To make your relationship more fulfilling, you need to identify what to work on.
By Leon F Seltzer Ph.D.
How laborious is it to work on your relationship? Like so many things, its difficulty depends on many factors. For instance, what frustrations and grievances with your partner may you have to confront, or let go of—vs. continuing to keep buried inside? Or how ready (or emotionally prepared) are you to forgive them for the pain or shame their past behaviors caused you?
To help “reset” your relationship and create a fresh start for it—one significantly more satisfying than what it may have degraded to—you need to question:
How righteously, or stubbornly, may you have been clinging to your viewpoints, declaring them superior to—or taking priority over—your partner’s? Couples frequently become polarized in their thinking, not willing to appreciate the fact that viewpoints—all viewpoints—are subjective, and as such can’t be regarded as simply right or wrong. You can’t have a viewpoint on whether 7 + 3 = 10. That’s objective; beyond debate. But outside of such “closed” systems as mathematics, individual perspectives derive from what’s far more psycho/biological than purely scientific.
And these differences aren’t much under our control either, as they’re based on (1) what we learned from our caretakers and general environment about how the world operates and our proper role in it, and (2) our genetic make-up, which determines many of our inclinations, as well as our interests and capabilities. So unless you and your mate are endowed with the same DNA, family, and developmental history, there’s just no way you’ll act and react in precisely the same way. That is, the one thing guaranteed in intimate relationships is disagreement—though such dissidence doesn’t make arguing about disagreements unavoidable.
Regrettably, it’s all too common that when your spouse perceives things differently from you, you’ll feel invalidated by them and—at least subconsciously—actually threatened by them as well. During courtship, couples typically “work on” their relationship by withholding or camouflaging their differences. But when you marry, the deeper “truths” about yourself can’t help but emerge (as do your partner’s). In consequence, you’ll both likely experience a certain betrayal. And so it can be compellingly difficult to talk about your differences in a calm, cooperative (vs. competitive) manner.
How equal have you viewed your partner’s needs as compared to your own? Courtship may have been the one time in your relationship when you valued your partner’s needs and desires as much as your own. Though rarely explored in the literature, this altruistic-seeming behavior may be a (non-erotic) key to what made your connection so captivatingly romantic in the first place. At least part of the reason you became “endeared” to your beloved was that you “held dear” what you believed (or were told) was dear to them. This generous state of mind and feeling occurs before you enter the power struggle phase of your relationship (pretty much universal) when, having successfully endeared yourself to your partner, you conclude—unawares—that you now deserve to be “paid back” in full for such high-minded munificence.
Might it be time, then, to propel yourself back to the more unselfish honeymoon phase of your relationship: a time to re-focus on your partner’s needs and stop pressuring them to better meet your own (while possibly neglecting, or giving short shrift, to theirs)?
How much genuine interest have you shown in what matters to your partner? Whether or not you share a lot of common interests and concerns, if you want to deepen your friendship, it makes good sense to cultivate an interest in what you know your partner cares about. How much do you know about your their likes and dislikes, their friends and acquaintances, or what they’re personally struggling with? Regularly inquiring about such matters may take some effort, but it’s also an expression of love and commitment.
So make it a point to ask your partner about people and activities they may be pursuing. And when they respond, give them your undivided attention. Odds are that your significant other will happily return the favor and, as a result, you’ll both feel closer.
How often have you complimented your partner, or demonstrated your appreciation for them? We all need to feel acknowledged for our achievements and what we contribute to our relationship. But all too frequently we get into the habit of taking our partner for granted (e.g., see my post: “The Perils of Taking Each Other for Granted”). One of the best ways to improve the quality of your relationship is to focus more on—and communicate—what you really like about your partner. Conversely, you need to catch yourself—and stop!—ruminating over what you wish were somehow different about them.
How well have you handled your emotions—especially your anger? And here I’m hardly recommending you suppress your feelings. But if, for example, you’ve dealt with disappointments in your partner by impulsively lambasting them with a poorly considered, knee-jerk anger, you need to take stock of the damage that such emotional railing may have caused the relationship. Regardless of whether you truly believed your attacking them was deserved, still demeaning or antagonizing your partner through unrestrained outbursts will inevitably lead them to feel less safe with you. It will undermine—or even destroy—whatever level of intimacy the two of you may have attained up till then (i.e., before your anger took sabotaging hold).
In such instances, what needs to happen is that you explore the probable hurt, fear, or shame lying beneath your anger and, non-blamingly, share these more primary—and much more vulnerable—feelings. (And here, see my “What Your Anger May Be Hiding.”) If there’s a single emotion most connected to separation and divorce, it’s anger. So if you have difficulty controlling your eruptions, this is something that, individually, you must work on.
How successful have you been in taking inevitable relationship conflicts in stride? As paradoxical as it may sound, you can maintain harmony in your relationship even if you regularly disagree on certain things (e.g., see my “Can You and Your Partner Agree to Disagree?”). So would you be willing to make the effort to better understand your partner’s viewpoints, and even validate them—that is, from their point of view, even though you may not be able to align yourself with it? This may require some forbearance or generosity of spirit, but isn’t that exactly what you’d want from them? Again, differences between the two of you don’t have to precipitate conflict if these discrepancies can co-exist peacefully.
How isolated or, on the contrary, hemmed in have you felt in the relationship? Has your partner requested more “space” in the relationship than you’ve been willing to grant them? For that matter, have you? How close you and your partner need to be to each other—physically, mentally, and emotionally—is something every couple needs to determine jointly. And because one of you may need more (or less) space than the other, you’ll need to work out these differences by implementing compromises tenable for both of you.
Couples frequently desire different levels of intimacy. And unless one of you is excessively needy, or too much of a lone wolf, it ought to be possible to calmly “arbitrate” these conflicts. Again, we all have different needs and insisting that yours are more honorable or justified than your partner’s is a losing proposition. Get clear on how much alone—and together—time each of you requires and see whether you can’t meet somewhere in the middle.
How much do you argue over money, and handling family finances generally? Perhaps the most common area of couples discord relates to dissimilarities in how each person values the spending, or saving, of family funds. So how concerned are you about such things as earnings, investments, accumulating wealth, dealing with debt, etc.? This subject is a tough one, since the ideals each of you have pertaining to money can differ considerably. Get what you want right now, and so have it for that much longer? Or hold off on discretionary purposes, so you can save more for the future—or a rainy day? (And here, see my “Couples—Stop Fighting Over Money!”)
The two of you may never be able to get on the same page here. But if you can candidly discuss your differences without trying to prove yours are inherently superior to your spouse’s, you may reach a place where both of you will be willing to accommodate the other’s preferences . . . and without having to completely sacrifice your own. Doubtless, concessions—mutually acceptable ones, that is—will be required. But with enough understandingand empathy, that should be possible. (And setting up a session with a competent financial adviser wouldn’t hurt either.)
How much have you recognized and respected your partner’s boundaries? You may need to make much clearer what boundaries need to be set for each of you to feel more comfortable in the relationship. To do so, you’ll need to acknowledge that probably how you were brought up strongly influenced the borders you now see as appropriate. It’s doubtful your partner learned the same “lessons” as you, so it’s time to realize that neither of your boundaries is intrinsically “worthier.”
How much privacy, for instance, do you require? Or how uninhibited, or abandoned, is “natural” for you in expressing your sexuality? The two of you may be fairly similar in your boundaries, but for sure there will be real differences, too. So here as well you’ll need to negotiate agreeable compromises and find the happy medium that eluded you earlier. Remember, if you come from the mindset that solutions exist for almost everything that’s created friction between you (vs. assuming that your partner problems are all pretty much irresolvable), you’ll be “poised” to discover resolutions for almost all your marital frustrations.
How, and how much, have you endeavored to resolve past discords and disputes? By which I mean if you’re aware that some of your past conflicts haven’t been adequately worked through, and that whenever they re-surface it’s obvious they’re still festering inside you (and/or your partner), do you dare, pro-actively, to tackle them anew—but from a substantially different perspective? There are volumes of self-help books to assist you in this task (and I’ve frequently discussed it myself—see, e.g., “4 Essential Rules for Approaching Couples Conflict”). The main thing is to approach these prickly topics more caringly, grasping why your partner may have hurt you, or you them. If you want to make your relationship safer and more intimate, it’s imperative that you undertake this healing couples work. But it needs to be done with considerable tact, kindness, and compassion.
How much may you need to let go of, or forgive, your partner for various things that have alienated you from them? Do you have a tendency to hold grudges? I can’t emphasize enough that most of the things that go wrong in a relationship have far more to do with misunderstanding than maliciousness. So it’s important to review past disappointments to see whether you might possibly view them differently. And if you remain puzzled or peeved about why your partner said or did what so negatively affected you, ask them—making it clear that your objective isn’t to criticize or attack them but to better (i.e., more benignly) appreciate their motives.
How much novelty, adventure, and childlike play and fun exist in your relationship? If your relationship has grown stale, you need to ask yourself what you’d be willing to do to refresh it. Could you be scheduling more vacations? more time spent in nature? doing more things with your mutual friends? trying out new (and possibly exotic) restaurants? engaging in activities that could be exciting to the two of you—or at least get you to smile and laugh more with each other? It should be obvious that the more positive things you can share, the more you’ll improve the quality of your relationship. So think of the joyful things you did during courtship that cemented your commitment to one another. And then figure out in what way, shape, or form, you might renew these earlier bonding events.
How satisfying is your sex life? As regards your union’s becoming stagnant, is your sexual relationship what you’d prefer? What do you do to light up your partner’s libido? How aware are you of his or her erogenous zones? Here, too, you need to be willing to openly discuss your fantasies—and fears—about trying new modes of sexual expression. For potentially such talks could make your time in bed more titillating, thrilling and fulfilling.
How common are displays of affection in your relationship? Ask yourself whether your words and actions are “touching” your partner the way they want to be touched. Chances are that during courtship there was much more non-sexual physical contact than today, and that the way you communicated was also more affectionate. Can you and your partner agree to re-introduce those compellingly romantic moments back into your relationship? Frankly, it’s highly unlikely that this revival can occur without your directly confronting this topic, which over time may have become quite sensitive for one (or both) of you. But if you can talk about such lost closeness in a way that avoids making either of you feel attacked or overly vulnerable, such a discussion could be pivotal in returning your relationship to its original intimacy.
How much have you been willing to make peace with—and fully accept—undesired elements of your partner’s personality that aren’t at all likely to change? Obviously, it makes no sense to get mad at your partner because they’re allergic to cats and you’ve always wanted to adopt one. But is it really any less obvious that you need to accept the fact that because, for instance, your partner is a pronounced extrovert, they may require a lot more external stimulation than you would?—assuming, that is, you’re much more introverted than they. And there are many other characteristics largely (or even completely) biologically-based that really can’t—and so shouldn’t—be expected to change.
It’s time, therefore, to stop getting annoyed with your partner for these inescapable differences. Never forget that, however secretly, just as you’ve longed for their unconditional love and acceptance, they, too, have been yearning for yours.