Love is in the air, right? It’s the time of year where people buy chalk-textured candy hearts and go to their local pharmacy to purchase heart-shaped boxes of chocolate for their sweetheart. February tends to focus mainly on romantic relationships, often setting a slightly unrealistic expectation that love conquers all, and if you love your partner enough neither of you will ever face any disappointments or difficulties. However, as anyone in a long-term relationship can tell you, love takes work. It is perfectly normal for relationships to have their ups and downs, but the key to success is to make it a priority to keep trying to improve your relationship and the way you interact with one another.
As a therapist, the following skills are subjects that I touch on often in couples counseling. It’s an important reminder though that these skills are important for ANY relationship, not just romantic ones. You can make it a goal to start using “I Statements” with your sister, or make sure to respect your best friend’s boundaries more, or make sure not to swear when arguing with a coworker. In any case, the following skills will help add to your toolbox in helping to create healthy and rewarding relationships.
You have heard it a million times, and you’ll probably hear it a million times more, but communication is key when it comes to relationships. I had an elementary school teacher who once told our class that we have two ears, and only one mouth, because we should listen two times more than we speak, and that always stuck with me. When it comes to communication the MOST important skill you can learn is to LISTEN! Read that sentence back to yourself just in case you weren’t paying attention the first time. Just because you are listening to your partner, does not mean that you necessarily agree with everything they are saying. However, being able to sit back and listen, and let your partner speak their whole truth, will make a huge difference in how you communicate with one another. Once your partner has said their fill, you can then respond to what they have said and say your piece.
One handy little trick to help you practice this is the techniques known as “Reflective Listening”. “Reflective listening” typically follows a set formula, in which you identify the emotion that your partner is experiencing in that moment, and why they are experiencing this emotion. For example, your partner may come home from work and say something along the lines of, “What the heck!? I asked you to do the dishes while I was away! And they’re not done!” The hardest part of this example is not becoming immediately defensive. Try to step away from the immediate emotional reaction you are experiencing and think about what your partner is saying. They are upset, possibly angry, because you did not do the dishes as they requested. Using your reflective listening skills, you would respond with something along the lines of, “I see you’re upset because I didn’t do the dishes.” It’s simple, but effective. You can also follow up this statement with a question of support, such as “What can I do right now to make everything better?”, or you can let your partner know you will do the dishes right away, and follow through on this action.
Once you have become comfortable using reflective listening skills, you can supplement them using “I Statements”. “I Statements” are a form of expression that allow you to bring up a concern without making your partner feel as though you are blaming them for something. The formula is as follows: “I feel ______ because _____.” In the example above, instead of the individual shouting and exclaiming (“What the heck!? I asked you to do the dishes while I was away! And they’re not done!”), they could have approached it with more sensitivity by saying something along the lines of, “I feel really frustrated right now because I had asked you to do the dishes, and they were not clean when I got home.”
Practicing these skills at first is going to feel awkward and uncomfortable, and that’s okay. The more you practice, the more second nature it will become and you’ll begin to add your own flair to these communication skills so it doesn’t seem as robotic in nature.
It is very important in any relationship to make sure that boundaries are not only made clear, but also respected. It doesn’t matter if you’ve known someone for twenty years, or one month, in order for a relationship to be healthy personal boundaries must be valued and placed in high importance. I have had couples come to session and explain that their partner doesn’t trust them, only for them to later admit that they look through each other’s phone without permission. This is a simple, and pretty common, violation of boundaries that could place any relationship in a lot of trouble.
Boundaries come in several categories, including physical, intellectual, emotional, sexual, material, and time based. Physical boundaries refer to personal space and physical touch. Healthy physical boundaries include an awareness of what’s appropriate, and what’s not, in various settings and types of relationships. Intellectual boundaries are one’s thoughts and ideas; respecting intellectual boundaries includes respect for others’ ideas, and an awareness of appropriate discussion (ex. It might not be appropriate to talk about politics at work, but it may be fine to do so among friends). Emotional boundaries refer to a person’s feelings and health emotional boundaries include limitations on when to share, and when not to share, personal information. Sexual boundaries include the emotional, physical, and intellectual aspects of sexuality. Healthy sexual boundaries involve mutual understanding and respect of limitations and desires between sexual partners. Material boundaries are things like money and possessions; in order to practice healthy material boundaries one must set limits on what they will share, and with whom (the cell phone example is an example of an unhealthy material boundary). Finally, time boundaries refer to how a person uses their time; to have healthy time boundaries a person must set aside enough time for each facet of their life, such as work, relationships, and hobbies.
A great way to make sure you have healthy boundaries within a relationship is simply to have a discussion surrounding your own personal boundaries and how you would like them to be respected. It may help to make a checklist of the different types of boundaries, and check of whether your boundary in that category is rigid, porous, or somewhere in between. Explain to your partner why you may have rigid time boundaries, or more porous intellectual boundaries. Have a conversation with your partner about how you can best respect their boundaries as well.
Arguments are going to happen. They are natural. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are selling you snake oil. Any relationship, whether it be romantic, familial, or platonic, is going to have its fair share of disagreements. The important factor is whether or not your arguments are respectful and productive, or spiteful and go nowhere.
The following are important guidelines to keep in mind when having an argument with someone to make sure the disagreement remains respectful and no one gets hurt. Arguments are also a great opportunity to practice your communication skills of “reflective listening” and “I statements”.
Fair fighting rules:
- Before you begin, ask yourself why you feel upset
- Discuss one issue at a time
- NO degrading language
- Express your feelings with words and take responsibility for them
- Take turns talking. No talking over one another!
- No stonewalling (stonewalling is when you retreat into your shell and refuse to talk further)
- No yelling
- Take a time-out if things get heated
- Attempt to come to a compromise or understanding (if you can’t come to a compromise, merely understanding can come soothe negative feelings)
Respect & Trust
Lastly, respect and trust are extremely important if you want to have a healthy relationship with someone. If you don’t respect someone, you will lose their respect in turn. The following are some trust exercises you can practice with a loved one.
- Tell your partner a scary secret
- Make eye contact with your partner for 3 minutes
- Make your actions match your words
- Tell each other why you love each other
- Ask for forgiveness
- Ask how you can restore trust
- Say “I love you.”
Ultimately though, trust involves a mixture of respect, holding yourself accountable, following through on your action, and time. This is especially true is trust has been broken somehow (ex. In cases of a spouse cheating on their partner). The best way to build trust is to let some of your doubts go and trust in yourself, and keep your communication with your partner open. Each partner should be able to communicate honestly about what they are feeling, while also working to avoid bringing up the past. You should also always be willing to take responsibility for your own actions and be willing to admit when you have done something wrong. This all can be very difficult, but just like the communication skills discussed earlier, it comes with effort and practice.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you, your family, and loved ones from Capital EAP!
By Marion R. White, MHC-LP