I often hear people say, ‘relationships are hard work’ and I somewhat agree with that. But having studied the subject for many years now, I realised that maintaining a healthy relationship comes down to a few very simple practices, yet most of us behave in an absolute contrary way, mainly because we are not taught this anywhere (unless our parents were a great example to us). Below I summarised 5 most fundamental, in my opinion, habits that highly contribute to the happiness of my own marriage and those happy couples I know.
1. Keeping a positive ‘emotional bank account’ in your relationship
This idea introduced by John Gottman is best described in this short video. It works in a similar way to a regular bank account, every time you have a positive interaction with your partner you make a deposit into your emotional bank account, every time you have a conflict or some negative interaction you make a withdrawal from your account. Hence, the key to a healthy relationship is to make sure your bank account doesn’t go into overdraft. Making deposits and maintaining your account at a positive level is much easier than you might think. Simply pay attention to details. Here are a few examples: say ‘thank you’ more often and appreciate everything your partner does for you and your relationship, send them a caring message when they have a tough day at work, ask them about their day in the evening, be present and listen to them when they need you.
2. Active listening
It’s not a secret that effective communication is one of the most crucial elements of a happy relationship. But it’s not always clear how it actually works. I suggest practicing active listening as a starting point. It not only helps couples understand each other’s point of view but also makes each party feel heard (which is a big deposit to an emotional bank account). So, how is active listening different from a normal conversation? Usually, when we listen to our partner (telling us about their problems or sharing a story), we are keen to jump into conclusions, give advice, or if they are complaining about our behaviour, we go straight into defensive mode. Active listening, on another hand, implies the opposite, i.e. not interrupting, demonstrating a genuine interest in what they’ve got to say, and asking questions such as, ‘what else?’. When they’ve got nothing to add, you need to make sure you understood their point of view correctly, so try to repeat what you’ve heard back to them and check – ‘did I get this right?’. If yes, you can carry on with your response. This works magic, as most of the time, the cause of conflict in a relationship is a misunderstanding, i.e. when two people judge the situation from their own point of view. Which brings me to the next point.
3. Learning to see the world through your partner’s eyes
Once you become better at listening, it will be easier for you to spot the difference between yours and your partner’s interpretation of life situations. Depending on your backgrounds and past experiences, you two would have different perspectives on many things. Interestingly enough, we first get attracted to the fact that our mate approaches things differently from us, but as the relationship develops – those exact points will irritate us the most. That’s why it’s crucial to make an effort to understand your partner’s world view. For example, let’s say you grew up in a family where dinner was the most important part of the day. Your family would always get together, tell each about their day while sharing a meal. Whilst your partner might have come from a family where dinner meant grabbing some food on the go and disappearing in their room, maybe their parents worked shifts and the whole family was never home at the same time. So when it comes to creating your own family’s traditions, you make an effort to get everything ready in time for dinner, whilst your partner might stay late at work and quickly grab some take away on the way home. It might leave you feeling unappreciated and resentful as if they don’t care about you, whilst in reality, they just don’t care about the ‘dinner tradition’ as much and see nothing wrong in their behaviour. So, by asking questions such as: ‘How do you see this situation? What is your approach to this? What is the story behind your behaviour? etc.’ could help you avoid so many unnecessary disagreements.
4. Taking responsibility for your actions
No matter what lead to a conflict and who was right or wrong, you need to take responsibility for your part of ‘negative interaction’, be it something you said, did, or didn’t do. It might have been unintentional, but your behaviour triggered something in your partner that led to them being angry or upset. In this situation, there is no value in proving to them how they are over-reacting, but there is a big benefit in apologising for causing them an emotional discomfort and discussing (maybe a bit later) what triggered them to feel this way. In the process, they might realise they should learn to react to such situations in a calmer manner, while you’ll know what could hurt them and avoid doing so in the future.
5. Letting go
The quicker you let go of any mistakes your partner might have made or any resentment you are holding on to, the healthier your relationship is going to be long-term. As it doesn’t help anyone if you carry this negative energy around and never miss an opportunity to remind them of their wrongdoings. Such behaviour would drain your emotional bank accountand get you two stuck in a resentment loop.