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Action 45

Enhance your relationship with your partner

It's so easy to take each other for granted but an investment of effort and attention in your closest relationship will pay dividends in happiness - for you and your partner. 

Why do it?

The quality of our closest relationships can have a huge impact on our own happiness and that of our partner. Historically, psychologists have spent time looking into what goes wrong in relationships. Although a relatively new field, there is a growing body of evidence about what makes relationships go right. [1]

There are many practical things we can do to enhance our closest relationships. Many of these are very simple, they just require some thought and conscious attention. Why not give them a try? You may be surprised how much difference they make.

Where to start

According to social psychologist John Harvey, the key to growing and maintaining a good relationship is effort and persistence. He and his colleagues developed the 'Minding Model' of relationships to show what makes relationships last and grow - as summarised below. [2]

  • Knowing and being known. Trying to really understand our partner's thoughts, feelings, attitudes and past history. And sharing ours with them. This takes effort in established relationships when we assume we know what our partners are thinking and feeling!
  • How we explain our partner's behaviour. In successful relationships we explain the positive behaviours of our partners as being part of their character or personality and negative ones as being due to external circumstances.
  • Acceptance and respect. Treating each other with respect. Listening. Working out compromises when our views conflict. Fully accepting who our partner is - the parts we like and the parts we don't. Ensuring that when we disagree it's about something specific and not a complaint about who they are as a person. Ensuring we have more positive interactions than negative ones is also vital.
  • Reciprocity. Ensuring that there is balance in the relationship overall and that one person doesn't feel taken advantage of.
  • Continuity. Consciously putting effort into minding our relationship. We are continuously experiencing new things, learning and adapting over our life's course. So we need to be continuously communicating with our partners and taking action to help maintain and develop our relationship.

The sections below provide some suggestions to help build your skills in some of these areas.

Knowing your partner

Good communication is at the heart of happy relationships of all kinds. The good news is that communication skills (both listening and responding) can be learnt and practiced, just as we can practice any other life skill. Here are some simple rules:

  1. Good communication is two-way. One part of communication is, of course, expressing ourselves - sharing our own hopes, wants, fears, and needs. And this is essential to opening the lines of communication in a close relationship. But it's just as important that we understand each others' needs. We need to encourage our partner to share their hopes and fears with us - and really take time to understand them from their perspective.
  2. Listen well.Wanting to know and understand more about your partner and asking questions is crucial. But listening and empathising with the answers is all the more so. Research shows that the way in which we react to what is being said - and the way in which your partner reacts to what you tell them when the situation is reversed - determines whether sharing leads to increased closeness. Self-disclosure only leads to a more intimate relationship if our partner sees that we listen to and understand them. So we have to develop the skills to really listen to what they are saying.
Celebrate the positive

Better and deeper communication leads to more compassion and less blame in a relationship. Which means fewer complaints and arguments! Psychologist John Gottman, a leading expert on relationships, says that the "magic ratio" for happy partnerships is 5:1 - five positive interactions for every negative one.

Here are a few ideas of how you can stick to this magic ratio...

  • Say thank you for the small things that your partner does day-to-day, like making you a cup of tea in the morning
  • Take time to look for the good in your partner - think about what you really value about them and remember the good experiences you've shared
  • Tell them when you're grateful for having them or for things they've done for you.
  • Make a list of what you think makes your partner feel appreciated - and try to carry out something on your list every day. [3]
  • Make the most of good events in your partner's life [4] - an important positive relationship skill is to respond positively to ask about the things that have gone well for your partner.
References

[1] Harvey; Gottman; Gable and Reis (2001- 2003)

[2] Harvey,J.H, & Pauwels,B.G. (2009) Relationship connection: A redux on the role of minding and the quality of feeling special in the enhancement of closeness. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.) OxfordHandbook of Positive Psychology. NY: Oxford University Press.

[3] Taken from 'Life enhancement Strategies', in Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology Chapter 13

[4] Maisel, N.C. & Gable, S.L. (2009) For richer…in good times…and in health: positive processes in relationships. In S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder (Eds.) Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY: Oxford University Press.

See also Gable, SL, & Reis, HT (2010) 'Good news! Capitalizing on positive events in an interpersonal context', Zanna MP (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, and Hicks, A and Diamond, L 'How was your day? Couples' affect when telling and hearing daily events' Personal Relationships, 15 (2008), 205-228

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