10 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Relationship

When you’re trying to improve your relationship with your partner, it’s easy to focus on the negative stuff. There are problems that need to be addressed, and your attention naturally goes there.

But . . . if you are always focused on the problems, chances are you may be increasing the divide between you. There has to be an equal, if not greater emphasis, on what’s right!

Sometimes just working on the connection helps to resolve the problems, and absolutely, it makes it much easier to successfully address them.

Here’s 10 things you can do to increase the connection between you and your partner without focusing on problems. Try them and see if you don’t begin to feel closer.

#1  Engage him in conversation about something in which he has a strong interest.

Bring up a topic you know interests him, and as he talks, share his excitement and pleasure. Ask questions. Be attentive. Try to understand his thoughts and feelings, and share in his enthusiasm. Stay engaged.

Connecting through sharing and conversing is a foundational part of any intimate relationship. Nurture and grow it.

Remember that he is your best friend. Deepen the friendship by making easy conversation a regular part of each day.

#2  When you greet each other after being away, show pleasure in reconnecting.

When your wife comes in from work at the end of the day, make real eye contact, smile, and be happy to see her. If she needs some down time, give it to her, but make sure to connect and find out how she is when she’s ready.

It’s very easy to get caught up in what we’re doing and take each other for granted.

Everyone needs to know they are wanted, loved, and cherished. Showing pleasure at seeing your partner is an easy way to remind her of it.

#3  Verbalize appreciation for anything he does that you find helpful or admirable.

Be specific. Focus on the behavior or action and describe in some detail what you like or have noticed. Offer thanks, and talk about how it affects or helps you. Be authentic.

In short, catch him “doing good.”

#4  Ask her what makes her feel loved, and do those things more.

If you’ve never heard of the “love languages,” take a look at The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts by Gary Chapman. It’s an easy book to read and many couples enjoy reading it together. It includes a self-test that you both can take to help you identify your own love language. It’s a great way for couples to learn and talk about how they can help each other feel more loved.

#5  Take time to ask how he feels about his life.

What does he hope for? Wish for? Where does he see himself down the road? What are his dreams?

These kinds of conversations take each of you out of the daily routine. They help you connect around the big picture, and think about where you want to go both as individuals and together.

You may also find out things you didn’t know such as secret disappointments or wishes that haven’t been fulfilled. This may lead to new directions or actions that will leave both of you happier and energized.

#6  Check in at least once a day emotionally.

“How are you feeling today?” Take time to listen and be empathetic. Let her know that her happiness is important to you. Don’t try to fix it, just listen and show interest.

Many couples go through their days without connecting on an emotional level. Over time, this creates distance, and distance often results in bickering or negativity.

Taking the time to really connect daily through empathy and interest prevents the build-up of distance and resentment.

It makes solving problems a lot easier.

#7  Be on the same side.

This is really an important one.

Ditch the competition. There is no place for one-upping in an intimate relationship!

Be happy for each other when something goes well. Keep the attention on one of you at a time, without competing stories.

When he comes in and tells you he’s had a rough day at the office, don’t cut him off with “Well, let me tell you about my day! It was a disaster!!”

Take turns without interrupting or cutting each other short.

#8  Make sure you stay connected when you are around others.

Sometimes couples feel connected when alone, but are unable to keep that connection when around other people.

If you find this to be true for you, then talk about what you can do to maintain that connection in those situations.

Sometimes it’s simply making regular eye contact across the room, or making sure you direct your conversation at your partner while also talking to others, or staying close to each other until you both are comfortable in a new situation.

Ask each other what you need in those situations, and then do it. Make your relationship the primary one.

#9  Ask yourself at least once a week, if not more often, what you love about him.

  • What drew you to him in the first place?
  • What are your favorite things about him?
  • List the positives of the relationship either in your mind or on paper.
  • Read and remember them, especially when things are not going well.

#10  Do something out of the ordinary.

  • Make her cup of coffee in the morning and bring it to her.
  • Leave notes or send texts to let her know you’re thinking about her.
  • Offer to pick up dinner on the way home.

Use your knowledge of what you know she would like and do that. Those small actions go a long way to create good feelings, and appreciation for each other.

Your turn! Let me know things you have discovered that help you stay connected to your partner. I’m sure there are many more than those I’ve listed, and I’m interested to know what works for you!

How to Set Boundaries and Why You Should

It’s a weekday, about 8 or 9 in the evening. You’ve had a long day at work, or a long day with the kids, or both. You’ve managed to get through the dinner hour. Everyone’s fed, dishes are done, kids are bathed and off to bed, and you are finally able to relax. You have this small space of time in the evening that’s yours, and you are soooo looking forward to it.

You get settled in your chair, or favorite lounging place, with your book, or remote for the TV, computer, or whatever you like to have to enjoy that space of time. Maybe you just want to be quiet or chat with your partner. Whatever it is, it’s yours!

As you settle in, your cell phone rings. You glance at the number and see that it’s one of your friends. It’s a friend you like, but she’s often overly chatty and always has problems. “Well . . .” you think, “maybe I’ll answer and just keep it to 10 minutes. Then I can still have my time.” So you answer.

An hour later you are still trying to get off the phone. Not only that, your friend has talked nonstop without taking a breath, and she’s dumped all of her emotional woes on you. She’s having problems with her husband, her mother-in-law, her kids, her boss, and she doesn’t feel good, and she has a lot to say about what’s wrong with everybody else, and on and on and on.

You’ve told her at least four times now that you need to get off the phone, and she always says “Okay” and then keeps going.

By the time you get off the phone, you feel awful. You’re angry, tense, and sad that the little time you had carved out is mostly gone. Worse, you can’t get yourself back into the same emotional space you were in when you first sat down and were looking forward to relaxing.

What happened?

So why did you answer? That’s a good question. I’m guessing there are a number of possibilities.

  • You are a caretaker and usually feel responsible for listening, rescuing, fixing, soothing, or “being there.” It’s how you were raised and it’s what you do.
  • If you don’t attend to others when they ask for it, you feel guilty.
  • If you don’t attend to others, you’re a bad, selfish person.
  • If you don’t attend to others, you are an unworthy friend, spouse, parent or co-worker.
  • It’s part of your spiritual ethic. You should always help others, and always give.
  • It’s the right thing to do, and you always try and do the right thing.
  • Listening is caring, and you are a caring person.
  • Your friend needs you, and even if it’s an inconvenience, she needs your help and you should give it.

The list goes on, but the bottom line is, your decision to the answer the phone in the above scenario is intimately tied to your self-image and what you see as “good.”

Yes, but it feels bad!

There is another part of you that knows that something is wrong with this picture. Let’s take it from another point of view and replace some of the above reasons with reality checks. The real deal is:

  • Your friend, regardless of how much you may like her or think she’s a “good person,” is not in the least interested in how you might be feeling. She just wants an ear, and if it’s not your ear, it will be someone else’s.
  • Your friend is not really interested in solving a problem. She just wants to vent and wants you to be her emotional receptacle.
  • Your friend ignored your pleas to get off the phone. She heard them, but she pushed on anyway. She really doesn’t value your time.
  • All of your listening hasn’t done anything to help her move from point A to point B. Nothing you say makes a difference. The more you give, the more she takes. In fact, she often overloads you with her problems.
  • Your friend is not a true friend, and allowing her to take such advantage of you is neither kind, helpful, necessary, or productive. By participating, you are actually allowing her to use and abuse you, and there is nothing good about that. Not by any standard, including spiritual.

What about your Self-Image?

Now let’s return to your “self-image” and redefine it in light of our reality checks.

  • A good caretaker doesn’t allow anyone to step over the line. They offer help that can be received and used to make a situation better, but they don’t allow anyone to abuse them. A good caretaker can see the difference between the two.
  • “Being there” means doing what’s good for the other person. What’s good is working through a problem, not perpetuating it by blaming everyone else.
  • It is not caring to listen to a negative diatribe about what’s wrong with everyone else. To the contrary: when you listen to that kind of conversation, you are participating in it and perpetuating it. Worse yet, you are condoning it. That’s not good for you, and certainly not good for the other person.
  • It is “being good” to take care of yourself as well as others. Your relaxation is a necessary part of your day and should be guarded. It is part of taking care of you.
  • Setting necessary limits is being “good.” It is responsible, caring, and healthy.

Being a caretaker usually has roots in your personal history.

Caretakers often are big hearted people who like to please, and who take pleasure from doing things for other people. There is nothing wrong with that, and if that fits you, feel good about it.

More often, caretakers have a combination of those characteristics I just mentioned which we’ll call a natural temperament, but also historical issues that have greatly effected the way they see themselves.
Caretakers usually play that role in their families growing up. They:

  • Had adult responsibilities beyond their years.
  • Were rewarded for pleasing others, and reprimanded or punished if attending to themselves.
  • Were made to feel that taking care of themselves or pursuing their own interests was selfish.
  • Felt guilty if they had negative emotions such as anger, disappointment, displeasure, or sadness.
  • Felt responsible for the happiness of their parent(s), and often their siblings.
  • Felt anxious if they were not involved in pleasing or rescuing others.
  • Felt unworthy in spite of all of their efforts to please.

What to Do

If you find yourself anywhere in the above descriptions, then it’s a good idea to begin working on changing these patterns. You can do this most successfully by taking it a little at a time. Sweeping big changes rarely work because they put you in a place that seems so foreign and uncomfortable that you will quickly revert back to what you know. Here’s some ideas:

Be selective.

Consider that your time and energy is important, and that you should use it in ways that fulfill you. Don’t waste it on people who take advantage of you, or who are toxic. Not only do you lose that time, you also have to digest all of the negativity they pass on to you.

Choose your friends and relationships carefully, and begin to move away from toxic people in your life, or at the very least, limit the time you spend with them.

Be direct.

If you need to set a boundary with someone you love or are in a relationship with, it’s best to be direct about your feelings. That doesn’t mean you have to be unkind or confrontational, but express how you feel and what is making your uncomfortable. Always use “I” statements and focus on your feelings to reduce defensiveness.

Be firm.

If you get in a situation like the initial one I described in this article, then it’s time to be very firm about your need to cut the conversation short. When you say you have to get off the phone, say it and mean it and wind the conversation up without allowing the other person to keep you in it. You can do this without being rude in most circumstances.

Set the boundary up front.

If you know ahead of time that you are going to be talking to someone who almost always runs away with the conversation and takes way more time than is necessary, then plan how much time you are willing to spend and decide beforehand how you are going to cut the conversation off.

My favorite method is to prime someone by telling them up front I only have 10 minutes to talk, and then I warn them when there are 2 minutes left and tell them we need to wrap up. If they don’t wrap up, I say “Sorry, but I have to go. I’m out of time,” and then I do it.

It might feel weird the first time you do that, but it will become easier and more fluid as you practice.

Isn’t “just listening” good sometimes?

Yes, just listening is great sometimes! The difference is that someone who wants you to “just listen” to them, and can make use of that to work through something, is very different from someone who makes a habit of venting and gossiping and blaming others for their problems.

All of us want someone to “just listen” sometimes, because it helps us work something out or soothes us. It’s the latter situation that I am addressing. For those folks, just listening is not helpful. For them, setting limits is a much better option.

Remember, a real friend has an awareness of your feelings as well as her own, and her actions reflect that.

A good book to read on the subject of setting limits is Boundaries by Henry Cloud. Dr. Cloud is a psychologist and a good writer. This book is written from a Christian point of view, but even if you are not oriented toward Christianity, it provides an excellent understanding of what boundaries are, when they should be set, and why.

What’s the Key to a Long-Lasting Relationship?

Someone recently asked me what the single most important factor is to a long-lasting, healthy relationship. Big question! I can come up with 10 things pretty quickly, but to try and choose one above the rest is difficult. Nevertheless, I have come up with one answer which I believe embraces many of the important facets of good relationship.

The answer in a word is interest.

For a relationship to be healthy and last, each person must show real and authentic interest in the other person, consistently over time.

As I mentioned, the answer has many other implications. Showing real interest over time requires regular and ongoing conversation and interchange, seeking to know and understand, having ongoing feeling, receptivity, and friendship.

To really show true interest in someone over time, you must:

  • Have more positive feelings than negative. If your feelings are more negative, you will lose interest and eventually become indifferent.
  • Ask questions and encourage communication to really understand how someone feels and thinks. By engaging in open conversation with real curiosity, you send the message that you want to know who the other person is, and you encourage them to reveal the many emotional layers of themselves over time. This creates true intimacy.
  • Accept the other person, flaws and all.
  • Have respect for the other person.
  • Have the other person’s best “interest” at heart.
  • Be friends. Good friends. Good friends that trust each other.
  • Be as concerned about the other person’s feelings as your own. You must be able to empathize and show it.
  • Have a real connection to the other person, and an ongoing desire to maintain that connection.

The Bottom Line

Here’s a question for you: If you are in a relationship for 50 years, what is it that will hold you together in a way that maintains a healthy and loving bond?

Most likely it’s not going to be physical attraction, the kids, or even common interests. All of these things wax and wane over time. Well, not the kids, but they do grow up and leave home.

True friendship is at the core of any lasting relationship. True friendship is characterized by kindness, concern, connection, acceptance, conversation and communication, respect, trust, intimacy and real love. At the base of true friendship is real and abiding interest in the other person. In fact, that kind of ongoing selfless interest is what builds real love.

All the rest of it – passion, chemistry, likenesses and differences, attraction – are secondary and ultimately fleeting. They may all remain to some degree, but as most of us who have been in long term relationships know, it is interest and real friendship that keep a relationship going and make it wonderful.

What If You’ve Lost That Connection?

You may very well be able to get it back. However, it is not always easy. In order to do so, you have to be willing to take steps yourself regardless of whether your partner shares in the process. Here’s what you can do:

Step 1: Make 3 Lists

List #1

Make a list of everything you like about your partner. If you find this difficult, make a list of everything that attracted you to him in the beginning of your relationship. Think about and try to feel the feelings you had when you were first together.

List #2

Make another list of things you know interest your partner. What does she like to do? What does she think about? What are her habits and interests? Who are her friends if that applies? What interests has she had over the years?

List #3

Based on this list, make a new list of all of the topics of conversation you might engage in with your partner to initiate more interaction. If you’re really out of touch, write out actual questions you might ask. Use these questions to increase the conversation between you. Practice listening and showing interest in what your partner has to say. Develop a real curiosity about what she thinks.

The first list is to remind you of the feelings you have had for your partner in the past, and maybe some you may still have. The second list is to help you see what you really know or don’t know about your partner, and to give you a starting place for showing interest. The third list is going to be your guide.

What if I Already Know These Things?

You may think to yourself as you read this, “I already know what he thinks.” Yes you may, but even if you’ve been together a long time, there is always more to know. Are you the same person you were 20 years ago? No, you aren’t, and neither is your partner.

Be open-minded and curious. Ask open-ended questions like “What’s most important to you?” or maybe “How would you like to spend your last ten years if you had to decide right now?” “If you were to start your life over, would you have chosen a different type of work?” Questions like these can stimulate good conversation and often reveal feelings you had no idea were there. Use your imagination to make a list of questions or ideas to converse about.

Step 2:  Start Talking

Conversation is the easiest way to show interest and strengthen the bond between two people. Take your third list and begin to initiate conversations. Pick topics that you have heard your partner talk about before. If your husband loves to cook, ask him what his favorite thing is to make. As he talks about it, ask him more questions based on what he tells you. You might even ask him to make it for you and plan a dinner.

If your wife loves politics, ask her what she thinks is the most important political issue right now, and what’s her opinion about it. If she likes gardening and you know nothing about it, ask what she’s working on right now in the garden and which plants or flowers she likes best and why.

These are very generic ideas, but you get the picture. Ask about things your partner loves and show interest in the answers. It can be about anything. The idea is to encourage more conversation.

The one caveat is to stay away from toxic subjects, which means do not let your conversation drift into arguments. If there is a lot of built up anger or negativity, you will need to address this first in counseling before trying this technique. This works more when distance has crept in, but not so much when there are real unresolved issues that are highly contentious. Still, give it a try and see if you can strengthen the bond and close up the distance. Then you may have more success addressing difficult issues.

If you practice this over a month, you may find that there is a real turnaround in the level of interaction between you, and in the sense of connection.

Step 3:  Make Plans to do Things Together

Once you feel some connection coming back naturally as a result of more conversation and interaction, you can go to the next step with is to spend more planned time together. Many couples try the reverse order, which is to plan time together and then start talking, but I think the talking should come first. It makes the time together more useful and less likely to feel like a failure. If you’ve been living together yet apart for a long time, then throwing yourselves together on dates may fall flat.

By the Way . . .

This article is aimed at couples, but showing interest is the basis of all relationships including friendship, parent and child, work partners, or even more casual relationships. When you show real interest in someone, most every time they will want to connect with you more. Give it a try.

Competition: A Relationship Killer

There are many behaviors that can slowly destroy a relationship, and “competition” is at the top of the list. Keeping a mental list of who does the most, one-upping, being oppositional regardless of the situation, excluding your partner in social settings, comparing assets (both personal and material), and the worst one . . . always turning conversations back to you when your partner needs you to listen.

Partners who compete much of time build up great resentment toward each other.

They also feel unloved, and ultimately don’t trust their partner to have their back. They feel misunderstood and criticized.

There really is no place for competition in close personal relationships. It’s fine in the boardroom, but not at home, not between good friends, not between parent and child, and certainly not between spouses. Nothing good comes of it.

Personal Relationships are Collaborative

Personal relationships, whether marital, couple, parent-child, or friendship, are by nature collaborative. The whole idea of such relationships are to feel connected, provide support, act in ways that are complimentary to each other, foster trust, have each other’s best interests at heart, and love. Such relationships should better all parties involved. They should feel like safe places.

6 Ways to Avoid Competition

#1 Ditch the Sarcasm

Don’t respond to sarcastic quips or competitive statements with a comeback. For sarcastic statements, you can say how the statement makes you feel: “You may be kidding with me, but that hurts.” For a competitive statement, the best defense is to go with it. If your partner says, ” I do way more housework than you do,” you might come back with, “Yes, you do a lot of housework and I very much appreciate it.” If they continue to try and get you to join in the competition, ask what they would like you to do to help.

Don’t respond to the invitation to compete. If you are not able to take that approach, then remain silent until you can enter into a discussion that isn’t adversarial.

#2 Always Be Respectful and “Do Unto Others”

Make sure that you treat your partner, friend, or child with the kind of love and respect you would like. That means no harsh criticism, no sarcasm or scorn, no competitive statements, and conversely, a show of appreciation for whatever is right.

Parents that compete with their children are actually envious and threatened by them and want to make them feel small. Friends who compete feel either superior or inferior at different times. Partners who compete may have a history of conflict and be angry with each other, or in some cases, have a need to make the other person feel less than.

In all of these cases, the problem is with self-image. If you find yourself being competitive in a relationship, examine your own self-image and work on areas of dissatisfaction.

#3 Acknowledge Things That Go Well

Focus on things that go well, and on experiences with each other that are positive and affirming. If you’ve read my blog, “Catch “Em Doing Good,” you get the idea.

#4 Listen and Empathize

Take time to listen to the other with an open mind, and with empathy. People want to be understood, no matter what their age is or who they are. Listening and understanding create real and lasting bonds.

#5 Make Sure You Are Pulling Your Weight

Make sure you are doing your part. If married or living with a partner, make sure that you are sharing responsibilities and pitching in to run the household. Take a real look at what your partner does and appreciate their contributions. If you feel things are really one-sided, then have a real conversation about that in a straight- forward manner. Don’t try and drive the point home with sarcasm or criticism.

#6 Be a Collaborator

Just remember, you are collaborators, not adversaries. If you can burn this idea into your memory and bring it up when you feel competitive with a partner, you will do a lot to deepen your bond and avoid unnecessary problems.

Catch “Em” Doing Good

There’s a quick way to improve or enhance a relationship. Very simply, the idea is to catch your partner “doing good.” Instead of focusing mostly on what you don’t like or what’s not going well, notice things you’re partner does that you like and verbalize it. In other words, show appreciation. Here’s how to do it:

Notice things as they occur.

It can be little things such as picking something up or putting something away, saying something nice, coming in the door with a smile instead of a complaint, offering to go to the grocery store, or anything that is helpful or kind.

When you notice, say what you see and say thank you.

Thank you can be said any way you like, just so it comes off as genuine and authentic. You might say “I appreciate that,” or “I love it when you do that,” or “Thanks for doing that.” Whatever works for you. It has to be within your normal style of speaking.

Be specific about the thing you have noticed.

“Thanks for putting your dishes in the dishwasher. Those little things make my life easier.” “I love it when you text me during the day. Makes me feel closer to you.” You want to specify the action you like, and then follow that with a statement about how it makes you feel or how it helps you. Doesn’t have to be overly wordy. If you make too big of a deal, it will come off as fake and can actually have the opposite effect. Be real.

Don’t do it in the middle of a conflict.

You don’t want to use this as a way to manipulate your partner. It should not be used in the middle of a dispute or conflict. It works best when nothing in particular is going on.

Works for any relationship.

This is a great technique for parents to use with their kids. Also works with friends, co-workers, or employees. It’s an easy way to strengthen the bond with someone you care about, not to mention that the more you catch someone doing good, the more good you will get from them.

Consistency is the Key!

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