Intimacy versus Isolation: Relationship Building & Maintenance (Part 2)

*Please click here to read the first post in my two-part series on relationship building and maintenance which talks about the baggage we carry into our relationships.

In previous blog posts, we have talked about the importance of developing your identity, making progress in personal growth and handling the "baggage" we all carry into our relationships.  This piece is meant to continue that conversation but also define 7 specific ways in which we can maintain relationships that are both healthy and happy.

Have you ever wondered what REALLY happened to all those cartoon couples so many of us became acquainted with via Disney movies?  For instance, sometimes I wonder if Ariel from The Little Mermaid ever regretted trading in her mermaid tail in order to be with the man of her dreams.  Or what ever happened to Belle and "the beast?"  Was their relationship really just a complicated case of Stockholm Syndrome or did he eventually work through his anger and wild sense of entitlement? 

Perhaps they did live happily ever after.  But HOW? Happiness is not some magical destination you get to, unpack and bask in the glory of.  Happiness is something that ebbs and flows over the course of two people sharing their lives together.  In order to have a happy relationship, a healthy foundation must be laid--- one free of physical, psychological or verbal abuse.  No person can be truly happy in a relationship where there is no balance, therefore compromise must be made by both parties involved.

So, without further ado, here is a list of the top 7 ways in which couples can maintain and improve their relationships.

1. LOVE YOURSELF

That's right.  Go on and give yourself a hug every once in awhile because sometimes we can be our worst enemies.  As I have touched on in the blog posts entitled, "Who Am I?" and "Intimacy versus Isolation: Relationship Building & Maintenance (Part 1)," focusing on yourself and fixing what is in your control is key.  Self-esteem is proven to be the biggest factor when it comes to the strength of your relationship, so dig in and continue on that never ending journey of self growth!

Self-love tips: Kick it into neutral and have some "self" time where you do something you love or where you can completely relax.  Give yourself a pat on the back for the things you do well day to day.  Still holding onto some heavy baggage?  Find a counselor you feel comfortable with and team up to work through your confidence struggles.  

2. MAKE LOTS OF QUALITY LOVE

You heard me! In a study featured in the Journal of Family Psychology, marital stability in midlife was correlated with sexual satisfaction.  It is no secret that sex releases the "cuddle hormone," oxytocin.  This hormone helps to create trust, empathy and a bond.  It is the same hormone that allows for a new mother and baby to create a bond.

Love-making tips: Whether you are a new couple or a long established one, be sure that your partner's needs are being met just as much as yours.  Reciprocation is key! If you have busy schedules, set aside a few nights a week where you can commit to cuddling (or more) and make them a priority.  If things are starting to get too routine, surprise your partner with something new or ask about them more about their desires.

3. SEE THE GOOD 

Perception is everything.  How many times have you pointed things out that your partner did wrong?  Instead of focusing on the things that did not meet your expectations, start consciously pointing out things that your partner did well.  I'm not saying that you should never criticize your significant other's slack but perhaps that it could be balanced by compliments and appreciation. People often get stuck in a rut of either not doing things they need to do or doing them sloppily. When people receive praise or recognition for something they have done well, it positively reinforces that behavior and can help them do better on the things that they maybe didn't do so well on in the past.

Positive-reinforcement tips: One of the easiest ways to change perception is to incorporate a change in your routine.  For example; decide you will make the effort to show your appreciation of the little things your partner has done for you during the day when you have dinner together. Another opportune time to express your gratitude is when you settle into bed at night.  Happy thoughts create sweet dreams!

4. MAKE TIME FOR PLAY

Play time is NOT just for kids! Whether it is a friendly wrestling match, a random game night or an imaginative, "What if.." conversation, play is important.  Perhaps it is as simple as taking a walk together.  Do it.  If you feel like your relationship has become stale and boring, ask yourself this question, "When was the last time we made time for play?"

Play Tips: Make a sheet fort in your living room, pick out a movie you both enjoy, pop some popcorn and chill together. Go on an adventure. Visit a new city, state, or country. Parasail. Scuba dive. Go hiking. Surf together. The choices are endless.  When couples see and experience more together, they typically grow together.

5. SAY WHAT YOU MEAN, MEAN WHAT YOU SAY

COMMUNICATE.  According to multiple studies, poor communication is the number one reason couples split.  Do you have certain expectations of your partner but frequently get upset because they don't live up to them?  Perhaps it is because you have not communicated the importance of those expectations in a way your partner understands.  Feel like your desires get mowed over by your partner's? Start saying what you want.  Not that you might want it or not that you don't care, say what you mean.  

Communication Tips: Try to use "I" statements instead of "you" statements.  For example, lets say you and your significant other are trying to pick where to grab a bite to eat.  The last five times, you ended up going to their favorite place even though you really don't like it.  Instead of blurting out, "You always get to pick, I'm sick of eating such and such," try rephrasing your emotions in an "I" statement like this, "I feel disappointed when you said you want to go to your favorite place again because I would really like to go to....." Though it sounds a bit silly to use "I" statements for a food choice disagreement, they can really come in handy when you have trouble thinking during heavier disagreements. 

6. TEAM WORK MAKES YOUR DREAMS WORK

You and me against the world.  The mentality of WE not ME fosters a healthy relationship where each person is looking out for what is best for the pair.  Cooking dinner and cleaning up afterwards goes a lot faster with a team.  Communicate about where each person feels burdened and see where each of you can help lessen the load.  When a couple utilizes their individual strengths for the good of the whole, magical things happen.  Ok, maybe not 'magical,' but harmony and cooperation bring plenty of peace and efficiency on the long road of accomplishing a goal together.  Exercising together is also a great way to work towards health goals and build teamwork. Cooking, scheduling, motivation....all start to get in sync when both of you are in it to win it.

Teamwork Tips: Divide and conquer! If one of you is better at cooking, they cook and the other cleans.  Or do a trade off as you see fit.  Break responsibilities down to where they are easily split but based on each person's strengths.  Other times, simply doing things spontaneously for your partner can be an amazing gesture of love.

7. SET YOUR EGO ASIDE

Conflict is natural in all relationships.  Where it gets sticky is when either or both parties do not set their egos aside enough to look at the scope of the conflict in the relationship.  Too often, one paints the other as the 'bad guy' (or gal) and they are completely innocent.  There is always two sides to a story, you just have to slow your roll long enough for the other person to tell you theirs.  Sometimes apologizing means that you value your relationship more than your ego, even though you might not have been the only one at fault.

Relationship Mending Tips: LISTEN.  Above all else, listen to your partner.  Not only is this a sign of respect, but you just might gain some insight you did not know or understand beforehand. When having a tense discussion, focus on what the person is saying and try to understand where they are coming from instead of thinking about what you are going to say next.  If you are a person who gets really emotional in these situations, calmly tell the other person that you have heard and value what they had to say and you need to be alone to reflect on it all.  Take a few minutes or even hours to sort through it all and get back to them ASAP.  The longer you allow conflicts to linger, the worse it will get.  This way, there is no angry blow up, nasty words you can't take back or hasty decisions.