Life coaching clients often come to me to talk about how to create happy relationships.
In almost all of our long-term relationships (whether with partners, friends, family members or colleagues), our feelings can wax and wane. Even when we are deeply connected to another person, we can lose touch momentarily and when we’re not paying attention, greater divides can appear.
Our brain’s negativity bias makes it easier to pay attention to the things that aren’t right in a relationship so we need to work harder to notice the positives.
A psychologist friend of mine once suggested that the single factor that defines a good relationship from one that’s less likely to last the distance is the ability we have to turn toward one another when things are difficult.
Over my own 36-year-long partner relationship, this is the advice I’ve found most helpful. There are many ways we can do this – I thought I’d share a few that have helped me most over those years.
1. Communicate openly
If you have a sensitive issue to discuss, choose a time to have the conversation when you’re not tired or under the influence of alcohol and plan ahead by thinking about what you really want to say. Some people worry that an open and truthful communication may cause hurt or create conflict but when we withdraw or make passive digs at someone, we often do more harm than communicating openly. Even when it’s uncomfortable, a direct and thoughtful conversation is the most helpful way to rebuild connection and create a happy relationship.
Ask the other person if it’s a good time to talk and then state your concerns, your needs or your boundaries in a considerate way. Express your feelings without attacking or blaming.
Avoid making ‘always’ or ‘never’ statements and keep away from labelling them in any way. Do your best to be concise and clear in your communication and try to remain considerate and kind.
Explain how you’re feeling and make a request for how you’d like things to be different.
I feel hurt when you speak to me with a frustrated tone. I’d find it helpful if you could communicate with me openly when you’re feeling tired or irritable so I can give you some space during those times.
2. Apologise early to create a happy relationship
If you’ve behaved in a way you regret or said something hurtful, don’t leave it too long to say sorry. Make sure your apology is sincere and avoid adding ‘but’ at the end of it. It’s tempting to apportion blame but a genuine apology means simply acknowledging the part you played without expecting anything in return.
It takes self-discipline to do this but letting go of who’s right and who’s wrong can build a lot of goodwill and move you in the direction of a happier relationship.
3. Accept the offer of repair
When someone extends an olive branch (even if it’s done clumsily or in a way that doesn’t meet your ‘apology’ standards), acknowledge the offer and do your best to forgive.
This doesn’t mean you agree with all aspects of the other person’s behaviour or that you won’t need a follow-up conversation about how such a situation might be handled differently in the future. When you acknowledge that your partner has moved in your direction, you are rebuilding trust and connection.
4. Make room for your differences
Very often, we attract people into our lives because of our differences but as time goes on, we can find those same qualities irritating. Instead of trying to change a partner or friend, remember what it was that attracted you to them in the first place.
Do your best to understand and accept different perspectives or behaviours. Use your strength of curiosity to find out more when you have a difference of opinion, by asking, for example, “Can you tell me why you think that way?”
If you find that your opinions differ dramatically and the topic isn’t critical to a happy relationship, remind yourself that it’s ok to respectfully disagree.
5. Remember the good in your relationships
When we feel less connected to someone we love, it’s common to notice all of the characteristics or habits we find irritating in them. Look again and find the things you love and acknowledge those things openly with them.
Make a habit of noticing three things you love about your partner (or friend) every day.
6. Discover new experiences
Some people find that one of the contributing factors to the breakdown in connection is becoming bored with the relationship and one another.
Brain researchers have found that ‘novelty’ (or in other words, doing things that are new and interesting) is one of the most effective ways of maintaining a happy relationship.
Revisit some of the shared interests from the early days of your relationship and set up a monthly outing where you take it in turns to organise an activity that both of you will enjoy.
7. Know when to let go
Not all relationships are destined to last a lifetime. A good way to determine if a relationship has run its course is to weigh up how you feel after most interactions. Are you energised or depleted? Inspired or drained? Do you feel seen or misunderstood?
Give yourself permission to move on if a friendship or partner relationship has run its course.