What makes for a happy, fulfilled relationship? While this is a complex question that doesn’t lend itself to a quick answer, there are aspects of successful and lasting relationships that have been studied by experts and many approaches to pick from. The good news is that if you are in a relatively happy relationship, there are some simple things you can do – positive behaviors – that can make your relationship better.
Fortunately, even if you’re in a relationship or marriage that’s heading in a bad direction, there are strategies that can set you and your partner on the right path again. After studying marital success and divorce prevention for decades, my hero is renowned psychologist John M. Gottman, and I’m about to explain why. But first, let’s start with the premise that it’s crucial to examine your own actions and to adopt realistic expectations about your partner’s willingness to change.
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Do you spend more time second-guessing your partner’s comments or reactions than examining your own behavior? While I believe it’s important to be vulnerable with your partner – to be open and reveal yourself without fear of rejection – it’s also critical to take responsibility for your own actions. While vulnerability can enhance intimacy between you and your partner, it’s important not to blame your relationship problems on negative traits that you see in them. Dr. Lisa Firestone writes, “The focus needs to shift away from how to “fix” the other person and toward a broader view of how to repair the relationship.”
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A typical example is Tim and Megan, both in their mid-thirties and married for seven years. “I’ve been unhappy for some time,” complains Megan. “I’ve asked Tim to be more considerate of my needs, but things don’t appear to be changing. It feels like I’m at the bottom of his list.” To this Tim laments: “Megan just doesn’t make me happy anymore and things just aren’t getting better.” The common thread in these statements is this couple’s focus on “fixing” the other person rather than on taking specific actions to change their part in a relationship dynamic that is undesirable.
Let’s face it, it’s easy to complain about your partner and many self-help articles, movies, and TV shows highlight the merits of fixing other’s shortcomings. For instance, in a recent hit movie, Enough Said, Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), seemed happy with her new boyfriend Albert (the late James Gandolfini) until she became friends with Marianne (Catherine Keener) who pointed out her ex’s faults incessantly. One big take away for me was that if we’re relatively satisfied with our partner (as Eva was prior to getting close to Marianne) focus on their positive traits rather than on fixing their flaws (like how they eat or their wardrobe).