I frequently counsel couples on relationships and romantic partnerships. Oftentimes, I draw from my own marital adventures in offering advice.
Foremost, relationships — specifically romantic partnerships — require a good bit of cognitive flexibility. This is an ability to entertain different perspectives. Why is this important? Because it could, much to your surprise, make you a happier person.
Here are a few insights from personal and professional experience that could make your life and your relationship more satisfying.
Anniversaries, birthdays, Valentine’s Day and other key dates in a relationship are important to acknowledge. It’s easy to feel slighted if your partner forgets a special date. But we all forget things — especially when there are a million things to remember. Forgetting an anniversary or blanking on a birthday doesn’t always mean the worst. It likely means we were focused on something different as the date closed in.
If a coming holiday or event is important to you, communicate it. For instance, my husband and I recently had our fifth wedding anniversary. We don’t usually celebrate our anniversary, so I knew I had to remind him that it was five years, and I was expecting something more than the traditional “I love you. Have a great day.” I wanted an evening out with a nice dinner and a special gift. So I sent him a meeting request. Romantic, right? Well, lucky for me, he agreed. My husband lives and dies by his calendar, and often is looking only a day or two in advance. Because, let’s face it, there’s a lot to do with full-time jobs and two young children.
Through the years, I’ve shifted my perspective that romance must be spontaneous. The reward for my cognitive flexibility was a night that went above and beyond my expectations. Let your partner know what’s important to you. Don’t be shy because it’s likely also important to them.
One of my favorite tips for couples, and a skill that has helped my marriage, is to avoid promises that you can’t or don’t plan to keep.
For example, the issue might be something minor like squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube instead of the end, or something scary like forgetting to lock the front door, or even something as serious as yelling during arguments.
When a loved one asks us to change a behavior, it can almost be a reflex for us to say, “Sure, I’ll make that change.” Because often what they are asking is reasonable, or it’s so bothersome to them that we don’t want to be nagged about it anymore. The problem comes when we say, “Yes, I can do that,” and don’t change the behavior.
I grew up in the country, and we never locked our doors. My husband grew up in the inner-city of New Orleans. Locking the door was habitual. I don’t feel unsafe here, so frequently, I forget to lock the door. It drives him crazy. Because it’s something that bothers him, and because I want him to feel safe, I try to remember. Unfortunately, I have a track record of forgetting.
Not keeping my promise was causing a problem, so I did something to change my behavior. I placed a sticky note on my bathroom mirror. At night, when I brush my teeth, I see the sticky note and remember to lock the door.
Speak to be heard
As a kid, I had to yell the loudest if I wanted to be heard in my family. My husband came from a family where you calmly communicated your needs — if you communicated your needs at all. For him to speak up to my boisterous self could be very intimating at times, and it could stop progress and actual communication. So for a few years, there was a communication barrier in our relationship.
One night we argued, and in frustration, my husband said, “I just need you to promise never to yell again.” I almost agreed to that, but then I realized that was never going to happen. I’m not a quiet person. However, I could promise that if I did start to get too loud, he could point it out. He could ask me to bring my animated voice down a bit and/or take a break.
For the last three or four years, it has really helped. When we argue, I tend to get very passionate. While I may not be screaming, I am very loud. And although I am speaking, he can’t actually hear me because I’m overloading his sympathetic nervous system. Now, we wait until I can temper my response, and in a way, he can hear me.
Different isn’t wrong
This one is from a new friend. She has four children and a wonderful, yet eccentric, husband. He’s always a little short on the details; she’s an over-planner. Opposites attract, right? Despite differing personalities, they make it work.
This summer, she shared her primary cognitive shift that saved her sanity. She said that over her marriage, she has convinced herself that the way he does some things isn’t wrong; it’s just different.
“It usually takes (him) way longer than it would have taken me,” she said. “It’s inefficient. It isn’t how I would do it in the slightest.”
She had to decide — is it worth having an argument every time his way of doing something differs from mine? She decided different isn’t wrong, and she has been happily married for more than 15 years. After all, nobody is perfect.
So for 2020, if you’re looking for a change in your relationship, try shifting perspective, get creative and follow through on your promises. Oh — and feel free to make rules about how you want to argue so at the end of the day, communication stays open and, hopefully, you find a bit more satisfaction in your relationship.
Beth Farrell is a licensed clinical social worker in the University of Nebraska Medical Center Department of Psychiatry. She focuses on treating persons with anxiety disorder, trauma, addiction issues, relationship concerns and those living with severe and persistent mental illnesses.