9. Resolve conflict “early and often—don’t let stuff accumulate ‘under the rug,’” Blum said.
“If you can’t resolve conflicts productively, you’re really in trouble,” she said. Not surprisingly, unsettled conflict just simmers, festers and creates a deep divide between couples.
Conflict is inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be the enemy. “If you can resolve conflict in a way that both partners feel heard” and like their feelings and needs matter to the other person, then conflict is “an opportunity to get to know each other better and to grow together.”
Even though it doesn’t look like it on the surface, most conflict is “about trying to express needs,” which “we do through swinging the sledgehammer,” Blum said.
One of the best ways to approach conflict is with empathy and compassion—like you would your best friend if they’re having issues with their partner, Blum said. You’d listen to them as they’re relaying what happened, and try to understand the situation from their perspective. With your partner, listen to what’s “making them unhappy.” You might have to dig deep. “It may sound like criticism. But if you can hear [their needs] underneath…it goes a long way to resolving conflict.”
In the same way, partners need to be able to express their needs “without assassinating the other person.” Also, “We need to know how to actively listen, reflect and clarify. It’s being able to be responsive and present to the other person.”
Morrison suggested these communication strategies:
Use I statements: “When you do ______, I feel _______, because _______.” Morrison shared this example: “When you come home late, I feel sad and disregarded, because I really want to spend time with you.” In other words, “The key is to define a specific behavior, identify how it makes you feel and explain why you feel that way. It can be a helpful tool for expressing concerns, because you’re not presenting the concern as an accusation” or absolute fact.
Avoid using extremes like “always, never, every time.”
“Timing is really key.” Instead of “diving head first into a tough topic when someone walks through the door,” find a good time to talk.
“Take one specific issue that’s going on and talk about it.” Oftentimes, couples “try to take on their entire world of problems at once,” which is overwhelming. Instead, take one small piece of the problem. You’re also more likely to have success.
If you’re still stuck, try short-term couples therapy, Blum said.
A couple in an intimate pose10. Sexual intimacy is important.
A sexual relationship is what separates your relationships with friends, family and close colleagues, Blum said. Also, “put priority on being physical and physically affectionate beyond sexually,” Batshaw said.
11. There’s a difference between real intimacy and codependency.
One of the biggest misconceptions about relationships is the difference “between codependency and closeness or real intimacy,” Batshaw said. Codependency has this us-against-the-world connotation, where couples “do everything for each other,” he said. This creates the expectation that your partner will always attend to your needs.
But real intimacy or closeness involves attending to both needs. Say you come home after a rough day and all you want is for your partner to listen to what happened and cook dinner. But then you notice that they’re also a wreck. If you’re codependent, you recount your worst-day-ever experience and still expect the talk and meal.
If you’re intimate, however, you acknowledge that it’d be great if your partner could do these things, but it’s OK if they can’t, Batshaw said. You’re still honest about your awful day and explain what you need, asking something like, “Are you in a place where you can hear me now?’” If your partner is too stressed, cook together and talk afterwards. Most people, unfortunately, aren’t good at this, and it turns into a debate of whose needs are greatest, Batshaw said.
12. Making small changes may be harder than you think.
Does this example sound familiar? You ask your partner to call you when they’re going to be late because you get worried. But they don’t. Again. Inevitably, you’re left bewildered, wondering why they can’t do something so simple—especially when they know it upsets you and calling is as easy as “turn[ing] off the light switch when they leave the room,” Solley said.
Making small changes may be harder than you think.
But there are many reasons why they don’t call or make another small behavioral change. Solley believes that patterns from the person’s childhood are to blame. For instance, your partner’s mother might’ve nagged and smothered them, so they responded by “forgetting” to call as a way to create “a boundary against potential intrusion.” This “developmental change,” he said, “refers back to emotional patterns learned automatically and unconsciously during childhood development.”
And it goes back to attachment: If you developed an insecure attachment as a child, you might have more issues with developmental changes, he said. (“In insecurely attached relationships both partners tend to demand changes of each other, each thinking it should be easy for the other and feeling hurt—which often comes out as anger—when the other doesn’t follow suit.”)
What can you do? “Provide compassionate support and understanding of the old behavior.” It can take “weeks, months or longer” to make a change, “depending on the intensity and complexity of the underlying developmental emotional experience, and the abilities of both partners to understand and treat it with compassion.”
By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.