For a couple in trouble, the simplest things can make a world of difference.
- Communication, kindness, and appreciation are three simple ingredients for building a couple’s level of intimacy.
- Painful conflict should first be reduced with communication before a couple can attempt to foster a better connection.
- Doing something thoughtful and expressing gratitude toward one’s partner lays the groundwork for a couple to address deeper issues.
When couples come to see me for help, there are most often a myriad of issues at hand: some major, such as infidelity or addiction, some more run-of-the-mill, such as constant conflict. But in almost all cases, regardless of their presenting problem, the couple ultimately needs help with two issues: communication and kindness/appreciation.
One of the first things I do when meeting with a couple is teach them communication skills. People can be highly skilled at all sorts of communication, but communication with loved ones, especially when upset (hurt, angry, frustrated), is a unique skill set. Most of the time, for most people, these communications end in alienation and frustration.
I teach them how to communicate in ways that create an increase in intimacy instead. This involves a time-out if needed, and then a structured method of active listening and turn-taking. This allows both members of the relationship to feel seen, heard and understood by the other. Even if the communication is hard, by default it creates more intimacy because they are communicating about how they feel and about their impact on each other in a way that allows for growth and change.
Kindness and appreciation
Once the painful conflict is reduced/eliminated, the work becomes about creating a relationship that fosters love, connection, and positive feelings. Some of that is about spending quality time together or working on their physical/sexual connection. But fundamentally, so many couples have long-standing resentment from feeling uncared for and unappreciated. For this, I give them two simple exercises:
- Once a day, do something thoughtful for your partner. Something that would make them feel loved and cared about.
- Once a day, express gratitude towards your partner. Thank them for something specific and ideally unique to that particular day (so you are not thanking them for the same thing every day).
While these two things may appear to be silly and simple, clients are often amazed at how much of a difference it can make to see their partner, every day, do something nice for them and say something appreciative about them.
Trust me, I am not out of a job by laying this groundwork. There is often still lots of work to do as we unwind a couples’ history, narratives, patterns, and stuck, painful places. But the above exercises create an environment of love, attention, and trust and a foundation for discovery and something new to be created. The simplest things can make a world of difference.
Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., is a psychologist in private practice in San Francisco. She works with couples and individuals, specializing in intimacy, sexuality, and self-realization.