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10 Tips For Couples

Whether you feel like your relationship is on the brink, or just that you're growing apart and want to become closer again, here are some tips for things that you can try at home. Tips 1-5 are exercises to do together with your partner. Tips 6-10 are things that you can do alone.

1. Talk about Sex

Sometimes we make a lot of assumptions about what the other person wants. Sometimes what we want changes as we get older, have children, or face health challenges and stress. What do you really want from your partner? Maybe you just want a hug? When was the last time you sat down together on the couch and had a conversation about it, if ever? We often wish that our partners could read our minds, and maybe with training some of that is possible, but a good place to start is using our words. Take turns, be open and revealing about yourself, and generous and giving to your partner. Make sure you set aside at least 30 minutes to an hour without interruptions to have this conversation together, and do this regularly every month or even every week. Talk about what you want, how you like to communicate it using words, facial expressions and body-language, and what your secret fantasies are. Talking about sex is often a turn-on!

2. Eye-gazing

Forgive me for being weird or woo-woo, but I think that eye-gazing between intimate partners is underrated these days! For one thing, you can't do it by text-message or even Facetime or Skype! Eye-gazing is not only a great way to connect with your partner, it's also a great way to center yourself and ground, for example before having a deep or difficult conversation. Here are some games you can play with eye-gazing:

  • See who smiles first. I remember playing this game as a kid. Look in each other's eyes and try not to smile. See who smiles first. This often leads to giggling all around...

  • Giver and receiver. Set a timer for 2 minutes. One person is the giver, making their eyes available to the receiver to look at. Swap.

  • Mental picture. Look at your partner's face until you have a mental image of them, then close your eyes, holding the mental picture in your imagination. As soon as the details begin to blur or fade, open your eyes briefly to refresh the image.

  • Noticing. As you look in your partner's eyes, silently notice details about their face. Notice their expression, and what you think they might be feeling. Notice your own feelings. If you want, after a period of silent noticing, talk about what you notice.

3. Listening without Talking

Give each other at least 10 minutes to talk about how you're feeling, giving your partner your full attention but without saying anything. While you are listening, track how close you to your partner you feel emotionally, and try to stay close by breathing together, mirroring your partner's facial expression, reflecting silently what they say, nodding or humming "mhmm" to show you are paying attention. If your partner falls silent for a minute or two you can ask "What's going on for you right now?" "What are you thinking about?" or "What's really going on?" If you're talking, be as open and revealing as you can.

4. Schedule Difficult Conversations

Inevitably there will be things that have to get done, joint decisions to make, criticisms, difficult questions or requests, and areas of conflict or disagreement in any relationship. Some people are too quick to talk about these things and end up fighting all the time. Others withdraw, sweep things under the rug, and never deal with them at all. Another option is to talk with your partner and schedule time together to have a difficult conversation, at a time when you both have the emotional bandwidth and resources for it. Be as clear as you can in requesting time for the conversation. State what it's about, whether the topic is housework, financial planning, childcare or jealousy feelings. It helps to have a written agenda for the difficult conversation, perhaps one that you both contribute to. Agree on the order of business at the start of the conversation, keep an eye on the time, and if necessary schedule another meeting before the end. It's nice to end with a round of gratitudes for each other!

5. Reflective listening with a talking stick

Many couples have already learned something like this in counseling. The basic idea is that you take turns listening to one another and reflecting, or mirroring, which means repeating back the message you heard. Here's an idea to make it easier: use a talking stick. Traditionally, a talking stick indicates whose turn it is to speak in a circle, but here we use it a little differently. If you have the talking stick, hold onto it while your partner is reflecting or mirroring what you said. Send your message in small chunks that they can repeat, until you've made quite clear that they understand what you're saying and "get" how you feel. Then, when you're complete with your message, give your partner the talking stick so they can respond or express what they think and feel, and reflect back what they say.

6. Appreciate Each Other And Yourself

Make a daily practice of appreciating your partner, AND appreciating how you show up for your partner. You can share these appreciations out loud, write them in a journal, or just think them to yourself when you go to bed or when you wake up.

7. Text messages are for Love

Text messages are a terrible way to communicate most of the time, especially if there's any possibility of misunderstanding, such as making arrangements or asking about an area of uncertainty or disagreement. However, they can be great for letting your partner know that you're thinking of them throughout your day. Think of your text messages as little tokens of love, and think about what it would be like to receive them.

8. Take responsibility for your own feelings

We often blame our partners for how we feel. While it is possible for someone to make someone else feel bad, and sometimes people do that deliberately, more often our bad feelings are based on assumptions we make about what someone else might be thinking or doing. What is the evidence for your assumptions? What are the facts? How else could you interpret the facts, and maybe feel better? How can you respond differently?

9. Use "I" messages

This is from NVC, Non-Violent Communication. As you can see, I've reserved the more common tips to the end of my list. "I" messages are communications that start with "I" instead of "You." For example, instead of saying "You never listen to me" consider saying "I have something to say and I want you to listen." Another tip for getting someone's attention is to stand close to them, say their name, and make sure they are giving you attention by, for example, looking in your direction or making eye-contact. If the goal of the original communication was to express a feeling, you might say something like: "I feel sad/angry. I want you to listen to me, but I think that you never listen to me."

10. Listen non-violently

Be generous in your assumptions about your partner's communications. For example, if your partner says "You never listen to me," don't assume they want a fight, or be defensive and say something like "I am listening to you now!" or "You never listen to me either!" Instead, think about how they might be feeling. Perhaps they feel angry or sad. How would you like them to respond, if you were the one feeling that way? Consider saying something like: "I don't always listen to you the way you want me to, and I'm sorry about that. Is there something important you want to tell me right now?"

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