Action 18

How To: Nurture My Relationship with my Partner or Spouse

An investment in a relationship is like any other investment. You get out of it what you put into it. In order to profit and reap dividends, you need to watch over the relationship and care for it. Avoidance and numbing reactions to trauma are most strongly associated with problems in family and intimate relationship functioning. Here are some specific steps you and your partner/spouse can take together to nurture your relationship.

  1. To begin, never forget what attracted you to your partner in the first place. Remember together how you got together in the first place and hooked up or got married. Together you can go through picture albums and recall the shared happy and good times together and how you can maintain and recreate those same feelings and experiences. Take time to get to know each other all over again. Think of times when you felt close, happy and got along well with each other.
  2. Your communication (both verbal and nonverbal) with your partner/ spouse should include a ratio of four to five positive to every negative statement. Each instance of criticism, put downs, slights and the like, warrant at least four times as many positive interactions (positive attention, interest, expressions of appreciation, empathetic listening, humorous comments, and the like). You have to actively work to reduce the level of negativity of criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling (refusal to cooperate and comply).
  3. There is a need for both partners to recognize the rigid “vicious cycle” or pattern of communication that leads to “gridlock” and “escalation.” There is a need to recognize when the two of you are falling into this “communication trap” and learn ways to notice this pattern early on to interrupt and override it. Instead of fueling the “cycle,” the two of you can view the “cycle” as an “enemy” that needs to be avoided and defeated. Instead of blaming each other, blame the “cycle” and work together to change it, before it destroys your relationship. Learn to stand together against this destructive process. You can work together to alter the “dance of disconnection.” Work with your new battle-buddy, your partner, like you worked with your war buddies.
  4. Remember that reducing negativity is necessary, but not sufficient for a successful relationship. Positivity needs to be increased, particularly during conflict situations. Compassion, affection, humor, honoring the other’s life dreams need to be part of any communication. Any bids for attention and affection should be met with a reciprocal response (“turn toward bids”). Talk about shared goals, missions and legacies. Express appreciation and admiration of your partner/spouse each day. Be specific and provide detailed examples. (You are so creative in making our home decorative for the holidays, of putting together a romantic dinner, of supporting your friends). Comment on what you like, enjoy and appreciate about your partner/spouse. Praise each other’s efforts, not just the outcomes.
  5. Use the language of solutions and the language of becoming with your partner/spouse that notices, acknowledges and highlights ways your partner is changing. (You are becoming more—supportive, caring, loving when you— provide specific examples). Catch each other doing nice things and praise such behaviors.
  6. Write a letter of gratitude (“thank you”) to your partner/spouse expressing your appreciation for something he/she has done for you or the family. Be specific and write down how it affected you. Read the letter aloud to your partner/spouse. Offer a kind word or flowers. Offer a hug or a massage.
  7. Be emotionally generous. Engage in acts of kindness, fondness, and share responsibilities. Surprise your partner/spouse with something fun and romantic. Target marital friendship, exchanges of positive feelings and joint meaningful goals and missions.
  8. (Re) negotiate and (re) establish routines, responsibilities and rules for the family so you do not feel like a “guest in your home.” Work together to “shrink” the impact of stress and any lingering effects of deployment, traumatic events and victimizing experiences. Work together to gradually approach and overcome any avoidance behaviors that resulted in the aftermath of traumatic events. With your partner’s/spouse’s assistance break the habit of reducing distress through avoidance. Create a hierarchy of situations and activities that are avoided from least fearful to most fearful. Work together to overcome them gradually (confront, enter, engage in), these avoidant behaviors, from least to most anxiety-engendering. Work as a team.
  9. Share difficult experiences and accompanying feelings. Doing so is the “emotional glue” that cements social bonds. Turn toward each other, instead of away or apart. Nurture a sense of togetherness, instead of withdrawing.
  10. Be careful of one’s partner “running interference” by over-protecting the other partner. In a desire to help the distressed partner, a spouse may make excuses; cover for him/her; do for his/her spouse what he/she should be doing for him/herself; assume that it is his/her job to fix problems for the partner. Such enabling behaviors can inadvertently reinforce avoidance behaviors. A spouse can become a Surrogate Frontal Lobe for a distressed partner and take on planning, organizing, monitoring functions. There is a need for partners/spouses to be partners, asking each other how he/she can be of assistance.
  11. Make a list with your spouse of activities you both like to do together and do the top ones. Schedule enjoyable positive “healthy” activities and events, like a scheduled date outside of the home at least once a month. Have fun. Show affection, permit intimacy to (re) develop. Find ways to be close that do not involve sex, such as sharing affection in other ways. Spend quality time together.
  12. Behaviors that can undermine relationships. Do the opposite of these behaviors.
    • Act as if you are superior and know all the answers and speak to your partner in a condescending and contemptible tone.
    • Be defensive and respond angrily to criticism by counter-attacking, crying, or employing the silent treatment in an attempt to punish the other person.
    • Convey that certain topics are “taboo” to discuss. “Stonewall” and “filibuster.” Withdraw physically or emotionally from the discussion. Say, “okay, okay, I will do it your way.”
    • Contradict any positive statements you offer your partner by pairing them with nonverbal negative messages such as frowns, sneers, expressions of disgust; use a tense and impatient tone of voice, lean away from your partner, and the like. Send two conflicting messages. Remember that looks can speak louder than words.
    • Control everything and everyone. Be a “control freak.” Convey the belief that “If you loved me, you would know what I want and need.”
    • Find fault with your partner. Let days go by without a kind word or a loving gesture.
    • Pay more attention to your TV or computer than to your partner.
    • Strike the words “I love you” from your vocabulary.
    • Never let your partner see you smiling.
    • Never ask your partner for help.
    • Keep your feelings to yourself.
    • Withdraw sex and let passion die (you get extra points for this one).

(Suggestions offered above by Pat Love and Sunny Shulkin in their tonguein-cheek book, How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Relationship. Do not forget to do the opposite of these if you want to nurture a good relationship.)

  1. Visit couple-based websites, workshops, references or a spouse battle-mind program. For example:readyandresilient.army.mil www.strongbonds.org www.spousonomics.com www.couplescoachingcouples.com

(See also John Gottman’s books The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work; The Relationship Cure; and Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. Also Susan Johnson’s Hold Me Tight and Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and Susan Blumberg’s Fighting For Your Marriage.)

Quotable Quotes

“I can let my spouse know when I am struggling so she can become more patient and supportive.”

“I can let my guard down. I do not have to put up a wall. Instead of shutting down I can let my spouse in.”

“We have both learned to slow down the whole interaction cycle before responding to each other.”

“As a result our conflicts have decreased. I am a better listener. It brought us together.”

“I have learned to share my fears and ask for help.”

“Our communications are more open and effective.”

“I have a greater appreciation of what my spouse is going through (‘echoes of battle’) and its lingering effects.”

“I feel more trust in my spouse.”

“I really feel like part of a team with my spouse.”

Action 19