The decaying branches of a struggling relationship doesn’t easily sprout new growth following years of dormancy—pruning may be required. We can’t bury heads, deny the rot, and expect that a bright future awaits. If you want to improve your relationship, you must make a commitment to change and take skilled action. Changing habitual patterns of interaction demands time, effort, patience and perhaps also professional guidance.
Because of the arduous work and stubborn reoccurring patterns, we rely on subjective evaluations—how do I feel. Unfortunately, feelings can deceive. An abusive episode feels bad; the following apology feels good. But the pattern remains unchanged with extreme ups and downs. We must rely on more objective evidence to determine effectiveness; otherwise, we waste precious resources chasing idealistic garbage—unfulfilled hopes.
Almost all change includes momentary slips—relapses. Old habits die hard; but with patience, we create a new normal. The slips decrease, and deeper intimacy is obtained. Embarking on new territory, shaking up the normal, spikes fears, lacing interaction with uncertainty, each back step challenges our resolve. Improving your relationship with newness of action demands attention, fatiguing our mind. But this is the path. We can’t rely on a discussion to dissolve learned emotions, alleviating the relationship pressures. Re-programming requires closely monitoring expressions and triggered emotions (mindfulness).
The First Step Towards Improving Your Relationship
One of the key elements of the Hippocratic Oath for physicians is to do no harm. To improve your relationship, we must consistently apply this principle. When emotions are heightened, do no harm. When things are not going as planned, do no harm. Of course, we all occasionally faulter in our attempt to do no harm. We say or do something that hurts our partner. In these cases, we must quickly address the harm, repairing what we have torn.
Following comfortable patterns of explosion and name calling is mindless, requiring no thought, no repression—just letting the emotions flow at will. But when we embark on change—any change—we discover the strain of remaining mindful. Our resolve crumbles under the demand, we relax the mind, explode and once again feel the impoverishment of an unfulfilling bond, full of fear, anxiety and hate. The dreamy intentions of intimacy appear out of reach. We want it but not motivated (or skilled) enough to do the work.
A skewed sense of relationship-benefits poisons the reality of relationships. For those seeking a handsome prince with an awakening kiss, may misunderstand these concepts, supposing I’m suggesting relationships have no value. Relationships are crucial to human fulfillment. We are biologically programmed to bond. Life feels empty alone (for most). However, relationships will not solve all our woes. They take a tremendous amount of work and in return offer some fantastic rewards.
To improve your relationship and make the most out of the imperfect bonds of relationships in the real world, we must tame unrealistic expectations.
Driven for connection, we march forward, seeking the warmth and fulfillment of healthy attachment. When relationships struggle against faulty expectations, we demand the relationship bow to our strict expectations rather than adjust the misguided hopes. This is where many fail, manipulating, punishing, and passive-aggressive tactics replace attention, acceptance, and respect.
We can’t transform a partner against their will; this violates all the laws of connection, forcing compliance to our expectations assumes bondage. To improve connections, we work to improve ourselves and kindly invite a partner to join in the transformation. Techniques fail. People resist change when forced upon them.
Our improvements of implementing healthier behaviors often softens attitudes, preventing destructive fights, and encouraging partner growth; but if the hidden motivation of our action is to change our partner, the thinly veiled show is often revealed as another control tactic, poisoning the goodwill. The nasty attempts of manipulation are often wrapped in pretend kindness. Overt actions disguised as empathy and compassion but intended to gain compliance can’t force intimacy.
Change Hurts at First
The person recovering from addiction must contend with a reality that fails to provide the same rush as a chemical fix; but the enduring discomfort when spread over days, weeks and years provides a richness surpassing the diminishing rush from an artificial high. Our betterments may not provide the desired escape from reality, transforming our mortal partner into a prince (or princess); but will add to the richness of our existence. No matter what changes we implement, our partners still can maintain their freedom—it’s their prerogative.
A healthy relationship requires a respect of individuality. The healthy dependence on each other doesn’t invalidate individual freedoms. Security, while dependent, requires trust that is built through honesty. Building a life together creates some vulnerability, trusting a partner that we don’t control will not betray the loyalty. We develop ourselves to survive an unplanned dissolution of a relationship but also enjoy security in trust that our partner will fulfill their commitment. If we can’t trust, we will struggle.
A necessary element to improve your relationship is trust. We must trust; and partners must honor that trust.
We may, in efforts to change, conceal emotions. The hidden emotions continue to communicate—sometimes purposely. Revealing comments such as, “I’m trying to remain calm,” expresses all the anger but allowing for the tinge of self-righteousness. Often designed to fix blame for triggered emotions, and then frost with a sweet covering of taking the high road. The expectations haven’t changed. The partner is expected to pacify the emotions by bending to our narrow minded will. Anger, sadness, fear or disappointment simmers underneath.
We can’t force a relationship to provide security by molding a perfect partner. Even if the perfect partner does exist, they are either taken or not likely to find interest in our imperfectness.
Improving your relationship bonds demand a different approach—honest open communication instead of disguised goals and concealed meanings. Healthy communication motivated by compassion, respect and understanding. The goal for closeness guides couples through the twisting roads of conflict resolution.
“Compassionate Communication: Speaking and hearing with concern for the other, reaching beyond words and connecting with the hearts.”
Compassion doesn’t preclude us from being angry, sad, disappointed, or even jealous. We can honestly express feelings. Compassion isn’t trembling with anger and blurting out, “it is okay.” The forced and insincere message is lost in the overshadowing disapproval. Silent anger is still communicated, creating more anxiety than an honest sharing of feeling.
To improve your relationship, you must embrace proven skills. Instead of power struggles, we open to the complexities of connection, inviting a deeper understanding of pasts, hurts, and emotional triggers. In pursuit of change, we achieve success from mutually exploring each other’s emotions. The deeper understanding engenders compassion—exposing the anger, hurt and fear as cries for healing; and not seen as threats to security.
Discomforting feelings, rather than being the enemy, become guides, pointing to tender spots begging for greater attention and clarity.
Compassionate communication is a skill that relies on mindfulness. Relationships with histories of name calling, blame, and disappointment will take work before difference no longer spark protective emotions.
When past discussions hurt, we’re programmed to respond defensively. We learn to protect. Because of these default responses, designed to protect, we must now slow down, recognizing the pattern stimulated by the past and intervene. When a couple fails to transcend the power-struggles embedded in their conversations, discussions will break down.
Be the First to Begin the Change
One partner must be first to change, courageously embracing compassion through honest expression, opening to vulnerability. Change doesn’t simultaneously occur in both partners. One partner may never cooperate with the healthy changes, forcing a more difficult decision—the possibility of leaving.
Some relationships run their course, succumbing to habitual negative interactions, embedded labels, and hurtful words—too much injury to heal. Even if this is the case, stop the unkindness. We still need effective relationship skills in other areas of our lives. If our partner uses openness to their advantage, we enforce clear boundaries. If they ignore boundaries, then enforce your rights—leaving may be appropriate; seek professional help to move forward safely. Two people must work together to establish intimacy but only one to destroy it.
Through all our relationships, whether they are healthy or not, our emotions are magnified. In a relationship, we have great opportunity to explore emotions, gaining familiarity with personal feelings, triggers, and tender spots. This knowledge becomes the foundation for intimacy with a willing, loving partner and the key to improving your relationship.