How to Keep Your Relationship Strong All Year Long

By  July 12, 2011

When is the last time you complained, criticized, or conflicted with your significant other? Just a few minutes ago? You’re not alone. The good news is that those challenging experiences are a normal part of every relationship and there is help. Here, psychotherapist Dr. Bill Cloke, author of the new book, Love-Making From The Inside Out: Transforming Complaints, Criticism, and Conflict into A Loving Relationship, shares his expert knowledge to help couples celebrate Valentine’s Day all year long.

Dr. Cloke, you believe that in order to be a good partner, you must first look at your own underlying personal issues. What specifically should we be aware of that could sabotage our relationship?

There are many things, but two guidelines are particularly important:

1. The more we are inwardly accepting, the more we’re able to be outwardly tolerant. No matter what has happened to us in our past, if we are willing to look at our own baggage with thoughtful intention and examination, then we are less likely to dump our personal pain onto those we love.

2. When we love someone, we must articulate our internal life to our mate; that includes the risk of exposing what we believe are negative aspects of ourselves. Our worst fear is that exposing our pain, expressing needs and allowing our feelings to be known will cause criticism, humiliation, or abandonment. But the opposite is true; not expressing needs, wants, and feelings will more likely cause rejection or at the very least alienation. Communicating our internal dialogue is the best chance we have for continuing a loving relationship. Bringing feelings, complaints, hurts, and misunderstandings to the surface and working through them is the real foreplay behind love-making.

What’s the most common problem facing most couples today?

Most couples never learned how to solve problems and de-escalate angry situations. They more often than not throw gasoline on the fire by being defensive, critical or by shutting down. They don’t understand that each party must acknowledge what the other one is saying. We all need to be heard and understood first before figuring out the solution.

When I do couple work, I start by acknowledging each of them. It is so powerful and amazing to see the faces of people who feel truly understood. This is how most conflicts end. If I say to my wife, “I hear what you are saying and I will try to do something about that,” even saying in particular detail what I intend to do about it, the problem always seems to go away. Of course, you actually have to try to do something about it. If you don’t, then your words won’t mean anything and trust will be broken.

Bottom line: when couples have trouble it is because they become defensive instead of hearing what their partner is trying to tell them.

You say studies show that 80% of men don’t listen to their wives, and this usually point towards the inevitable “D-word.” What do you think is behind this?

Men so often associate listening to their wives with being hen-pecked, tied to their apron strings, or being a wimp. The folklore among men is often based more on wearing the pants in the family and telling his wife what he needs; and that attitude/behavior really gets in the way of good communication and a satisfying relationship.

When women point out something that is upsetting to them in the relationship, many men feel humiliated if they are wrong; they take “being wrong” as a sign of weakness. Thus, in order to not be exposed as wrong, bad, or appear stupid, they cling to their “rightness” and lose the respect of their wives. On the other hand if a woman is too mean-spirited, angry, and belittling, they will often re-enforce their husbands unwillingness to listen.

What can women do to alleviate this?

There are several things for women to keep in mind when they are expressing disappointment. First and foremost, know this, just hearing that you are disappointed with them is so difficult for men to hear. They feel like they are put in a bad place and they don’t know how to get out of it. You can help them immensely by carefully choosing what you say when you’re disappointed.

When expressing disappointment, always use the word “next;” this let’s them know they will have another chance to get it right! For example: “Next year on Valentine’s Day it would make me really happy if you brought me just one flower. That way I know you are thinking of me and it doesn’t cost much.”

Make it about you (i.e. “This may not be very important to you but it is to me, so if you could do that one thing, I would really appreciate it.”)

Begin the conversation by saying, “This is not a criticism of you, it is something that is important to me and I just want you to know me better.

Make the thing you want to say a part of a positive sandwich. “I know that you love me, and I know that you try really hard to let me know that you do, but for Valentine’s it really means a lot to me that you do some small thing. I’m telling you this because it makes a big difference to me.”

If we can express our concerns without criticism, but with compassion and making it about what we need and want as opposed to the failings of the other person, then the complaint will be heard. What is really important is to always try to find a way that any complaint can ultimately be a way to make you feel closer to your partner.

You say most married couples enter therapy six years too late. Should we go running off to marriage counseling at the first sign of trouble?

What we think about most couples waiting six years too long to ask for help is that most couples keep thinking that their problems and conflicts will either go away or that they can figure them out by themselves. Couples don’t often understand the complexity of relationships enough to know that sometimes neither one of them can see clearly because they are too close to the subject.

I think the best way to think about whether you should seek out therapy would be in regard to negative cycles. These cycles are about emotionally charged stalemate situations where arguments cycle around and around and don’t go anywhere. In other words, you keep having the same problems and no resolution. That’s when it’s time to get help. What a good therapist will do is to show the couple what their cycle is about and what they can do to move their conflicts toward a resolution.

~Jill Daniel

Photo Credits: iStockPhoto.com