THE TWO THINGS YOU HAVE TO CHANGE IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP
So you don’t know where to start. All of the things that have felt wrong in your relationship feel overwhelming. The fighting has got worse and worse over time. You do not talk anymore because you just want to avoid the next fight. And, eventually, you end up only interacting when you fight.
How would you even start to change things in your relationship? When that happens, I have found that there are usually two things that have to change in order to make positive impact on your relationship: Behavior and Instinct.
Changing Your Behavior
There is not really a good way around it. If you want your relationship to change, there are just some behaviors that do not work in a healthy relationship. Basketball is the only sport that I ever played consistently growing up, and I have a soft spot for it because my Grandpa and I bonded over it. And I had an awful form when I started. My elbow on my shooting hand would fly out to the side when I would take shots. My Grandpa taught me to keep my elbow in a straight line with my body and the basket. Behavior changes are all about repetition, just like changing how you shoot.
I talk a lot with my couples about increasing the amount of time that they spend together. This means that intentional time needs to be set aside for you and your partner to spend time together. Time dedicated to your relationship needs to be for the purpose of being together, separate from the logistical aspects of having a life together, i.e. kids, household stuff, etc.
You will also want to change how you behave during conflict. Research shows that there is a “Magic Relationship Ratio” for successful conflict. The ratio is 5 positive interactions for each negative interaction. You want to decrease the number of times that you criticize your partner and increase the ways you voice appreciation. You want to minimize raised voices, cursing, or any physically aggressive gestures.
Changing Your Instincts
I recently played basketball for the first time in years. And I noticed that my elbow was flying out to the right just like it used to. That is because I quit playing regularly when I quit growing taller around age 15. I had not changed my instincts, so I reverted back to my old ways. Research shows that becoming more responsive to your emotions and your partner’s emotions improves the likelihood that change will last.
This is the part of change that is difficult to do without a therapist’s help. It is hard because it requires a lot of slowing down. I also want to emphasize that you are trying to respond to emotions, not react to them.
It is also difficult because not all emotions are equally useful. Most couples do not have trouble communicating anger or frustration. Communicating the vulnerable emotion behind the protective, defensive emotions is the hard part. You will need to share these more vulnerable emotions without blame. Explore how emotions impact you and your partner before picking up whatever issue you were fighting over to start with.