Our new life of quarantine, disrupted schedules, and a host of other anxieties will force us to maintain our relationships in new and better ways. I’ve had the privilege of working as a therapist for over 30 years, and I am writing to share the tools that I have repeatedly found to be fundamental for couples who want to strengthen their relationships. These basic tools are useful and important even when a relationship is relatively stable:
- Take 5-10 minutes a day to check in with one another. The check-in should be face to face and alone. This means no phones, computers, children, or even pets. It is important to check in with how you are doing emotionally, physically, and spiritually (if this language works for you) before you move to plans, lists, and agendas. Give one another your undivided attention—take time to really look at and listen to your partner. If you have children, let them know this is your time as a couple and they are not to interrupt. This places a boundary around you as a couple and models for them the importance of your relationship.
- Learn one another’s love language and make an effort to use it. The love languages speak to the way one feels most loved or cared about. They are: quality time, physical touch, gift giving, acts of service, and words affirmation. If you do not know your love language you can take a free quiz at 5lovelanguages.com. I have also listed additional references at the end of this article if you would like to learn about the love languages in more depth.
- Fight Fair! This one is so important! I see couples making the same destructive mistakes over and over. I am attaching a list of fair fighting rules. However, I will discuss the three which I believe are most essential:
……Use time out as soon as your anger begins to escalate. Nothing good will come from continuing to interact in the face of intense anger. Whoever decides to call time out should communicate this clearly and assure their partner they just need some time and are committed to coming back to address. Time out should never be used to punish, abandon, or stonewall one another.
……Do not threaten to leave the relationship during the course of an argument. Successful and resilient couples convey the message to one another that they are committed to making their relationship work. They do not resort to threats of divorce or breaking up, even during the most heated argument. These threats undermine safety, security, and willingness to be vulnerable with one another.
……Stay in the present. Don’t revisit fights, events, or slights from the past. Refrain from giving your partner a laundry list of everything they did wrong in the past week or month. Do your best to communicate how you are feeling in the present moment, taking responsibility for your emotions rather than attacking or blaming.
- Notice when your partner is being thoughtful, making an effort to meet your needs, visibly working on changing something you have requested, being patient, being vulnerable, etc. Acknowledge their efforts! Verbalize every positive attribute and action that you notice and express appreciation. Do this often and consistently.
- Use the 24-hour rule. Remember that time is your ally. If you are struggling with making a decision about your relationship or whether you should say or do something while you are angry, anxious, very frustrated, or otherwise emotionally triggered—wait 24 hours and then revisit your decision. You will be surprised how different things can look in 24 hours. I predict that you will be grateful you waited.
- Remember not to take yourselves too seriously. Incorporate laughter and playfulness when possible. I know a couple who has named a fictitious character to blame things on when things go wrong (i.e. George left his cereal bowl on the coffee table again!).
Remember: in the end, we all want the same thing. We want to know that we are loved and that we matter. We want to know that we are safe to be ourselves and that our partner sees us when we are vulnerable or scared or angry and loves us anyway. We want honesty, loyalty, to trust, and be trusted.