DEAR DR. JENN,
After six years together, my relationship with my partner is struggling. We love each other deeply, but have a hard time expressing it sometimes. Our fights always seem to turn dirty and things are lacking in the intimacy department. I've heard some couples make New Year's resolutions together — but we're not quite sure where to start. Any suggestions for us for avoiding "breakup season"? —Ready for a Fresh Start
DEAR FRESH START,
I am a big fan of goal-setting, end-of-the-year evaluations, and commitments to healthy behavior. When most people think of New Year’s resolutions, they tend to just think of themselves and not their relationship. But I always love to encourage couples to use the beginning of the new year as an opportunity to change old relationship habits, commit to better behavior — and to improve their relationship.
Here are six resolutions that every couple should make.
1. Spend at least 30 minutes talking every day — without distractions.
It should come as no surprise that the focused attention required by a face-to-face conversation nurtures the connection between two people. For his 2010 book Connect to Love, researcher and psychotherapist M. Gary Neuman interviewed hundreds of women and found that happy and faithful wives spend, on average, more than 30 minutes a day talking with their husbands. A decade later, that advice is even more important with Instagram and Slack in the palms of our hands, constantly demanding our attention. If you're struggling with feeling connected, commit to spending a minimum of 30 minutes a day talking without any distractions from screens and your relationship will undoubtedly be better for it.
2. Make a list of each other’s triggers to avoid conflict.
We tend to pick partners that have both the positive and negative traits of our parents and as a result we can trigger each other’s old wounds. In addition, intimate relationships make us more vulnerable, so sometimes we get hurt or hurt our partner, unintentionally or intentionally. We all have triggers, blind spots, and bad communication habits that prevent us from healthy communication. Being aware of what they are is the first step toward changing them.
Don’t assume that you know what your partner's triggers are. Sit down together and make a list for one another of the things that are guaranteed triggers in conversations together. This can help you both avoid emotional landmines and keep conflict calmer. It can also keep you less reactive when you are able to say, “I believe you are aware that is number five on my trigger list. Please don’t say that to me unless you are trying to trigger me.”
3. Commit to taking a “time out” before things get too heated.
When an argument gets too heated, it ceases to be productive. Most couples can benefit from a cool-down period during an argument. It's important for you to establish this before taking a break, so your partner doesn’t think you are simply walking away, but rather trying to avoid "fighting dirty" or saying something you'll later regret. It's helpful to say, “I think I need a time-out right now. I am too upset to think straight and need some time to calm down. Let’s check back in an hour.” Learning to take a loving time-out is a valuable skill every couple can benefit from.
4. At least once a day, let your partner know something they do that you appreciate.
Studies by psychologists Sara Algoe and Amie Gordon found that couples who show gratitude for each other are more satisfied in their relationships, feel closer to each other, and are more likely to stay together. In another study, Gordon found that gratitude in a relationship creates a positive cycle of generosity — one partner’s gratitude for the other prompts both partners to think and act in ways that show gratitude, and promotes a desire to hold on to their relationship. In addition to being more committed, their research found that couples who were more grateful and appreciative of each other also listened to each other more attentively and had more positive body language. All couples go through rough patches, but looking at your partner’s positive qualities and strengths rather than their shortcomings can help you feel more grateful for the relationship.
Neuman's research also highlights the importance of creating a culture of appreciation in your relationship. He notes that the most common cause of emotional dissatisfaction reported by male cheaters is feeling underappreciated. We tend to take for granted the things we expect of our partner, but we all need to feel validated. Choose to create a positive cycle of appreciation in your relationship.
5. Be more affectionate and emotionally responsive.
A pioneer in the psychology of relationships, Ted Huston can predict divorce with shocking accuracy. Back in 1981, he launched PAIR, the Processes of Adaptation in Intimate Relationships project, in which he followed 168 couples from marriage through the first thirteen years of marriage. His research found that the most significant interpersonal dynamic that predicted divorce was the loss of love and affection.
Now decades old, Huston's takeaway can still be applied to any relationship today: Rather than solely focusing on resolving conflict (still an important resolution to make!) it's just as important to focus on preserving your positive feelings towards each other, too. Since everyone expresses love and affection differently (you've probably heard of the five 'love languages') it's important to communicate about your needs — whether it's words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, or physical touch.
6. Up your sex game.
Because asking for what you want is so hard for most people — and because our needs, fantasies, and the things that turn us on change over time — I recommend that couples communicate about sex on a regular basis. We also tend to take for granted, especially when we know how to get our partner off, that we know everything about our partner sexually. This is a dangerous assumption because there is always more to learn. No matter how great your sex life is, there is always something you could do better or something new that you can both try to bring great pleasure to your partnership.
Without ongoing communication, small sexual desires may slip through the cracks or you may be too nervous to express something big that you want to try. As a result, I created a sexual inventory in my book The Relationship Fix: Dr. Jenn's 6-Step Guide to Improving Communication, Connection & Intimacy for couples to take together once a year. Every couple that I have ever worked with has been amazed to discover something new about their partner after taking the inventory together.
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