It’s common practice this time of year to make personal resolutions: lose weight; eat better; save more. But have you ever thought about sitting down with your partner and making resolutions for your relationship? Not only would you improve one of the most important aspects of your life, but you’d have some built-in accountability! Here are a few suggestions to help you make 2021 the best year for your marriage yet.
Take a Virtual Vacation
I don’t mean a simulated trip to Tahiti, though until the travel ban lifts that may be your only option! I mean taking a break from the laptops, phones, and tablets that have become such a big part of our lives…this year more than ever!
In a recent report, nearly 50% of survey respondents agreed that they could not go a day without their cell phones. This trend clearly manifests in our relationships, distracting us during dinner, interrupting our conversations, and making us less attuned to each other.
Research suggests that when people take breaks from their digital devices, they become less stressed, more rested, and more empathetic, making daily detoxes a simple way to restore balance and presence to your relationship. Resolve to discuss with your partner the role you want these gadgets to play in your life together.
Ditch the Caricature
Remember that drawing you had done on your honeymoon? The one with the big heads and little bodies? Leave it hanging in the basement.
Often when we argue with our partners, we are not actually speaking to him or her, but to our stylized, worst-imaginable version of them (think devil-horns and gap-teeth). My technical term for this is “Core Negative Image,” but I often just call it your caricature, the image that makes you go “Oh my god, I married a (fill in the blank).”
The difficulty with caricatures is that there is usually some truth to them (your partner certainly can be selfish), but the problem is that they fail to build on what is working (often, he isn’t). Letting go of it allows you to see the real person in front of you, the one you love and want to share your life with.
Once in a college chemistry lab, I spilled acid on my arm. It burned. A lot.
It’s no wonder marital researcher John Gottman calls contempt the “sulphuric acid of love.” Each time we speak harshly or act as if we are better than our partner, we might as well be dumping corrosive chemicals on our relationship.
If contempt has become a routine part of your marriage, it’s time to commit to ending it. Contempt has no redeeming qualities, and can actually make the recipient physically sick by suppressing his or her immune system. Neither of you should have to tolerate it.
Uprooting contempt begins with cultivating appreciation within the relationship. If this proves difficult, or the contemptuous partner cannot acknowledge that there is a problem, it is time to seek professional help.
Closely related to contempt is the concept of control, which is inherently contemptuous in adult relationships because it implies that you know better. Controlling your partner is an attractive way of minimizing the difference between what you want and what you have, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t work.
Even if you do get your way, you’re likely to breed alienation and resentment. No one likes to be controlled, and a relationship where one partner is controlling – whether directly or indirectly – is not one where love and health can flourish.
Particularly if you tend to exert control in harsh ways, memorize the following: “There’s nothing that harshness does well that loving firmness doesn’t do better.”
Trade Complaints for Requests
Complaints are often made under the guise of information: “he can’t fix it if he doesn’t know what’s wrong!” It’s a brilliant strategy for expressing yourself and a poor one for helping your partner change. Complaining won’t get you what you want for the simple reason that you’re not asking for it.
Shifting from a mindset of complaining to one of requesting empowers your partner to meet your desires. It also gives him or her an action plan and makes talking about the relationship something to look forward to.
Although it sounds easy, many of us are uncomfortable making requests because it challenges us to own our wants and then risk having them denied (Yes, this is a possibility! See above discussion on control). Commit this year to being more upfront with your partner about what you’d like from them, and respond generously when those requests are made of you.
Clear a Space
The spaces in your home should reflect the kinds of experiences you and your partner want to have in them. A breakfast table crowded with junk mail is no place to share a cup of coffee, nor is a cluttered tub a spot for a relaxing bath.
Commit to having an ongoing conversation about how you’d each like to use the space available to you, and create a plan to follow through. Remember, this is less about “décor,” and more about adding function, beauty, and joy to your daily life.
Take Turns Being Crazy
Unless 2021 involves some interplanetary anomaly of which I am unaware, you and your partner will still have meltdowns for the same reasons they’ve always happened: difficulties at work, life transitions, unexpected expenses, loss, etc. (not to mention the 2020 hangover!) With enough stress, even the most loving, rational, mature adult is liable to behave like a brat.
When your partner starts to act like a child, try to reach the adult part of them. Resist the urge to engage in a “playground throw-down,” and applaud the humility it takes to understand that your time for tantrums will also come. If that doesn’t work, take a break until the functional adult regains control.
In other words, you each get to act crazy from time to time, you just have to take turns.
Be a Proactive Lover
Long before Hollywood, our culture was sold on a romantic template that suggested that true love was spontaneous and reckless. From Lancelot and Guinevere to Romeo and Juliet, we have been instilled with the idea that, far from needing skills and consciously-chosen action, true love “just works.”
Then again, Guinevere cheated on her husband and Romeo and Juliet ended up drinking poison. Such is the wisdom of yesteryear.
Perhaps a modern marriage, your marriage, could benefit from less passivity. Commit to going after the relationship you want, rather than reacting to what your partner gives you naturally. Being proactive will open up new options for the both of you.
Learn to Dance
Relax. I’m not saying you should go sign up for ballroom lessons, although you’re certainly free to do so if that appeals to you.
What I’m referring to here is the dance of harmony, disharmony, and repair that is the natural flow of every relationship.
The latest infant studies – our go-to-source for info concerning questions of “human nature” – tell us that the even the simplest mother-child interactions are infused with connection, rupture, and resumed connection.
Simply put, any healthy relationship will involve moments of disconnect. In fact, you likely wouldn’t want the alternative (traditionally the absence of this periodic tension has been termed “psychotic fusion”). Embrace them as opportunities to heal and grow.
And if you have “two left feet” in this regard, don’t be afraid to let your partner lead!
Intimacy is not something you have, it is something you do — not every now and again when you’re feeling down or once a week on date night. True intimacy is a minute-to-minute practice.
Not convinced? Remember this the next time you’re in the middle of a tough conversation with your spouse. You resist every impulse to become critical, to raise your voice, or to otherwise act like a jerk.
The whole thing blows up, your spouse collapses into tears, and you storm off. You held out for ten minutes – which may be a new personal record – but the damage is done. There is no partial credit.
The good news is there is a reason they call it practice, and when things calm down, you and your partner can acknowledge the improvement. The goal is not to be perfect, but it is important to realize that the messy thing we call love demands your skill and savvy 24/7.
Let It Be Better
Strangely enough, it is not uncommon for people to be resistant to their partners’ attempts to improve a relationship. There can be resentment that it took so long or even fear about what new demands will be placed upon them.
Combat this by supporting your partner’s efforts and cherishing the results, even if they are imperfect. Pledge your own imperfect efforts, and request the same in return.
Remember, few things can transform a relationship like cherishing your partner and what they offer to you. So pile it on!
It’s always a good time to enrich your most important relationship, but if you’ve been avoiding a tough conversation, your hopes for the New Year can be a fantastic lead-in. These are my resolutions. What are yours?