En español | One of the surest predictors of a breakup, says psychologist John Gottman, is when a couple comes to feel that certain problems have attached themselves to the relationship like crusty, stubborn barnacles.
After turning this truism over in my mind for some time, I decided to collaborate with psychologist Lana Staheli to see if we couldn't find some everyday solutions to relationship stalemates. The result, published this year, was Snap Strategies for Couples, a book that aims to help you modify your individual reactions to "partner aggro" so that the two of you can avoid repeating the same-old-same-old arguments and actually untangle a deadlock.
Unless the communication tools we devised were easy, however, we both knew they were unlikely to be used. Snap Strategies therefore offers what Lana and I consider to be "fast fixes" for common but persistent relationship problems — you know, the kind that threaten to escalate into "coupled chaos." The book identifies ways to solve more than three dozen relationship issues pragmatically and respectfully, without the need for lengthy — and expensive! — therapy sessions or long hours of agonizing emotional discussions.
Though the book was written primarily with long-term couples in mind, we both feel it applies to daters — and even extended family members. And because many of the issues in the book are experienced almost universally in ongoing close relationships, I thought I'd share our five most widely applicable strategies.
1. Say goodbye to redundant conversations.
When one partner in a relationship isn't getting his or her way, the person often simply raises the topic again — and again and again and again. …
Imagine that something truly painful (say, an affair) has broken the trust that once existed between two people. Understandably, the injured party may be unable to resist citing the violation over and over. But does this get at the underlying cause of the breach? Not even close; instead, it signals the other partner to stop listening.
Understand, therefore, that old allegations lose their sting with each repetition, receding into mere harassment. A better approach is to agree that neither one of you will raise the infraction again. Acknowledge that the pain is still there, then mutually work on doing things designed to rebuild trust. If the issue was an affair, agree not to go near the neighborhood where the third party lives. Or you could provide each other your passwords, contact lists or the like — whatever it takes, in other words, to reestablish Total Transparency.
If you are still truly stuck, see a therapist. Spinning your wheels at this point will only bog you down further.
2. Reward the behavior you want.
There is no such thing as "constructive criticism." There is only criticism, and people resent it.
So unless it's a life-and-death issue, keep to yourself your good ideas about how someone else should live. It's one thing when your partner seeks your advice on a topic. It's another matter altogether when you make the mistake of volunteering unsolicited feedback. No matter how much you think you've cushioned the blow, your partner (or anyone else, for that matter) is still going to hate being critiqued.
What to do instead? Say what you would like your partner to do, not what you wish he or she would stop doing. Rather than saying, "That black outfit drains the color from your face," go with "You're gorgeous in blue!" And instead of blurting out "You shouldn't talk so much," how about trying "I'd like to participate more in our exchanges. Can you help me with that?"
3. Actually, do go to bed mad!
"Never go to bed mad" is a classic bit of marital advice. It's well-intentioned, but I think it's dead wrong.
Because trying to resolve a difficult issue when the two of you are tired and mad only sets you up for failure. Anger often causes the brain to revert to survival mode, making you likelier to act irrationally or say something you'll regret the next day.
A better idea: Put off discussing the problem and sleep on it instead. Almost any issue will look smaller and more solvable in the morning.
4. Script it before you say it.
Intimate relationships require tender, loving care — which sometimes demands biting your tongue. But when you have something truly important to say about your union, write it out beforehand, rather than relying on spur-of-the-moment eloquence. You probably care too much about the issue to risk having your take on it sound angry, defensive or disorganized.
When the conversation itself occurs, front-load it with your most important message and keep the exchange brief. Both of these strategies help guarantee you'll get your point across.
5. Compliment your partner. Every day.
Ever notice how many compliments we give children — and how few we give adults?
A study I did for my book The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples showed that compliments gradually decline over the life cycle of a relationship. That's troubling, because there probably weren't enough to start with! (Italian, French and Latin American couples give far more compliments than Americans.)
Everyone — but particularly your opposite number in a relationship — needs to know that he or she is both admired and appreciated. If you take the time and put your mind to it, you'll find that there's always plenty to praise about your partner's appearance or behavior, even if all he or she did was buy a new bedspread or make a funny remark.
Compliments create positive emotions in much the same way that touch helps release endorphins. The more authentically positive feelings you manage to express to your partner, the stronger the bond between you will grow.
If I'm still not getting through to you, consider this: A compliment can be a powerful aphrodisiac.
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