How One Person Can Improve a Relationship

Communication skills anyone can learn to put the love back into their relationship.

All relationships can be improved. Not all partners will stay together, but all relationships can be improved. And even if only one person is actively working at it, any relationship can become less contentious, more comfortable, and hopefully, even more loving. You can improve your relationship.

Research by John Gottman, supplemented by several clinicians such as Thomas Gordon, Brent Atkinson, and Albert Ellis, leads to some directions for successful relationship change. Learning a few basic principles can dramatically improve your relationship.

First, avoid four major pitfalls: do not criticize your partner, never show contempt for your partner’s ideas or feelings, do not stonewall, and do not become defensive. As a corollary, learn the skill of expressing positive regard: do say nice things to your partner. These things matter, and you can begin to change bad relationship habits into goodwill and positive feelings.

Criticism hurts. You can complain, you can discuss issues, you can request she do something differently, but do not criticize your partner. Use “I messages”: “I feel hurt when you do that; I am asking you to do this instead.”

Remember that a message is for the person to whom it is sent. “I messages” do not sound like an attack, as do “you messages”: “You are always doing that, no matter how many times I tell you I hate it.” When your partner feels attacked, they’re unable to respond positively to your relationship needs.

As a corollary to not criticizing, avoid showing contempt. That smug, “you are such an idiot” expression is readable from across the room. No matter how strongly you disagree with your partner, remain open to the fact that other people have reasons for their behaviors, too. Your partner is not just trying to annoy you, is not brainless, and is not out to get you.

Think about this. If your partner is brainless and uncaring, why did you choose this person in the first place? What does that say about your judgment? Thus, it is a good assumption that your partner’s judgment is not any more flawed in general than yours. You chose this one for a reason.

Learn the reasons for your partner’s behavior, and see how yours play a role. Avoid acting superior. You are both human, after all,

Do not stonewall. Be open to discussing issues using good communication skills. This might require taking a time-out to get yourself un-angry and prepared for a rational discussion, but do not offer a blank wall to your partner. It is often useful to ask for a moment to compose yourself or to request a later time for a potentially unpleasant conversation, but it is not okay to just forget that your partner is upset. This leads to stored hurt feelings and your partner feeling as if theirs are not important to you.

When you do open up that potential time bomb, use “I messages” and empathic responding: “I can see how upset you are.” An empathic response is not a capitulation, nor an agreement; it is simply an acknowledgement that your partner’s feelings are visible to you and important.

Finally, do not become defensive. There is a huge difference between “I am sorry I inconvenienced you,” which indicates genuine empathy for the other person, and “I was late because … ” which is just taking care of your own ego. Defending is a natural human tendency when we screw up, but it does nothing to assuage the hurt feelings of your partner. When you empathize rather than defend, you are more likely to elicit a positive response from your partner even when you are in the wrong.

Now that you have seen some major don’ts, here is a huge DO: do speak kindly and appreciatively to your partner. Research shows clearly that lasting relationships contain five times as many positive statements as negative ones. Yes, five to one. Keep track and grade yourself—how close do you come to saying five nice, appreciative, positive, and/or supportive things for every complaint you utter? Many people are surprised.

Clearly, when you are struggling with negative feelings, it is difficult to find those positive responses within, but do find them. Again, you chose this partner for reasons—the reasons are not gone, even if something is obscuring your favorite things about them just now. Everyone wants to be appreciated, and a few kind words can repair hurt feelings.

Learning to achieve these valuable goals is not easy. For example, getting yourself from angry to calm before talking to your partner about a problem is a valuable skill that most of us need a little help to master. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy teaches you to analyze the thoughts and beliefs that led you to angry feelings, and dispute them to calm yourself.

Similarly, learning to sincerely accept that your partner is not out to get you, but genuinely feels as they do, is often quite difficult. Some serious effort will go into getting down off your high horse and discovering that your partner’s feelings are just as valid as your own.

Take responsibility today for improving your relationship. Remember, all relationships require 100% from each partner.


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Image credit: sara biljana/Flickr

About Dr. Carol B. Low

Dr. Carol B. Low is a licensed clinical psychologist in Illinois. Her practice, the Center for Conscious Living offers holistic psychotherapy in a humanistic setting. Heal the mind to heal the body. She is trained in Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, Clinical Hypnosis, and Sensorimotor Trauma Therapy. You can follow Dr. Low on Twitter @DrCarolLow and on Facebook at the Center for Conscious Living.


  1. FlyingKal, Listening is the best communication skill one person can have. That’s usually the part that’s missing in most relationships. I think being quiet, respectful, and a good listener puts you at the advantage in most situations. Even in some leadership training, they say listening is one hardest skills to teach.

  2. Also remember that communication is a lot more than just a constant stream of words to fill a perceived void of silence.
    If your partner is the “silent type”, then you might benefit from actually taking the time (at least occassionally…) to let him/her contemplate what’s on their mind instead of deliberately making the communication a one-way street.

    • FlyingKal–Absolutely! Mindless talking or deliberate one-way communication can be, quite frankly, irritating to most people. Shh. I didn’t say that.
      It depends on the individual but in my experience, men become more verbal, only after trust and respect is built.
      But women can improve communication with men, by becoming better readers of a man’s non-verbal language. Recent studies suggest that women tend to rate higher on non-verbal empathizing, while men rate higher on non-verbal expression.

      FlyingKal, are you the silent type? I know I am, I have to force myself speak.

      • FlyingKal says:

        Joan, yes, mostly I’m kind of a silent type. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like to talk to people. It’s just that I don’t see the point in “shooting the sh!t” just for the love of the sound of my own voice.

        OTOH, I consider myself a pretty good listener. But rehashing the same complaints about your job and your coworkers every single day do get old, eeventaully…
        And also, I was brought up the way that it is not polite to interrupt someone speaking. So if you want me to speak my mind, you have to be able to shut up long enough to let me get a word in edgewise…

  3. Danna, Good point. I understand communication not a one-way street and can lead to death of a relationship if it becomes a perpetual one-way street or mothering, but I think the author is suggesting the proactive approach to invigorate lackluster communication. Mothering or pity is a subtle form of contempt, especially for a man. Yeah, that would kill my libido too. Ick. One person can make tremendous difference in another’s life when it’s done with respect for the other’s well-being.

    • well said, Joan. Much can be done to improve a relationship with some good communication skills. The article is not really about why it “broke”–that is a larger topic. These skills drive us to reclaim respect for our partner and follow the golden rule of treating others as we wish to be treated, a thing we can forget when we are hurting.

  4. Hmmm, notice a woman corroborates she’s positive towards her partner. Assuming this partner is a man (which may not be the case), unless the man starts reciprocating this positivism back to his female partner quickly, (which often does not happen, and nurturing females fill the vacuum even more), what happens in the long run is that the positive female is in the mother role, and the male recipient is in the son role.

    Eventually, the female’s sexual attraction ebbs away, for who can maintain the hot hornies for her de facto, son? No one. (Or very few.)

    Adding salt the wound: The male then blames his female partner’s waning libido towards him on her. She self blames too, not understanding the underlying dynamic, since it’s come on so gradually. (And, nurturing, proactive, and strong females often quickly self blame – try harder, and you will succeed has worked well for her in life.)

    Relationship is now on its death march, and male still has not grown up and out of his entitled son role (due to ignorance about its roots).

    As more and more learn this dynamic and its causing an inevitable failure in a male/female relationship, more and more will learn the importance of (on net) reciprocation, early and throughout a relationship, in order to maintain the most robust sex life within it.

  5. Dr. Low Thanks, great advice. Even on the workplace, I try to encourage management to use the 5:1 ratio of praise, to correction. It helps employees stay more positive and energized. And who couldn’t use a little more praise and gratitude in their lives?
    Especially in loving relationships, if I consider my partner as my other-half, communication becomes cooperative. Over the years I’ve found love, praise, gratitude are things we give to another but so is criticism and contempt…so why be stingy with the positive stuff? If we put good stuff in a person, good stuff comes out.

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