have a dramatic effect on the quality and closeness of your relationship. In many instances you can start seeing improvements after a few counseling meetings. Here’s to a more loving, closer relationship!
Contact us to schedule an appointment to discuss your relationship concerns in more depth by calling 650-461-9026