I do a ton of couples therapy in my sex therapy practice and though I like it best when couples figure things out on their own, sometimes relationships become so foggy (like the weather today) that they can't see their way out. Over the years, in my own almost 25 year marriage, observer of relationships, and relationship therapist, I've learned some truths that I want to pass along to you as New Year's resolutions for 2011.
- Spend time together. If your car was out of fuel, you'd be mortified. Why is it okay to let your relationship run on fumes? The "fuel" of a relationship is enjoying each other's company. You don't have to be hot glued at the hip, but you do have to find enough balance in your life so you can spend time with your partner.
- Demonstrate gratitude. Don't just praise your partner when they go out of their way. Think about it: There is no written rule that says your partner must do anything for you. Everything your partner does–making coffee, sorting laundry, or earning a living–is worthy of praise. How much time and energy does it take, really, to say, "Thanks!"
- Listen. If there is one thing and only one thing you resolve to do this year, it is to listen to your partner. It is easy to think that you are listening. After all, you are in the same space or on the same phone or data line, right? But deep listening is another matter. What is your partner really saying to you? What is the emotional content behind their sentences? You need to listen to "felt" communication, not just stay on the surface. When you hear a change in your partner's voice–in its pitch, its volume, or its speed–pay attention! There is more going on, don't miss it. Make your partner feel heard.
- Share. Tell your partner what you are thinking and feeling. Don't hold things in and build up a well of resentment that spills over into your relationship. It does neither partner any good to pretend that things are okay when really you are aching inside. If your partner cares about you, they will listen (see #3, above).
- Cooperate. You want to have a spirit of cooperation in your relationship. How can you solve a problem in an efficient way that best uses the talents of both people? Life shouldn't be a power struggle. Don't try to dominate your partner to make things go your way, or your way may be out the door!
- Be romantic. It's a pet peeve of mine when someone claims that they "don't know how to be romantic." What you're really saying: You think it's silly, or you feel silly doing something romantic, because it involves feelings. It's such a common complaint in my office, a partner wanting romance. Romance is a display that you thought about your partner, that you care, and that your partner is more than a warm body with whom you have occasional sex. So learn to be romantic. It isn't hard. That's why they make cards, sell flowers, decorate restaurants, etc., to help you express yourself.
- Be sensual. Masters and Johnson famously said, "Sex is more than body parts and friction." It breaks my heart to hear that in this day and age there are still couples that are having sex this way: She lifts her nightgown, and he sticks it in. Really? Light up some candles (or use LED ones, they're safer), put on some music, spray on some fragrance, have a sip of wine or sparkling water, and get into some lovemaking.
- Take care of personal problems. Don't let your personal problems wear out your partner. Do you have a drinking problem? Get help. A bad temper? Learn to control it. Are you a slob? Call an organizer, or a friend who will help you. Are you overweight? Diet and exercise. A basket case? Take a yoga class. If you love your partner and want to keep the relationship, don't make your partner stand for bad behavior. (I'm not talking about little problems. A pile of magazines is different from a hallway lined with stacks of them a la "Hoarders." Three beers on a Saturday night is different than a six pack every night.)
- If you can't agree on something big, don't do it. Big things include having a child, taking a job that requires a big move, owning a dog, remodeling a house, or changing careers to cause a drastic change in lifestyle. Don't force your partner to take on obligations that will ultimately cause resentment. If you can't get an agreement, let it go. Learn to be content with something else. Move on.
- See your partner as human. A partner isn't a target for your frustrations. They don't exist as a means for you to work out unresolved issues from childhood. They aren't there to fulfill your every need. If you've managed to keep your relationship going, realize that your partner is still around because he or she loves you. It's the least you can do to love them back.
You won't be able to do all ten of these resolutions; don't even try. But pick one or two to work on over time. Once you make progress and your new behavior becomes second nature, try working on another resolution. May you find love and peace in the New Year.