Just in time for New Year’s, you can resolve to reboot your relationship now, and the best part is, it’s easy.
Do I even need to introduce the problem? Your relationship is in a rut. You’re going through the motions but not moving forward, and definitely not having fun. You feel disconnected, growing apart. Things devolve when you try to talk about it. You go to sleep angry and unsatisfied. And sex, well, sex is usually the last thing to go, and it’s going, going …. As bad as it is, though, it’s not bad enough to leave yet. Because there are still good moments, and you still really love your partner and don’t want to lose what you’ve built. So you vow, somehow, to make it work. Deep down, you know you’re probably doing something wrong, but most of the time you blame your partner, then hate yourself for not being more loving. You recognize unhealthy patterns, but you don’t know how to change them. So you’re stuck—unhappy if you stay, and miserable if you leave.
When faced with this kind of relationship malaise, many of us—and especially men—don’t know where to turn. The self-help shelves are overwhelming, and counseling is time-consuming and expensive, not to mention a formal admission that the relationship is on the rocks. What if the counselor recommends divorce? Friends aren’t much help, and there aren’t really support groups for what we’ll call “relationship distress.” What you need is a reboot, a way to short-circuit unhealthy patterns, leave past grievances behind, and revive the intimacy you crave with each other. While these three steps won’t work for everyone, they will help nearly all couples regain the love, harmony, and companionship that they’re desperately seeking to restore.
1. Reframe your partner’s needs as non-competitive with your own. One of the top destroyers of relationships is the “you gain, I lose” mentality. It creates an atmosphere of resistance and resentment and typically leads women feeling unheard and uncared for and men feeling hounded and nagged. Every time you do something for your partner—run an errand, fix something, pick up a child, make a meal—even when these things entail a sacrifice on your part, you strengthen and expand the fabric of your relationship. If you think of this fabric as a quilt that covers both of you, it’s sensible to want it to be stronger and bigger. The belief that adding a square to your partner’s side of the quilt takes one away from yours is false. More squares just make the quilt bigger for both of you to share. And fixing holes in the quilt, such as misunderstandings and unmet needs, enables the quilt to keep you both warmer. Giving to your partner and meeting his or her needs is always a win, unless it means sacrificing your principles or your dignity. Moving from a competitive to a collaborative frame of mind, where you’re both working together to make each other happy and fulfilled, changes the entire dynamic of your relationship.
2. Recast giving and receiving as non-transactional. Once you’ve entered a non-competitive state with your partner, you can begin to make giving an expression of generosity instead of an exchange-based transaction. Exchange-based giving isn’t giving; it’s payment, and when relationships become businesslike, they’re no longer intimate. Burn the ledger, and stop keeping accounts. When you recast giving as generosity, the outcome of receiving in return remains the same, but the reason for your action changes. “I give to you because I love you,” is wholly different from “I give to you because you give to me.” You make the statement that your love is not contingent on your partner’s giving, which not only liberates your partner to give to you out of love but also erases the unspoken obligation attached to your giving. Moving to love-based giving creates a profoundly powerful change in the relationship that, somewhat counterintuitively, leads both partners to give more.
3. Rewire your connection efforts from your touchpoints to your partner’s. So often we offer our partners what we want instead of what they want, creating frustration, disappointment, and disconnection. We all know the stereotype of the man giving his wife lingerie for her birthday, and her saying, “That’s for you, not for me.” It can be difficult to step outside of yourself and fully comprehend that another person’s needs, desires, and preferences can be wholly different from your own. You may want to share a glass of wine when you get home, but your partner may want your full attention before you get hazy. You may consider a sloppy kiss the ultimate expression of affection while your partner’s melting point is a warm hug. You can sometimes intuit what your partner wants—and achieve the bliss of “How did you know?”, but you won’t always be accurate. Try asking your partner the following question three times a day, when you first connect in the morning, when you reconnect at the end of the day, and just before bed: “What can I do for you right now?” And be prepared to do it. Ideally, this question should be mutual and not one-sided. But if you’re taking responsibility for healing the relationship, you need to go first.
So much of our happiness depends on whether or not our relationships are thriving. Getting it right, especially for the long term, is hard work but well worth the effort. The great thing is, these three steps are straightforward, simple to implement, and easy to reinforce, because once you start doing them, your partner almost surely will, too. Eventually, your relationship’s dynamic will change from frustrating to fulfilling, and you’ll start to enjoy yourself and your partner much, much more. And hey, there’s no reason to wait until New Year’s rolls along. Why not start now?