Well, another New Year is nearly upon us, and it’s that time when we think about fresh starts and resolutions. There’s nothing wrong with the concept of resolutions if that works for you; I prefer to talk about positive change in terms of jumpstarts, though. Many couples I work with who are seeking the keys to a successful marriage dislike the concept of resolutions because they say when they fail at one, they end up losing the motivation to keep trying at the others.
It’s true that forming positive habits (and maintaining consistency with those habits) can launch you into an area of self-improvement that you couldn’t achieve without steady habits. But it’s important not to set yourself up for failure by embracing an unrealistic, all-or-nothing mindset. Furthermore, it’s important to remember to practice kindness toward yourself as you work toward your goals.
So rather than feel confined by the typical template of New Year’s Resolutions, you might prefer to think of your efforts for how to improve your relationship as a kind of jumpstart program. Sure, there will be days when you miss the mark, but as long as you keep trying, you will add value to your life and your relationship.
5 ways to Jumpstart Your Relationship
1. See your spouse or partner with new eyes
Years ago a client said something to me that I doubt I will forget. She said it took her husband almost having an affair for her to see him with new eyes, and she was cautioning all her friends not to wait to get to that point with their husbands. I was fascinated by that idea and asked her to explain.
“He’d become familiar to me,” she said, speaking about her husband. “Don’t get me wrong, that was a good thing, too. I liked knowing I could rely on him and be reasonably certain about how he’d behave in certain situations. But…” She paused to heave a big sigh. “I think that level of familiarity caused me to stop seeing him. I stopped seeing him as the individual that he was and instead only saw him as my husband, almost an extension of me.”
Her husband started to sense that, perhaps, because he accepted a Facebook friend request from an ex-girlfriend from college, even though part of his brain told him he shouldn’t. He began sharing thoughts with her that he wasn’t sharing with his wife. He didn’t feel right about it, and eventually came to his wife.
“It was a jarring moment,” she said. “Jarring and disorienting, but ultimately, beneficial for our marriage. It was like I was blinking awake out of a long sleep. I saw my husband as a vibrant, complex human being, much more than just my mate, and I saw that he was desirable and quite a catch. I tell you, from that day on, I’ve been seeing him with new eyes, and our marriage is stronger for it.”
Keep in mind that your relationship doesn’t have to be on the brink of an affair for you to see your partner with new eyes! It is a decision, and it partly involves setting aside the taking-for-granted mindset that we all fall into from time-to-time. Make the effort to see your partner the way others might see him/her. See your partner as the unique, interesting individual s/he is and bring into the forefront of your mind all the characteristics that drew you to him/her in the first place.
2. Nurture an attitude of gratitude
There’s been a lot of talk lately about how vital gratitude is for a happy life. But did you know that it’s also beneficial for your relationship? When you make it a rule of thumb to start with what’s already working in your marriage (before you focus on what isn’t), and when you nurture appreciation for those positive aspects of your union or the good things your partner does for you and the relationship (keep in mind they don’t need to be “big” things—the relatively little things have a positive cumulative effect), you help to nurture the relationship overall.
Discover more about the power of gratitude in marriage and intimate relationships.
3. Initiate loving moments (rather than wait for them)
A client once told me that her boyfriend wasn’t as affectionate as she wanted him to be. In exploring this further, I asked about what happened when she showed him affection. She looked at me blankly and finally said, “Well, I’m certainly not going to be affectionate toward him if he’s not affectionate toward me first!”
When I asked her to think about that from her boyfriend’s point of view, and asked her to consider that he might be thinking the very same thing, I could see her opening to that.
The fact is, moods and mindsets and behaviors are often contagious. Did you ever notice how you might’ve been in great mood one morning but you got to work where people were cranky and complaining about their problems and your mood plummeted? (Or the reverse…your mood might’ve been lifted by the positivity of those around you.) This dynamic is at work in your relationship, too.
Decide to jumpstart the loving moments in your marriage or relationship by deciding to be the one to initiate them, rather than wait for them. (And eventually, your partner might initiate them too!)
4. Pursue a new shared interest or activity
Lots of individuals have hobbies or interests, some they have for themselves, some they share with their partner. Committing to a long-term relationship does not mean giving up the interests you have apart from your mate. Quite the contrary, it’s important that you continue to be your own person, even as you join your life with your partner’s.
But research shows that mutually developing and pursuing an interest that you both enjoy can bring you closer together and add a special spark to your relationship (novel experiences can deepen your union). So think about what the two of you like to do, or might like to learn, and go after it together. Perhaps you want to learn a new language, or learn to sculpt or paint. Or maybe you and your partner have been talking about joining a book group. Or maybe you want to learn to foxtrot or learn to keep bees!
What you decide to do isn’t as important as making it a mutual decision (don’t drag your partner into something s/he is dead-set against). As long as it’s something you’re both interested in, and as long as you enjoy it together, you’ll be contributing to what so many couples are seeking: emotional intimacy in marriage and long-term relationships.
5. Practice empathy
Most specifically, go out of your way to understand your partner’s vulnerabilities.
Empathy—putting yourself in someone else’s shoes—allows you to try to look through your partner’s eyes and experience the situation the way s/he is. There is no way to do this 100%, of course, but even the act of trying to put your own biases and opinions and wishes aside in favor of attempting to understand the reason for your spouse or partner’s behavior in a certain scenario will go a long way toward harmony within the relationship.
Sometimes clients tell me that they’re worried that if they practice empathy with their partner, they’ll get so caught up in their mate’s standpoint that they’ll lose their own. Often what they really mean is that they are concerned that their perspective will not be given equal or adequate attention if they start to give of themselves in this way. If this is a concern for you, talk to your partner/spouse about this, rather than assuming you will fall into an empathy rabbit hole.
And yes, empathy, like any other positive mindset, is a practice. That means that you shouldn’t worry if you don’t get it right off the bat…you’ll have other opportunities to try. Empathy requires honing your listening skills, and the best way to develop good listening skills is through, quite literally, being the kind of listener for your partner that you want him/her to be for you.
Try to put yourself and your needs aside while you listen so that you can hear your partner at a deeper level.
Jumpstart Your Relationship as You Ring in the New Year
There you have it, 5 ways to jumpstart your relationship as the new year begins. You might try one at a time, and you’ll see that if you stick with it, you’ll likely feel motivated to try them all.
Cheers to you and your relationship in the new year!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured [top] image “Thank you on mobile screen” by Stuart Miles & “Couple in Kitchen” by Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)