How to Make a Relationship Work
eight simple ideas to transform your relationship
By Andrew G. Marshall, Author & Marital Therapist.
Over thirty years experience, author of twenty books including international best-seller: I Love You But I’m Not In Love With You
What is the best predictor of a great marriage? Similar backgrounds? Common interests and attitudes? Great chemistry? All of these are useful, but what really counts is having the right knowledge and skills. The good news is it is never too late to learn and transform your relationship for the better. All you need is to take on board these eight simple ideas for how to make a relationship work.
1. Arguments are good for you
When couples arrive in my office saying ‘we never row’, I know I have a tough case on my hands.
Common trap: Problems don’t disappear just because you love each other and swallow your annoyance. They go underground – where they are harder to fix – and pop up as sniping and sarcastic comments.
Develop the skill: Tackle things as they happen, rather than bottling and then blowing your top. It is much easier to solve one issue – like leaving wet towels on the bed – rather than letting it build up into a list of accusations.
2. Don’t rely on spontaneous sex
Your sex life is great but you seldom get round to doing it.
Common trap: Of course, the best sex is when both of you are in the mood at the same time. But if you rely on that, you’ll end up with only having sex on holiday and on special occasions like Valentine’s Day.
Develop the skill: Set aside an evening when you plan to be sensual with each other. It could be having a bath and washing each other’s hair, slow dancing or giving a back rub. It will help you get into the zone where you are either both ready to take things further or agree to stay with being sensual rather than sexual.
3. Stop what doesn’t work
When you are stressed, angry or anxious, you are more likely to fall into the same old patterns – even though you know where you’ll end up: shouting matches, name calling, tears, sulking or walking out.
Common trap: You hope that trying the same failed strategy – but bigger – that your partner will finally get it. Meanwhile, he locks into his regular response – only bigger still – and everything escalates. So not only do you have the same sort of fights but they are getting more destructive and taking longer to recover from.
Develop the skill: Try the opposite, if you lose your temper put your thoughts in a calm text, if you walk away try staying.
4. Listening is harder than you think
Everybody thinks they know how to listen. You just have to shut up for a bit.
Common trap: Perhaps you tend to interrupt, or you’re too busy preparing your defense or a counter attack, or maybe you think you know what he is going to say and miss some vital information.
Develop the skill: Repeat back the main points that your partner has said to you. It will make him feel heard, be more likely to engage and de-escalate the situation.
5. Learn to negotiate
Unless your parents set a good example or you have learned how to negotiate at work, it is hard to challenge the most unhelpful myth about relationships: if you love me, you will do anything for me.
Common trap: Perhaps you find it hard to say no – because you don’t want to upset your partner. Maybe you think you’re right and have the best solution, so you defend your point of view rather than work together as a team.
Develop the skill: Stay in the crucible of conflict for a few minutes longer – rather than backing down or trying to find a quick solution, because you feel uncomfortable. If it gets too painful, take a break and return at a later agreed time.
6. Focus on the comings and goings
It’s not the big things that will make or break your marriage but how well you handle the small moments that make a relationship work.
Common trap: If you start the evenings on the right foot, you are laying the ground for quality time together. When you leave, make certain he knows when you are coming back so there are no false assumptions and check his movements too.
Develop the skill: When your partner returns stop what you’re doing and concentrate on him. It shows that he’s more important than getting supper ready, chatting on Facebook or watching TV.
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7. Children are just passing through but marriage is forever
You can put so much energy into family time with the kids, it can hide how little time you spend together as husband and wife.
Common trap: When the midwife put your baby in your arms, it was impossible to believe he or she would grow up and go to school or even be old enough to leave home. However, lots of couples reach this point and discover they are strangers.
Develop the skill: Ring-fence couple time by having regular night-outs together – no matter how young your children - and putting a lock on your bedroom door. It sends a signal that you are lovers as well as parents.
8. Think about what you can change
What’s the most common question I get asked? It’s asked in hundreds of different forms but it all boils down to the same thing: How do I change my partner?
Common trap: It is easy to come up with a list of his faults and imagine your marriage would be wonderful if only he would stop doing something. But however nicely you ask, or how often, he gets defensive or aggressive.
Develop the skill: Look at your half of the problem and ask: what could I do differently? The only person you can change is yourself but that can have a major knock on effect on your marriage.
BONUS: How to have a GOOD argument
There are two types of row.
I am not referring to the name-calling, door-slamming, plate-smashing burst of fury. I mean the type of argument where both parties have a chance to be heard, where you listen to your partner rather than merely waiting to discount what they’re saying, where you examine your own faults as well as his.
A good row is one where you’ve both had your say and you can begin to work as a team to uncover the problem and then resolve it. But you don’t just develop this skill overnight: it’s something you need to learn and practise.
Why shouldn’t you just bite your lip? By doing this you are discounting your feelings. And you can’t pick and choose which feelings you’re going to discount. You can’t say, ‘I’m not going to have the anger, the bitterness and the resentment, I’m just going to have the love, the happiness and the peace’.
When you switch off one of your feelings, over time, you switch off all of them. And you risk reaching the point in the marriage that I call ‘I love you but I’m not in love with you’.
To protect your relationship you’ve overlooked all the little grievances but by doing so, you’re actually inching further and further away from your partner.
That’s because actually having a row with someone is very intimate. When you disagree forcibly with someone, you’re showing not just the polite, nice side of yourself everyone likes but the vulnerable, not very nice parts, too.
The fact is love isn’t just people on their best behaviour, it’s dealing with all life’s messiness. That’s what makes it incredibly powerful but you’ve got to be 100 per cent yourself to achieve this – you can’t just be the PR version of yourself.
Don't store up your grievances
One couple who approached me around Christmas were guilty of this. Rosie, a kindergarten teacher, felt angry that husband Chris, an IT logistics manager, watched the Grand Prix rather than helping her address the Christmas cards.
Instead of airing this minor gripe, she stored it up along with the fact he didn’t zip her up into her dress when she’d asked and she felt she was doing more than her fair share of domestic chores.
Rather than confronting the little problems as and when they happened, they waited for the inevitable crescendo. Thankfully this lead to them ringing me rather than a divorce lawyer.
If Rosie had said, ‘Please stop watching the Grand Prix and help me address the cards,’ she would have had one topic to focus on (which is more than enough for an argument).
If you’re finding you can’t solve the issue, you need to be curious – what is this row really about? Is it about Christmas cards or is it because you feel you’re doing most of the work? And if it’s that, you need to say, ‘We’re trying to solve our whole marriage here, rather than just the Christmas cards…’
If you unhook it from being about everything you will find a solution. It could be doing the Christmas cards together or your husband agreeing to take charge of a job rather than feeling you are breathing down his neck.
Stand in your partner's shoes
This sounds blindingly obvious but it’s hard to do in the heat of an argument. Remember from where he’s sitting, everything makes perfect sense. He’s not just watching the Grand Prix, he’s de-stressing after a huge week and he can’t focus on anything until after he’s done a mental ‘ahhhh!’
You might not agree with his viewpoint but for five minutes at least, force yourself to see things from his position. I promise if you do it, he’ll do it, too.
How to really listen
When he’s speaking, don’t think of anything else but trying to summarise the main point he’s made. And then repeat it back to him: ‘actually, you’re not just watching the Grand Prix, you’re unwinding from the week.’
He will say, ‘Yes!’ and you’ll soon see what a difference that makes. Then you can use the three most beautiful words in the English language: ‘Is there more?’
The reason they’re so appealing is that we’re very happy to hear from our partners when they’re saying something we want to hear but when they’re not, we try to shut them up or rush to a solution as quickly as possible.
But giving them an opportunity to unload reinforces the fact you care and gives them an opportunity to say, ‘Yes, actually, I really hate my boss.’ Often it’s something you wouldn’t have found out otherwise.
That’s the brilliant thing about rows: they show you were the crunch points are… if you dare to look.
If you continue to shy away from conflict, you ignore all these potential warnings - not just for him but for you yourself as well. Why has the stress of Christmas brought you to breaking point? You need to know that.
When we unpacked Rosie and Chris’s grievances, we discovered she played the caring parent role – suggesting an outfit for his work Christmas party, for example. But he saw that as patronising and controlling. What she thought was nurturing, he heard as criticism. Chris then played the sulking child and they had very little adult space left to communicate in.
The importance of positive strokes
A good way of turning a potential humdinger into a harmonious resolution is to give your partner what I call ‘positive strokes’ – either literally or verbally.
This could be holding their hand or stroking their arm. Or if they make a good point, actually acknowledging it: ‘Yes, you’re right.’
This is a powerful tool. If you’re feeling the same way, say so: ‘Yes, I can understand why you’re angry, I’m angry too.’
Don’t use words like, ‘always’, ‘never’ or ‘should’. There will always be exceptions to, ‘You never hang the washing out!’ Terms like these are as provocative as they are belligerent.
And as for ‘should’ – who is it whose saying ‘should’? The answer is probably you, so you need to say what you mean. Where ‘should’ provokes a fight, saying ‘I believe’ promotes discussion.
Don't end arguments too early!
With a good argument, you need to explore and understand before you act.
Because we’re terrified of disagreement, we often rush to the action: ‘Actually, I’ll just do the Christmas cards myself.’
But by doing so you might be ignoring your true feelings – creating larger problems down the line.
I spend a lot of time encouraging couples to argue in my room for just five minutes longer than they would ordinarily. If you keep talking a solution will emerge.
Arguments have a bad name – we think they’re all about shouting and screaming but my version of disagreement is loving and tender. That’s not to say I like quarrels either but when they happen I’ll get to the bottom of it.
Author of international best-seller I Love You But I’m Not In Love With You, Andrew has written 19 other books full of practical advice on saving relationships and putting new life into flagging ones.
Copyright 2019 Andrew G. Marshall