“Resentment is a relationship killer,” says psychotherapist and couples counselor Susan Adler. If we want happier relationships, we need to drop the blame, own our mistakes, and act in ways that increase connection, not conflict.
This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
“So many relationship problems actually have very little to do with the relationship itself.”
That’s the conclusion — shared in a TEDxOakParkWomen Talk — which Chicago psychotherapist Susan Adler has come to after years of working with couples. In fact, she believes that many of the so-called relationship difficulties she sees have much more to do with the individuals’ own problems.
As it turns out, she says most people have this blindspot: “Instead of seeing that our own unhappiness puts stress on our relationship, we blame our relationship for our unhappiness — we get mad, then we try to get even, then we wonder why things go badly.” And after repeated exposure to this potent blend of blame, resentment and retaliation, as Adler puts it, “you might still be a couple, but you’re no longer a team.”
We could all benefit from having better, closer bonds. “These are pretty tough times,” Adler states. “What if we could inspire each other — especially the people we partner with — to become more thoughtful, more loving versions of ourselves?”
Here, she shares three tips for happier relationships.
Step #1: Express your feelings to your partner — that is, anything but anger
It’s normal to feel angry or upset when your partner doesn’t meet your expectations or lets you down in some way. “Anger is like the bodyguard of emotions,” according to Adler. Many of us rely on it to act as a bouncer, keeping our more difficult, uncomfortable emotions in check. She explains, “We use anger to push away our hurt and our sadness and our vulnerability, and in the process we end up pushing away the people that we love the most.”
The next time your partner does something that makes you see red, stop yourself from immediately going on the attack. Instead, try to separate yourself (even moving to the bathroom or a corner of the room can be enough), take a deep breath, and ask yourself: ‘What am I really feeling underneath all this anger?’” After you’ve had some time to settle down, let your partner know what’s going on for you. “Expressing anything other than frustration or anger can bring you closer,” Adler says, and help you start a conversation — and not another argument.
Step #2: When your partner spins out of control, take the high road
The day will inevitably come when your partner behaves unwisely — they’re irritable, grumpy, unreasonable, testy, argumentative, prickly, you name it. It’s natural to want to respond in a similar vein. Resist the temptation, and remind yourself — as Adler puts it — “You can go down that rabbit hole with them, or you can make a different choice.”
And what is that different choice? “Challenge yourself to be helpful, patient, caring and kind,” says Adler. “These are all factors that research indicates make relationships happier.” For example, she suggests, “Instead of yelling, ‘Oh my god, what is wrong with you?, stop, take a breath, and imagine saying, ‘I’m so sorry you’re upset … How can I help?’ There is nothing to fight about if you’re being helpful.”
One common-sense rule of thumb from Adler: “As the saying goes, ‘The hallmark of a good relationship is when only one person goes crazy at a time.’” And the more that you can demonstrate the benefits of staying calm when your partner isn’t, the more your behavior can influence your partner to do the same when you’re in a spin.
Step #3: Express your to-dos and wishes in the form of “I would love it” statements
It’s no secret that communicating your needs is the key to a healthy relationship, but how you approach that communication is just as important. For instance, let’s say that you’re at your wit’s end because your partner is cancelling date night yet again because they have to work late. Your inclination would be to tell them, “You have absolutely no consideration for my feelings!” or “You never make time for me!”, even though you know those remarks set the stage for a blazing-hot argument.
Adler’s recommendation: Communicate what you want from them by telling them what you’d like to happen. So you might say something like, “I would love it if we could figure out a night that works for both of us to spend some time together.”
There is a caveat to this approach. Be careful with your “I would love it” statements, warns Adler. “Don’t say negative things like ‘‘I would love it if you would stop being such a jerk.’ That’s not positive; that’s criticism,” she explains. “And don’t say things that focus on the past, like ‘I would love it if you would have cleaned the kitchen yesterday’ … Focus on moving forward and being positive. This is how you set your partner and yourself and your relationship up for success. This is how you get your needs met.”
While these techniques can be highly effective, according to Adler, “these skills aren’t
for every situation and they’re not for every couple. Frankly, not every relationship should survive; some are just way too unhealthy.”
In the end, these steps are all about creating more opportunities for connection and communication, avoiding acting from a place of annoyance and anger, and recognizing how you might be letting your individual stresses and worries affect your relationship. Adler says, “When we take responsibility and we value one another, our new attitude can actually inspire our … partner to want to do the same thing.”