As a family therapist, I frequently hear about this unfortunate dynamic from both perspectives. Some people tell me they’re aware of how poorly they treat their partners at times. They even express surprise at how often they find themselves speaking to their partners in ways they would never think of doing with their bosses, coworkers or friends. Others tell me about how their partners treat them, and how they wish it were kinder and more like the early days of dating.
Most people treat their partners with the utmost respect and kindness in the dating and courting stages. After all, the relationship would not have likely progressed if that weren’t the case. So, why do so many people start out presenting the best version of themselves and then over time, begin to treat their beloved partners with disrespect or disregard—and sometimes even disdain?
1. Nourish your relationship.
Just like our plants need food and water, our relationships do too. It’s way too easy in our fast-paced, plugged-in culture to take our significant other for granted, so it’s important to make regular efforts to initiate dates with your partner and plan some fun things to do together. It could be an activity you used to enjoy as a couple, or it could be something new and out of the box. I often ask partners to each write a list of things they might like to do as a couple—anything from a trip to going out for a cup of coffee or an evening walk. Then they trade lists, and each partner marks off the things on the other person’s list that sound good to them. Together they have a new list of fun ideas!
2. Be present when you are present.
Connecting is more than simply being in the same house, room or restaurant, though that’s a good start! It’s about being truly present, making eye contact and showing genuine interest in your partner. Try putting down your tablet, phone or remote control on a regular basis and really take the time to connect with your partner, even for a few minutes. Be sincere when you ask about their thoughts, feelings and experiences, and then really listen and respond from your heart.
3. Foster a balance between friendship and intimacy.
A loving relationship is about being good friends and being intimate. Many relationships begin with a spark of chemistry but fade over time without the foundation of a true friendship, while others may have a solid friendship but lack that romantic spark. See if you can foster a friendship with some kindness and play, and then make regular efforts to fan the flames of intimacy. You might have to abandon your usual mode of sweat pants and sitcoms, but it will hopefully be worth it!
4. Increase tolerance and acceptance.
It’s so easy to gather up resentments about the little things your partner does that bother you, so make working on tolerance, perspective and acceptance a daily practice. Being less judgmental also increases our own level of peace. Try to distinguish between behaviors you’d like to work on accepting and reasonable changes you’d like to request. For example, you might be able to accept the cap being left off the toothpaste, or it might be important enough to respectfully request that your honey try to remember to put it back on. And when your partner makes requests of you, see if you can consider honoring those as well.
5. Give what you’d like to get.
Most people want to be heard, understood, seen and validated. And unfortunately many people want their partner to go first. Since we have zero control over how our partner acts and hopefully some control over how we act, if we want things to change in our relationship, the best chance of success is to give what we would like to get. So if you want to be heard, try becoming a better listener and see what happens. If you want your partner to meet some of your needs, try meeting some of theirs. Of course this doesn’t guarantee anything. Some people won’t be able to meet our needs regardless of what we do, but it’s worth a try, especially if what you’ve been doing hasn’t been working.
6. Act with kindness and compassion.
Here’s some good news: Not only can being kinder and more compassionate improve your relationship, it can also improve your health! Strong emotions such as anger, resentment and hostility increase our stress hormones, causing an elevation in our heart rate and blood pressure, a tightening of our muscles and blood vessels and a shortening of breath.
On the flip side, being kind can set off a series of healthy reactions. According to Dr. David R. Hamilton, acts of kindness create an emotional warmth, which releases a hormone known as oxytocin. Oxytocin causes the release of nitric oxide, a chemical that dilates the blood vessels and so reduces blood pressure. Oxytocin is known as a “cardioprotective” hormone; it protects the heart by lowering blood pressure.So besides the fact that kindness and compassion simply feel better, they are better for us too!