Valentine’s Day is right around the (red, frilly, lace-adorned) corner, and you know what that means: time to wine, dine, and romance your sweetie whether you feel like it or not. And whatever your opinion on enforced handholding and chocolate giving, it’s nice that there’s a day to focus on the fun, romantic side of your relationship. But what about the less, well, sexy parts of being a couple—the ones that are making so many people miserable the other 364 days of the year?
“The truth is, romance is a very small part of what makes a marriage or long-term relationship successful,” explains Dr. Howard Rankin, creator of the Science of You website (www.scienceofyou.com) and founder of the American Brain Association. “It’s getting the other 98 percent right that makes a couple last in the long haul. So, really, it’s too bad we don’t have any days devoted to issues like communication, fighting fairly, and forgiving.”
If you’re looking for a truly beneficial way to celebrate February 14th, Dr. Rankin suggests you think of it as the “New Year’s Day” of your marriage or partnership. There are certain, very specific things you—yes, you—can do during the upcoming year that may change your relationship for the better.
So go ahead and have your romantic dinner on Valentine’s Day. But on February 14th and for the rest of the year, focus on the following ten steps that can transform your good (or so-so or maybe even deeply troubled) relationship into a great relationship:
1. Ask yourself: Do I want to be right or do I want to be happy? In many, many arguments, there is no right or wrong, merely different perceptions. But couples will often get to the point where they are just trying to prove their point and win the argument, rather than genuinely listen and try to solve the problem. This is a failing tactic for two reasons: 1) Even if you come up with a brilliant, winning point, your partner’s not likely to accept it—at least not right away. The really effective communicator gets the other person to own the idea, not force it down his or her throat. 2) Trying to win merely polarizes the partners and feeds their anger and resentment, making the discussion very unproductive if not downright destructive.
2. In general, try to create a positive environment for communication. If you want anyone, your partner in particular, to talk about his innermost feelings and thoughts, you have to create an environment in which he feels safe doing so. “Early in my career I was working with a couple where the wife complained that her husband didn’t communicate with her,” explains Rankin. “And sure enough, he sat silently through several counseling sessions. During our fourth session, he finally opened up and his wife immediately attacked what he was saying. He promptly stood up, said, ‘That’s why I never say anything,’ and left, never to be seen again.”
3. Don’t take arguments at face value. Few arguments are what they appear to be about on the surface. This is important to realize, especially if you and your partner are having the same argument over and over. The truth is that arguments about trivial things, like laundry, are generally about control. Even conflicts about sex and money are really about control when you get down to it. Once you know that control is a problem issue for you, says Dr. Rankin, you’ll at least have a clue as to how to address it.
“Of course, in a relationship, both partners can’t have 51 percent all the time,” he says. “Still, if there is a mutual sense that control is by and large equitably distributed, these sorts of arguments are way less likely to occur.”
4. Let your partner finish what she is saying. Having observed many heated “discussions” in his therapy sessions, Rankin says he knows first-hand things are headed south when partners start interrupting each other. It’s a sign that at least the interrupting partner is out to win and has stopped listening.
5. Don’t bring other people’s views into the argument. It can feel good to hash out your relationship issues with your mother, your best friend, or around the water cooler at work. But it’s not helpful to drag their opinions into a heated discussion with your spouse or partner. Consider this: It’s unlikely your friends will disagree with you, especially as you almost certainly presented only your side of the incident. (Chances are you’ve never had someone say to you, “I polled 100 random people I don’t know, presented both sides of the argument in a balanced way, and 63 percent of those polled agreed with me.”)
“It just isn’t helpful to drag other people into a discussion that should be between you and your partner only,” explains Dr. Rankin. “What you are doing is trying to create witnesses for your point of view as if you were in front of a judge. And as you’ll see in my next tip, that’s not what a healthy, productive discussion is about.”
Actually, he adds, you might want to reconsider your “let it all hang out” policy altogether. The problem with discussing sensitive relationship issues with your friends, family, and coworkers is that it influences their attitude toward your spouse or partner, which won’t change after you’ve reconciled.
6. Remind yourself: You’re not in front of a judge. Some people argue with their partners as if they were addressing the judge and jury. This tactic will not get you very far, and here’s why: Your partner is not a coolly objective third party or a computer. Your Spock-like logic is wasted on him, especially in the heat of the moment. “Every productive communication is about emotion and respect, rather than dispassionate logic,” says Dr. Rankin. “Remember, people are emotional beings with the ability to rationalize, not logical beings with feelings.”
7. Don’t bring up ancient history. To some extent, this argument tactic reflects a gender difference, says Rankin. Typically, women are more likely to see the patterns in events with emotional significance so that today’s transgression resonates with many similar occasions in the past. Men don’t get this and think their partners are being irrelevant and overly critical.
Here’s the bottom line: Given that memory is imperfect and influenced by the present, unless this transgression is an exact repetition of past behavior and represents a destructive pattern of behavior, leave past events out of current discussions.
8. And speaking of gender differences…realize they exist. No doubt about it: Men and women are made differently, and this truth is the source of many pitfalls. In general, women see the world in terms of connections and relationships, and men see the world in terms of status and power. This leads to some interesting differences in communication—even in the meaning of words. For example, the word “sorry” to a woman often connotes empathy whereas for men it is more likely to mean a confession or an apology.
“I’ve seen a well-intentioned man make a sarcastic comment to his wife, which amongst his male friends would be the cause for laughter and bonding,” says Dr. Rankin. “Unfortunately, said to his wife, his words created anger and hurt.”
9. Extend the fuse. Once the brain chemicals that underpin anger and frustration get going, it’s hard, if not impossible, to stop them. So one mutual goal in sensitive discussions should be to “extend the fuse,” because once it’s been lit, the argument is going nowhere productive.
“The longer you can stay respectful and manage your emotions, the better the outcome is likely to be,” notes Dr. Rankin.
10. Avoid abuse and threats and NEVER use the D-word. It should go without saying that the first signs of abuse or threat end any chance of a useful discussion. Constantly bringing up the threat of divorce in every argument isn’t helpful. And constantly making threats as an arguing tactic but never following through on them is likely to backfire as they lose any potential power they might have after a while. “In general people vary in their ability to present arguments and in their communication and influence skills,” says Dr. Rankin. “But don’t rejoice too much if you happen to be better than your partner at this. If one partner feels overmatched in a verbal discussion, she simply won’t compete and will find other ways of expressing herself—like passive-aggressiveness, deceit, or other ways of acting out. “Talking things out is the best and most effective way of resolving conflicts,” he adds. “If you can’t do it, you’ll surely resort to less effective and more destructive ways of expressing your feelings.”
Ten Things Not to Take with You on a Romantic Interlude
- Cell phones
- Two cars
- Portable television
- Electronic games
Dr. Howard Rankin’s Communication Secrets of a Great Relationship video and workbook available on his website, www.scienceofyou.com.