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5 TIPS FOR BUILDING A BETTER RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR SPOUSE

5 TIPS FOR BUILDING A BETTER RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR SPOUSE

Do you wish you were more connected with your spouse? We're always looking for ways to build a stronger relationship with our significant other, which is one of the reasons we created our Love Story Journals—we want the journals to be used as a tool to reignite the spark and remember where your relationship all began.

In our quest to build the best relationship possible, we turned to Josh Downs of @thecouplestherapist, a licensed clinical social worker, for his insight and advice. Below, he shares 5 tips to help strengthen your emotional connection, improve your communication, and create a more loving bond. 

CHECK IN WITH YOUR PARTNER 

How often are you asking your child how their day was? When Josh's oldest child went to kindergarten, he wanted to know what kind of day he was having every day—and not just his schedule, but emotionally, what his son was going through everyday. Most of us are apart from our spouses even longer than our kids. Are we checking in the same way?

As Josh states, "Partners are often physically separate for a majority of each day. Multiply that by 365 minus two weeks vacation and couples end up spending a majority of their shared lifetime apart. They have different and sometimes completely opposite experiences than the other. These experiences can bring up emotions that leave us questioning our own capacity, celebrating our victories, sighing with relief when a disaster is averted, and many more. With all of the possible opportunities for experience, is it enough to simply verify whether someone’s day was “good” or “bad”? I would say that it is not enough. And missed opportunities for connection can create future distance."

Here are a few tips Josh recommends to do each day to really engage and connect with your spouse:

1. Don't make assumptions of how your partner is doing. Go beyond, “He has a hard job” or “She was busy today.” Don't end with the play-by-play of the day with your partner. Eventually the check-in must come around to a place of talking about how each person experienced those events. Here are examples of what to ask:

“What was that like for you to have all that work to do? When the kids were crazy and kept making messes everywhere? When you were in that meeting that was dragging on? When you got that email from a worried client? What was that like for you to hit those personal goals in your workout?”

And the questions can sometimes lead to deeper considerations of these daily aspects of life. “Can I honestly ask you what it’s been like for you as a mother/father over the last few weeks?” “What has it been like for you working those hours the last couple of weeks?”

2. Even if it feels foreign to talk like this, make it a habit. Doing this puts in a built-in message to your partner that, “this relationship means something to me, and so I am going to be more mindful of my day so that I have something to share when we are able to get together and talk.” A couple may feel like they are living on different sides of the universe but developing this habit says to the other, “I’m thinking about us and you over here on my side" or “I want you to be a part of my life even when I’m not physically here.”

3. Once communication like this becomes a habit, partners create a place where anything can be talked about. This way, heavier and more vulnerable issues are more easily talked about and managed.

For more of Josh's insight on this topic, read his full article here.

ACKNOWLEDGE HURT & PROVIDE HEALING

One of the lessons Josh has learned from his children is that humans need their hurt to be acknowledged by people that matter the most. As he explains, "My daughter is known to fall down on occasion. She will sit where she fell, typically with tears or a moan, and ask me to kiss the ouchie and give her a hug. Thankfully it’s usually a superficial or non-existent wound. A majority of the time she stops crying and goes back to playing once me or my wife has responded to her. We kid ourselves if we believe that adults have outgrown the need for empathy and acknowledgment when we experience emotional “ouchies” in life. Our pain is real and it often worsens the more alone we feel in our experience. We feel alone when our pain is dismissed."

Josh says the antidote to feeling alone in our hurt consists of two parts:

1. Outline your pain in the clearest way possible. "When I consider the role my daughter plays in her healing I see that she is very specific with me about where she is hurting," explains Josh. "She points to it, I see it, and then I treat it. She knows if she screams at me or runs the other way in embarrassment then I cannot help. Too many times we allow our hurt and pain to be packaged in anger or withdrawal and it keeps us from getting acknowledgment from others, especially if they are the ones who have hurt us. Although this reaction is understandable and legitimate it will eventually have to give way to vulnerably talking about the hurt."

2. The rest is up to the other person in the interaction. "Again with my dear daughter, her healing comes from seeing that I see when she is in pain, that I care about her being in pain, and that I won’t leave her alone," continues Josh. "When she feels like someone she loves has entered into her little universe of pain to be with her in it, she is more likely to believe that she will be fine and get back up."

For more of Josh's insight on this topic, read his full article here.

BEING RIGHT VS. BEING UNDERSTOOD 

"I don't need to be right. I just need to be heard." Sound familiar? Josh says this simple statement likely rings true for many of us, but we rarely connect with it in the moments when we need that insight the most. He says conversations that begin with each couple expressing their feelings can spiral into a useless grapple to determine who is right—and the reality is that we all fall for this trap.  

"Ultimately, we just want to be seen and heard by the other person. And we want them to understand and value what we are feeling," explains Josh. "We would all do well to ask ourselves in those moments, or even afterwards when there is still time for reconciliation: what do I really want from my partner?"

Josh notes that this isn’t to say that the need for resolving a particular issue (e.g. a child’s behavior, lack of intimacy, finances) won’t still need to be worked out. "But before you can get anywhere close to resolving the issue, a couple must be a team. And a team is made when each person feels that in their partner they have an understanding witness to whatever emotional experience they are having. And perhaps more importantly, an assurance that they are loved, even if their partner doesn’t know what to do or has a different opinion."

For more of Josh's insight on this topic, read his full post here

SOMETIMES WE SAY THINGS WE DON'T MEAN

According to Josh, in sessions with couples he has heard partners say things that sometimes sting and cut deeply. But, on the flip side, he says when courage wins over and a partner takes a risk to share vulnerable feelings, it can be powerful. "The whole interaction can then take on a new meaning; a meaning that better illuminates the need for closeness that both people feel." 

He suggests the following exercise to try and understand the things you didn't mean to say when interacting with your partner. Looking back on a recent negative interaction with your partner, consider and share the following:

-What was it that was said or that you saw that triggered an emotion in you?

-What seemed to be happening? (What you thought that person was trying to do or what he/she meant when they said ________?).

-And what did that perception make you feel?

-And what did you say or do in response to that feeling?

-As you look back on the event can you identify a feeling or a need that was there but didn’t get expressed?

For more of Josh's insight on this topic, read his full post here. 

DON'T GO BLIND TO GOODNESS 

"As a couples therapist I have lost count of how often it becomes obvious that I am sitting across from two people who are genuinely good, sincerely love each other, and who have good intentions," says Josh. "Yet these same two people struggle to see each other in that positive light when they are experiencing emotional distance. If I can see their hearts even when I’m witnessing them at their worst, why can’t they?"

Josh says there's an element in the story of the film "The Huntsman: Winter’s War," the spinoff of the Snow White film series, that is extremely relevant to answering the big question of how two people so close to one another can be so wrong about each other.

As Josh explains:

"Two lovers are under the servitude of a queen who has outlawed love, and as a result, they have to hide their feelings for one another. Upon being found out, they are presented with an opportunity by the queen to be together if they can fight off a group of warriors and simply grab each other’s hand. They manage to defeat their attackers but just as they reach for one another the queen creates a wall of ice between them that neither can break. Through the ice he sees that she is killed and after he is banished, he begins a life of drunken grief.

Later in the movie he discovers that she is alive and he is elated. He persists and persist for connection. She however, does not warm as easily and she often refuses his attempts to remind her of the connection they once had. She resists and resists until she finally gives in and lets herself feel love for him. Their future together seems set, until her allegiance to the queen is revealed and she turns over her lover to the queen.

It is obvious in the movie that she loves her partner and yet she betrays him. How could she do both? It is revealed that while the ice wall in the beginning separated them physically, the true damage it inflicted to their relationship was to deceive them both. It was an enchanted and evil wall that told them lies about the other person. Because while the wall caused him to believe that she died, she was tricked into seeing that he simply walked away from her.

Only after many years of pain and separation did either of them consider that what they were seeing and thinking about the other person was untrue. Only then did they consider that maybe another force was at play which inverted the way they viewed each other. And this false and skewed lense was enough to make them maintain their emotional distance and even add to it by hurting each other further."

And so it is with many who come into Josh's office. He says there is often an unacknowledged force—a negative cycle—that comes into a life of its own when there is a disturbance to a couple’s sense of emotional connection. But for each partner, they only see what they think the other is doing, often not stopping to consider that something else might be affecting their perception. This tendency then leads to the partners being against each other in some way which adds to their distance and reinforces their negative view of the other.

Josh says the purpose of Emotionally Focused Therapy is to help a couple identify the seemingly invisible and unacknowledged negative forces at work in their relationship. "One part of the process is to become experts at seeing and challenging the negative stories partners believe about themselves and their partners," he explains. "This along with other well-researched components allow the couple to come together to defend against the ice walls of their relationship and see each other for how they truly feel." 

For more of Josh's insight on this topic, read his full article here. 

Photos: Mandi Nelson Photography 

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