The Top 10 Tips and Tricks Successful Couples use to Build Connection and Resolve Conflict
Author: Stephanie Camins – MA, LPC
“Love is an energy that compels you to connect.”
“Love pushes you to evolve and transcends yours and mine”
“Love evokes levels of rawness, uncertainty, honesty, and vulnerability that have little regard for your comfort.”
Current expectations of marriage have evolved from the practicalities of a partnership being of primary importance, to now the relationship’s ability to:
- Nurture each other’s personal growth,
- Maintain a high level of emotional connection,
- Have a high level of physical/intimate satisfaction
- And still, the have the practicalities of a partnership
A difficult level of expectation to achieve for many couples.
Similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for an individual, a hierarchy of needs for the relationship now defines a successful relationship as reaching the top level of actualization that we strive for in the individual version. For our purposes, we can call it relationship actualization.
“You must be able to act autonomously and sustain your own center even while deeply registering your partner’s needs, expectations, and desires. The delicate interplay between bonding and differentiating is the underlying issue around which many marriages succeed or fail.” Our expectations about the needs that should be fulfilled in a relationship are so high that many don’t come anywhere close to meeting them.
So how do we achieve the relationship satisfaction we want? It can’t be about lowering my expectations, right? Or compromising my own needs or goals to the point that I don’t have any that are my own. Surely there is a way to have it all, right?
Relationships involve a coming together of two backgrounds, two personalities, two sets of expectations, two sets of goals for the future, two sets of interests, and two modes of reacting to stress (both interpersonal and relationship stress).
Much has been written about how attachment styles, interpersonal neurobiology, and brain development across a lifespan impact relationship satisfaction. The following Tips and Tricks combine the work of all three of these highly researched areas to help you build the connection you want in your relationship.
The Top 10 Tips and Tricks of Successful Couples:
Successful couples focus on understanding what is going on inside each other, managing conflict and validating the importance of their partner. “Relationships are spawned by attraction but shaped by conflict. The closer a person is to you, the harder it is to keep the person in perspective when the relationship is having difficulties.” These 10 Tips will help you maintain your own perspective while understanding your partner’s, even under stress.
1.Follow the 5 to 1 ratio for positive to negative interactions:
John Gottman’s research on successful, happy marriages concludes, “if the amount of time couples spent interacting positively – touching, smiling, laughing, giving compliments, stating appreciations – was not five times the amount of time spent fighting, judging, criticizing, fuming or skirting conflicts that have arisen, the marriage was in some trouble. If it fell below one positive interaction for each negative one, the couple was headed for divorce.”
2. Building Compatibility by Managing different Stress Styles:
- Understand and summarize your partner’s position with empathy (include thought and a feeling)
- State your partners view of the situation
- Listen for what is positive rather than negative
- Ask your partner to confirm your understanding of their perspective
- Ask your partner to understand your experience
- Articulate the goodwill your partner has for you
3. “Do you Mean?” Technique:
Hearing and understanding your partner increases the likelihood that they will hear your side of the story. This technique helps each person check out whether the other’s words and actions are being heard and interpreted accurately, encouraging attunement with each other’s needs. It is a form of nonjudgmental listening that keeps you attuned to your partner’s feelings and experiences.
It is applied to only one statement at a time or to explore the overall feeling of your partner in a difficult moment. When you find yourself in the midst of a conflict with your partner, stop and try out this technique.
When your partner expresses a problem they are having with you or the relationship, ask your partner a question that begins with “Do you mean…?” For example, do you mean that you’re angry with me because I forgot (fill in the blank)?
Your partner can answer only with one of four responses:
- “Yes” – 1 point
- “No” – 0 points
- “Part right-part wrong” – ½ point
- “I believe that to be true, but that is not what I am saying” – 0 points
Continue the “Do you mean?” questions until you have 3 points
If you get off track, go back to the original issue and ask your partner to phrase it in a different way.
Once you have 3 points, summarize with a statement such as “I can understand how (summary of what happened) would cause you to feel (name the feeling)” and ask for confirmation with the final question, “Am I understanding you?” or “Is there anything more?”
Once the answer is yes and if the issue is fully resolved on your part as well, you have completed the exercise. If you need to respond to the initial statement or make your own statement that summarizes points of difference, your partner then asks the “Do you mean?” questions until 3 points are reached and they give a summary statement that you accept.
Continue this process until the issue is resolved.
Yes, this can be a tedious process! The purpose is to SLOW down a conversation and examine the pieces. This raises the level of attunement between partners such that both of you feel heard, understood and validated and the issue is RESOLVED.
4. Gentle Start-Up:
Successful couples tend to deal with conflict as it comes up rather than letting issues build. If you come into conflict with a suitcase full of unresolved issues, you are coming in already in a state of high activation. “Coming in hot”.
To change this, you have a choice: you can start a conversation with harshness or with an eye toward nurturing the relationship and your partner. The following steps are Gottman’s guidelines for a soft start-up:
- Begin with a positive reflection of your relationship
- Express appreciation and gratitude
- Start with an “I statement” rather than a “you statement”
- Don’t stockpile complaints – start with only the one issue at the forefront
- State your feelings and needs without attacking or blaming the other person
- Describe your side of the story as your perception rather than as the absolute truth
- Focus on a specific behavior, not a global judgment
Remember – a harsh start-up creates defensiveness and disconnection while a gentle start-up invites receptiveness and responsibility!
5. An Appreciation Volley:
You are a primary source of validation and affirmation for your partner, the person you have chosen to spend your life with. Your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about your partner have a great deal of power.
Regularly giving positive statements of affirmation and gratitude let your partner know they are valued and appreciated. It also keeps you tuned into that positive energy you want flowing in the relationship!
This exercise is simple. Give your partner 3 “I am grateful for…” or “I appreciate…” statements, either in a row or alternating with your partner’s 3 statements. When receiving, say only thank you.
6. The Appreciation Sandwich:
Much like the appreciation volley and the gentle start-up, in this technique, we are recognizing the power of positive affirmations when bringing up problems. It reduces defensiveness and allows your partner the emotional space to hear what your concern is.
When you need to bring up a touchy subject, let your partner know that you would like to offer an ‘appreciation sandwich’. This lets your partner know that you have something difficult you need to broach.
First, express a genuine statement of appreciation to your partner. “I appreciate when…”
As the receiving partner, express gratitude for the statement. “Thank you”
You can then express your area of concern. “I have difficulty with…” or “I would like you to”
End with another statement of appreciation
If clarification is needed following this technique, follow with the “Do You Mean” exercise to clarify and resolve the issue.
7. Tell Me What You Want to Hear:
Roleplay with your partner acting out exactly what you want to hear them say. Trust that your partner wants to say the right thing. They don’t want to further frustrate you by not “hitting the mark”.
8. Gratitude List:
Write a list of 10 things you appreciate about your partner. Carry them with you each day in your wallet or purse or pocket. At least once a day, take them out, pick one to focus on and spend 15 seconds mindfully concentrating on that quality.
9. Hug Often:
Hugs of even 6 seconds release serotonin, a feel-good chemical, into your body. This will leave you feeling less irritable or sad. “Your relationship is your port within the storm.” Even when the storm is between you, when you can hold on to each other, the upset dissipates and allows you to address the problem from a place of nurturing the relationship rather than tearing it down.
10. Put on the Brakes:
If you or your partner or both become flooded or activated during a conflict, no solution will be achieved at that moment. Your “fight, flight, freeze or appease” brain has taken over the reins of control. This means your frontal cortex, the seat of reason, problem-solving, and understanding another is “off-line”.
To turn the energy, stop, take a few deep breaths, place a hand on your belly and make sure you feel the breath go all the way down into your diaphragm. Take another deep breath and ask yourself, “What is the fear in me that is driving this anger or blame? You may be afraid your partner is doing something that will make your life harder, is blaming or judging you, is never going to change a behavior that is hard for you to tolerate, is losing interest in you, or is going to leave you.”
Acknowledging your fears connects you with your partner by showing your vulnerability and allows your partner to respond with compassion rather than defensiveness and anger in return.
Think of all this as a kind of relationship boot camp. Relationship satisfaction ebbs and flows over months and years. It is important to have a toolbox you can always return to when you feel things are off track or even spiraling into an abyss of fear, rage, and retreat. Even a strong relationship has ups and downs. Think of your relationship like a bank account. You want more deposits than withdrawals. Deposits of gratitude, appreciation, and validation nurture that bottom line and buffer your relationship from becoming overdrawn.
Resources: The Energies of Love: Invisible Keys to a Fulfilling Partnership, Donna Eden and David Feinstein