I was a 17-year-old kid when I met my partner in a high school art class. Two kids, five homes, seven job changes, and nearly 24 years later, we have learned a lot about what it takes to stay connected. Some of those jobs required us to be on opposite shifts. We passed each other on the road each evening as I was headed home and he was headed to work. Others required such long hours and overnight stays out of town that we barely saw each other at all.
Parenting together, as you know, presents a whole different set of challenges for couples to remain strong and connected.
Here are five of those hard-earned nuggets of wisdom.
1. Fill up emotional tanks.
Every human being has an emotional tank that needs filling. Just like your vehicle will sputter to a halt if the tank runs dry, relationships also suffer if the emotional tanks are not filled regularly.
Some also refer to this as the "love tank." We all have a deep longing for connection, and when that connection is weakened or broken, our relationships suffer. By paying attention to your partner's emotional tank, you can ensure it doesn't get emptied.
Here are some ways to keep your partner's tank full:
- Be attuned to their emotions. It's important to know your partner's cues and be able to recognize when they are feeling sad, happy, worried, frustrated, etc. Likewise, it's also important to be attuned to your own emotions because you have to understand yourselves before you can understand each other.
- Learn your partner's love language. Check out The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.
- Make daily emotional deposits. These are words of encouragement or loving gestures such as a kind text, a back rub, a handwritten note, or a compliment. These small deposits keep the tank from getting too low.
- Share in your partner's hopes and dreams. Listen to their desires and ideas. Part of doing life together is supporting each other as you reach for the sky!
2. Focus on the positives.
You wish they'd do the dishes. They wish you'd have more sex. Focusing on what you're not getting creates a negative mindset toward your partner. Focus instead on their positive qualities, and make a point to express your appreciation and admiration. Remember, what you focus on grows. Rather than stewing on things that are bothering you about the relationship, engage in an honest but respectful conversation about it. Then, shift your focus back to the positive aspects of your relationship. If you spend your mental energy consumed by what is wrong with your partner or missing in your relationship, it will be impossible to feel happy or content.
I've heard this idea described as having two channels. Imagine there are just two channels on TV, one which was broadcasting all positive negatives and another which only broadcasts negative messages. If you have a habit of tuning in to the negative channel, resentments will build up and you may even forget to switch the channel.
Remember, you always have a choice on where your focus lies. When you see the best in others, you bring out the best in them and in yourself as well. Take charge of your mental space and choose to tune in to the positive channel.
3. Hear them out and see things from their point of view.
While occasional conflict is inevitable, connected couples set ground rules for solving disputes. Here are some good ground rules:
- If you are too upset to fight fairly, agree to take a cooling off period and come back to the issue later.
- Don't use your knowledge of your partner's insecurities or insensitivities against them.
- Own your feelings and state them without laying blame on the other person.
- When disagreements arise, rather than insisting on getting your own way, look for common ground to work toward a win-win solution.
- Don't attack or criticize your partner. Use positive communication skills such as using "I" statements instead of "you" statements. For example, "I'm feeling a little cooped up. I would like if we could drop the kids off and go out to dinner," instead of "You never take me anywhere anymore!"
- Listen to understand, not to respond. This is often a mistake we make during conflict. We are formulating our counter-argument before the other is even finished speaking. We are really seeking to hear, we are seeking instead to be heard.
According to science, a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments during conflict predicts long-term marriage stability. Examples of a positive interaction during conflict include affection, empathizing, apologizing, looking for common ground, and listening to your partner's perspective. Negative interactions include criticism, stonewalling, contempt (disrespect, sarcasm, ridicule, etc.), and defensiveness. Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman calls these behaviors the four horsemen. Read more about the four horsemen here.
4. Show appreciation.
It's easy to fall into the habit of assuming your partner knows that you are appreciative, particularly when you're in the trenches of parenthood together or if you've been together for a long time. To be honest, it's also pretty easy to stop appreciating the little things altogether, but appreciation is an important key in relationships because it shows that we are paying attention, that we notice the good things they bring to our lives, and that we are grateful.
You may be thinking why should I tell them "thanks" for doing something they're supposed to be doing? After all, I don't feel appreciated for all I do! To that I would say, it may as well start with you. A study published in the journal Personal Relationships in 2015 found that two words might be a key ingredient to improving marriages. Those two words are "thank you." Study co-author Ted Futris said, "We found that feeling appreciated and believing that your spouse values you directly influences how you feel about your marriage, how committed you are to it, and your belief that it will last." The study's lead author, Allen Barton, said, "It goes to show you the power of thank you. Even if a couple is experiencing distress and difficulty in other areas, gratitude in the relationship can help promote positive marital outcomes." He goes on to say, "This is the first study to document the protective effect that feeling appreciated by your spouse can have for marriages."
5. Have fun together.
Not surprisingly, research has found that people are happier when they have more fun. The happiest couples report that the reason they are happy is because they have fun together. The challenge for new parents, in particular, is finding the time and energy to do fun things with each other.
Sometimes this means you need to reinvent date night by finding ways to connect and laugh together in the free moments you can find throughout the day. My husband and I quickly learned a candlelight dinner at home when the kids were asleep could be just as enjoyable and strengthening as a night out. It really isn't about the location; it's about connection.
As you tend to the routine tasks of married life such as errands, work, and household chores, don't forget to have fun. Laugh together. Play together. When possible, get out for a new and exciting adventure, but always remember that joy is a choice. Fun can be created in your ordinary every day with the right perspective and a little determination.