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The Art of Relationships

with Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

There is an art to maintaining the intimate relationships in our lives. Read on to explore our experts' perspectives, and learn new techniques to improve your own relationship skills.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How to Improve Your Marriage & Communicate

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Couple Talking

The day’s activities often take partners away from each other as they do their individual jobs or activities. This separation allows each partner to have their own experiences and pursue their own interests, but it can lead them to exist in separate lives, creating a rift between them. However, it also provides an opportunity to enrich their relationship – if they choose to do that. And the best way to take advantage of this opportunity is to regroup at the end of each day.

Although it doesn’t really matter exactly when you do it, it is important that you can focus on each other without distractions. When this works well, you will feel closer because of all you’ve shared and you will help each other relieve stress so that you are emotionally more available to enjoy your relationship.

Unfortunately, these conversations sometimes backfire. Below are some reasons for this and what to do about them:

Poor timing: When you have this conversation is essential. Both partners must be ready to talk. If one needs time alone to decompress after work, it’s not a good idea for the other partner to start in right as he or she walks through the door. Also, the fewer distractions the better. If you try to have this conversation when your children are running around or one of you is in the middle of doing bills, there is little chance that the one sharing will really feel listened to.

Unsolicited advice: Listening to someone you love talk about problems and their distress is difficult. It will make you want to fix the situations and may prompt you to jump in with unsolicited advice (particularly a problem for men). When people do give such advice, it often makes the person who is sharing feel like their partner is not really listening. There’s also a good chance the advice was offered before he or she finished venting. And, the “adviser” might not have picked up on how that person is already working to fix the problem. So, the person venting is likely to reject the proposed solutions. The result is that the person venting and the person offering advice are both frustrated.

Not knowing how to respond: As the listener, it can help to remember that your job really is to just listen. When I say just listen, I mean really hear what your partner is saying, have empathy, care about their feelings, and validate those feelings. This may not sound like much, but it sends the messages that you want to know about your partner and care about him or her.  The overarching message that you truly love them is not only important; it is essential. So, just listen. If – after your partner is done sharing or venting – you have suggestions and your partner is interested in your thoughts, you can offer them then.

When a partner vents on and on about the same issue without doing anything to change it, the listening partner often feels almost unable to withhold their advice. What is interesting about these situations is that the advice almost never solves the problem – it only creates more tension in the relationship. So, instead, point out this problem. Ask if there is something else going on that makes it hard for them to let go or do something different. Say that you would be happy to help them solve the problem if they’d be open to it. Or, ask if there is something else in particular that they want from you. Hopefully, these approaches will open new, productive conversations.

Not only has research shown that such conversations are key to keeping marriages happy, but I have also seen it improve the relationships of couples that I have treated. So try it out. When you engage in these conversations as a regular part of your evening routine, there is a good chance they will bring you much closer.

If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic on the Relationships and Coping Community, click here.

Photo: Goodshoot

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 6:30 am

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