Partnership Pointers:

New ideas for keeping your relationships fresh, fun, and functional.


Kings and Queens

Are you the king or queen in your relationship?

No, I don't mean, do you "rule" over your partner. Rather, do you set yourselves as king and queen (or king and king, queen and queen) over the domain of your own relationship? Or are there others who get to rule the land?

Sure, for most of us, there are times when other people (kids, parents, bosses, etc.) seem to have the upperhand in terms of whether we get to be happy or relax - but couples in secure relationships need to put their core relationship above those other voices. It doesn't mean you are less of a parent, in fact, it's a fantastic model for your kids. And it doesn't mean you have to fall down on the job at work, either. But it does mean protecting your relationship with your partner both in public and private. It's what my trainer, Stan Tatkin, calls "secure-functioning" in a relationship, and it's critical if you want the partnership to last.

If you have chosen a relationship with another person, you are making the choice to know them better than anyone else in the world. You scan their likes, dislikes, needs, and wants. Maintaining this database is your responsibility (and his/her responsibility for you as well), and that doesn't change when you are at a work event or a family gathering. Remembering that your wife feels insecure around her older sister, and staying close to her a the family dinner so she feels like you are supporting her - that's your responsibility. Noticing that your father makes your partner uncomfortable when he starts asking questions about his job prospects, and giving him a knowing look while steering the conversation into safer territory - that's how you show up and protect him in a challenging situation. These moments can be discussed or just second nature, but they are crucial to reminding the one you love that you two are in this together, and she has someone who wants her to feel safe and comfortable all the time.

Those of us trained in couples therapy want our clients to feel more connected to one another in our offices. But for this work to be effective, it has to translate back into the real world. You may have to make some radical efforts (e.g. talking about how the dinner went, making mental notes, negotiating for a better outcome next time) before this awareness comes naturally. But it's effort well-spent.


Marital Flu Shots

The flu is on its way.

I don’t just mean the seasonal flu virus, the one that billboards and news reports are encouraging you to inoculate your kids against. I’m talking about the flu that many marriages and partnerships come down with at this time of year. The one where all your energy gets tied up in helping the kids back to school, leaving nothing left for the person who balances the other side of the family seesaw.

In my counseling office, where I work with both individual parents and couples, the stress of this annual transition is on full display right now. Symptoms of this partnership flu may be irritability, isolation, or full blown lack of intimacy. But there is something simple you can do to vaccinate your marriage against coming down with this illness. It’s also quick, free, and even fun to do.

Inoculate your partnership with 30 seconds a day of simple, spoken gratitude. Here's the protocol:

  • Take 30 seconds to look into your partner’s eyes
  • Touch in some way
  • Say, "Something I love about you is…” 
  • Make sure to say "Thank you” and “You’re welcome.” 
  • Then switch

That’s it. That’s all it takes to remind the other person that you are still in connection, and that you value the shared life you are building – even if you don’t have time/energy for some grand dramatic gesture. This exchange builds positive energy between you both, and that positive energy has a direct impact on your ability to get through the interminable fundraiser meetings, sports practices, and other back-to-school events currently dominating your free time.

We therapists assign “Date Nights” and “Appointment Sex” because these exercises can guarantee that a couple reconnects in between counseling appointments. But the main aim of that effort is to get the couple to the point of recognizing their partnership and expressing gratitude for it. With little effort on your part, you can get to this point with just 30 seconds a day of appreciations – before your marriage comes down with any sort of virus.

This is not to say that offering thanksgivings is a cure-all if your relationship is already suffering due to something like long-term resentment or infidelity. While intentional gratitude can help rebuild the connection even in those circumstances, making a practice of offering them during times of wellness is more of a prophylactic measure.

In Imago Relationship therapy we call this process “giving appreciations.” I start and end every couples session this way because if we don’t magnify the positive thoughts between two people, it’s nearly impossible to find the energy to work through the negative stuff that is an unavoidable part of living with another person.

For those doing it at home, those honest, loving, gentle 30 seconds are the 30 seconds that the whole date night is scheming for in the first place. If you can get those 30 seconds out of the way while boiling the spaghetti, or just after closing the door after one sleepy kid’s last book, then you have made it to the same finish line your counselor was thinking of as she assigned 100 Date Nights, weekend retreats, and therapy sessions.

One last tip is to make sure that both people are aware that you are giving/receiving appreciations as part of a marriage inoculation initiative. This makes it official and ensures that you are not disappointed when the other person fails to read your mind about wanting to boost the health of your partnership.

This piece originally ran on the DCUrbanMoms(andDads) weblog.


Zero Negativity

Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship therapy, and Helen LaKelly Hunt wrote a piece for Huffington Post that explains the toxicity of criticism in a relationship:

"Hurtful words in a relationship can be like a drop of red dye in a glass of water that turns the whole glass pink. What starts out as a slip of tongue, a small slight from one person to another, sets a process in motion that slowly (or quickly) permeates a relationship and begins to define its tone."

Instead, the two relationship experts recommend that couples make a commitment to "zero negativity." That means absolutely no negative talk, no constructive criticism, no jokes at the other's expense, nothing. "Even if the approach of zero negativity leads to, essentially, a vow of silence, eventually the mantle of fear will dissipate and both parties will find the warmth toward each other that they once had," they write.

The authors are careful to point out that this commitment does not mean couples cannot voice their concerns about the relationship, but rather that they do so in a more conscious, careful, loving way, than through barely-veiled critiques. Hendrix and Hunt suggest that couples make an appointment to have a conversation about any sort of concern - being upfront that there is something that needs to be addressed. "Knowing that you are going to express something critical takes away the element of surprise and defensiveness in the other person, and allows you to state your concern in a thought out, gentle way. It makes it much more likely that they will be willing to compromise and come closer to your side of the fence," they write.

Outside of the official, Couple-Sanctioned Relationship Conversation, couples should continue practicing the no negativity approach - why not try it for a few days, a week? Make it a game? Even the act of having your partner read the article can be a step toward repairing any holes in your connection.


Make a 'Date Day'

Did you know that the going rate for babysitting multiple kids in the DC area can range from $15-$20 an hour? In other words, the cost of paying the sitter can be more than the restaurant bill for an evening out. When the total price of dinner-and-a-movie reaches more than $200, it’s no surprise that many of us just decide to stay in.

But I am seeing more and more of my friends taking advantage of the “date day” concept. Picture it, you drop the kiddos off at their respective daycare or school locales and then you and your partner take a vacation day together. You are paying for the daycare/school anyway…why not give your relationship a mental health day at the same time?

It’s definitely no night out at a club, and you might not get to sleep in or be too leisurely at lunch if you have an early pickup from preschool. But deliberately devoting the time to one another during a date day can help reconnect busy Moms and Dads. Catch a matinee, try that new restaurant for lunch (daytime reservations are usually a lot easier to get at DC hotspots anyway), buy a real newspaper and linger over your coffee at the diner like you did long ago. The results of recharging your relationship can be immediate and powerful. You might even notice a new spring in your step when you head back to the daycare at the end of the day. 


Kindness Counts (Really)

Let’s try an experiment. Today, look for a chance to help someone else – even for just a minute. Walk that proverbial little old lady across the street. Give directions to a confused-looking tourist. Hold the door for a mom struggling with a double-stroller.

Did you do it? Great. Let’s meet back here in six months.

According to a new study, tiny act of kindness today may still boost your happiness and self-esteem half a year from now. The big conclusion? Kindness does count. And it doesn’t have to be kindness toward strangers. If you treat your partner with kindness – say please and thank you, make the bed without being asked, surprise him with concert tickets – you are improving your own self-impression while also taking care of the other person. According to the study, being kind to others also might help us be kind to ourselves. The reverberations may be endless.