New Year’s resolutions. They often resemble some form of ‘eat more vegetables', ‘get that promotion at work’, or ‘have a date night with my partner’. Often, these goals are vague, unmeasurable and, despite our best intentions on January 1st, they slip away as we start to return to our normal, busy lives.
Setting realistic and achievable goals or resolutions in your relationships can be particularly challenging. There’s two (or more) of you that need to stick to it, so there’s more room for error. However this can also be a good thing - it means there’s always another person to keep you accountable and pull you back on track!
Of all our relationships, the one we have with our romantic partner likely requires more work. The work part is going to look very different for each different relationship, and it may even look different to each member in the relationship. It’s not uncommon for one partner to be blissfully unaware of an issue the other partner may have in the relationship. Often, what I see with the couples I work with is that relatively small things build up over time; this then ends up leading to big fights, distance and resentment.
Now we know it can be hard to communicate openly and effectively with our partners, particularly if one or more of the Four Horsemen are present (see our previous posts for more info on the Four Horsemen). However, communicating in a way that is transparent and constructive may be one of the most fundamental and important skills to have in a relationship, in order to help it flourish.
One simple step we can start to take this New Year is called the State of the Union conversation. This is a conversation we can aim to have weekly with our partners, and it can play a huge role in helping you stay connected and engaged in your relationship, in what may otherwise be a distracting and busy life. It encourages conversation and reflection, so whether you’re just starting out trying to resolve long standing issues in your relationship, or whether you’re seasoned communication experts, the State of the Union conversation can be a great addition into your weekly schedule.
There are four parts to the conversation:
1. Share 5 appreciations
First, take turns sharing five things your partner did that week that you appreciated. This should ideally also include what the positive thing they did means about them. For example, “I appreciate how thoughtful you were on Tuesday when you ironed my blouse before work”. If when you start this exercise your relationship is in dire straits, you both may struggle to find 5 things each week to appreciate about the other. So start small, try for 1 each and increase as things start to improve.
2. Discuss what has been going well in the relationship
Next, discuss what is working in the relationship, or any progress that you may have made on a previous issue. This can be as simple as acknowledging you’ve been holding hands on the couch, and have been enjoying this, or that you followed through with a date plan instead of opting for take out on the couch. When we reflect on progress, and we acknowledge the work that you and your partner are putting in to the relationship, it helps to build motivation to continue the work. It can also help our partners feel that the work that they do put in, is acknowledged and appreciated (and vice versa).
3. Choose an issue to discuss what isn’t going well, or process any incidents that may have occurred
Often, this is the bit we tend to do wrong. The important part of this step is not the fact that there has been an issue, but more how we communicate about the issue. When we handle conflict constructively in our relationships, it can leave us feeling more connected. But for this to happen, we need to work on attuning to one another. Luckily, there is a simple acronym to help us remember how exactly to do this in a conflict discussion with our partner:
Awareness - stay aware of your partner’s feelings and their experience when listening
Tolerance - acknowledge there are two valid viewpoints and be tolerant that your partner may have a different one to you
Turning toward - listen to and recognise your partner’s needs, turn toward them instead of away
Understanding - use non-defensive questioning if you don’t understand their experience or perspective to gain a proper understanding
Non-defensive listening - listen to your partner, hear their experience without switching the focus to victimising yourself or shifting the ‘blame’
Empathy - respond to your partner’s disclosures with understanding and awareness
To attune to each other effectively, take turn being Speaker and Listener. Switch these roles only when it is time to. As Speaker, your job is to express your feelings and needs without criticising or blaming your partner, try these steps:
“I feel… (share emotions, such as sad, worried, jealous, hurt) about… (share the situation, not the assumption about your partner you may have made as a result of the situation). I need… (express what you need in the future - it’s always better here to express what you need to happen verses what you don’t like that’s currently happening)”
For example, “I feel hurt and lonely when I’m by myself at home for dinner. I need us to make more of an effort to have dinner together at least 3 times a week”
When you are the Listener, your job is to listen non-defensively and to help your partner feel heard and understood. It’s ok to have a different opinion to your partner about something they may have expressed, but we need to listen and understand before stating our piece.
5. Share what the other can do over the next week to help you feel more loved
Lastly, share what the other can do to help you feel more connected and loved, and share how you’d like to see this happen. For example, “this week I’d like to talk to each other more, maybe we can take 5 mins at the end of each day to debrief”.
The State of the Union conversation is one of many ways to check in, review progress, explore each other’s needs and show appreciation for one another in this New Year. The process seems simple, but can be highly useful for couples who struggle to communicate their needs on a regular basis.
If you and your partner are having difficulties following through on your relationship resolutions, or are having trouble getting onto the same page about what these might be, we can help. Book in for couples counselling with our Clinical Psychologist Registrar, Chloe Haywood.