10 Secrets to Forming Healthy Romantic Relationships (and Enduring Marriages)

March 01, 2016

I know what you’re thinking. “McKay, you’re not even married. Who do you think you are to be giving me marital advice?” My only response is, do you know who I think I am?

Just kidding. Kind of.

I know that I am no marital expert, but since 100% of my classes are based on forming and sustaining marital relationships (I am literally taking a class called Forming and Sustaining Marital Relationships) and I am currently in an amazing healthy romantic relationship, I’m going to force my opinions onto you (unless of course you don’t want them, then feel free to close the browser).

I want to focus specifically on two themes: communication and conflict resolution. I honestly think that everything important can tie back into these characteristics, and even better, they are teachable!!!! You can learn them and apply them to your own relationship!!!!

COMMUNICATION – Therapists say that communication is the #1 reason that couples come to therapy. The good news is that if you learn this skill now, it will solve a lot of problems!

1. Active listening – WE ARE ALL GUILTY OF THIS. Do not just sit there thinking of what you are going to say in response to what your partner is saying. The greatest thing is that this is such an amazing skill for all of the relationships in your life (well, everything I’m talking about is, but this one is pretty important and most people are fairly bad at it). If someone is telling you about how they got in a fight with their Mom, you should be listening to how they feel, not just half paying attention, half solving the problem in your mind and inserting your unwanted opinion. This is key: if a person does not ask you for advice or a solution, DO NOT GIVE IT. Men especially like to be problem solvers, but a lot of the time, women just want to talk about their feelings. This goes hand in hand with gender differences (#10).

2. Use facts, not opinions (and know the difference) – If you are in a conflict, be aware of how you are speaking. There’s this really fun “Couple Communication Awareness Wheel” created by Dr. Sherod Miller and Dr. Phyllis Miller (They make these into mats that you stand on and I want one, so if you’re looking for a present for me there’s a free idea). In this program, you are encouraged to separate between what is feeling, what is thought, what is a want, what is action, and what came through sensory data. These are all very, very different things. Just because you take something as fact in your story does not mean that it is.

3. Ask – This kind of goes along with active listening, but you should genuinely want to hear what your partner has to say. Express that. Don’t butt into their conversation when you shouldn’t be, but when it makes sense, and you’ve shared your side of things, ask for theirs. Dr. Sherod Miller and Dr. Phyllis Miller also created a listening cycle mat!!!! How fun is that? (This is also a good present for me because they’re a combo deal!) There are many different ways to listen, but making sure that you are engaging in the conversation how you should be will help you master communication.

4. Reinforce and agree – Find what you agree on. It’s pretty obvious if you’re even having this conversation that you want the relationship to succeed. Well, there ya go, I just gave you your first common ground. Let your partner know when you support what they are saying. Paraphrase what they are telling you about so that you can make sure you’re on the same page. Reinforce their feelings – because they are as valid as yours are.

5. Intimacy – I’m not just talking about sex, people. Calm down (Mormons, I’m looking at you, because when you hear intimacy, you automatically assume sex). There are so many different types of intimacy. Yes, sexual intimacy is one, but there is also physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, experiential intimacy, intellectual intimacy, and even spiritual intimacy. Each is important in its own way, and each is important to build a healthy relationship. Intimacy, in its simplest form, is trust. If you are able to trust your significant other with your emotions, your experiences, and your spirit, things will be okay.

CONFLICT RESOLUTION – You can’t have conflict resolution without communication, so these two themes build on top of each other.

6. Divorce – I am not about to tell you that you should not get a divorce, because obviously every situation is different and sometimes it is necessary for your health and happiness. What I am going to say – hear me out – is that divorce should not be an option. If you’re signing a prenup before you’re even married, you’re kind of leaving divorce as a dark, looming cloud above your marriage. Prenups aren’t always a bad thing either… I know a family of two spouses who were both widowed and had many children, and when they got married to each other, they signed a prenup for the comfort of their children. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that divorce should not be the first choice, and people should take care (with communication!!!!) leading up to problems in order to avoid divorce when possible.

7. Commitment – Fully committing to a relationship will solve a lot of problems. If you are acting selflessly and focusing on sustaining the relationship rather than indulging your own interests, conflict will diminish. I know that this is easier said than done since all of us are very imperfect beings. My best advice is to just keep in mind the importance of your relationship and the importance of your partner’s happiness.

8. Managing differences – I’m about to tell you something very shocking: people are all very different. We process differently, have different interests, and communicate differently. That’s okay! It’s manageable! If you’re able to create a safe, secure, and – if possible – a nurturing environment, through communication and conflict resolution, problems can be solved. Some good tests to be aware of differences include the love language quiz, Myers-Briggs personality test, and the Big 5 personality test.

9. Interventions – Therapy is a good thing. I’m serious. If there is one thing that I have learned through my own experiences and in my schooling, therapy can only help. It’s okay to feel awkward or uncomfortable at first, and it’s okay to not even enjoy it, but it can be so helpful. In the future, I plan on being a strong advocate for marriages and families. It is a good sign, whether you use clinical intervention or educational intervention, if you are seeking help for your relationship. Before I get married, I WILL do pre-marital counseling. I am a firm believer in taking advantage of the resources on this earth, and I hope that you can be too.

10. Know gender differences – There are gender differences in communication and conflict resolution. Because women are more encouraged to show their feelings and are raised in social environments where they talk and share more, they get a lot more practice in dealing with emotions. Studies show that men take 3 to 4 times longer to recover from conflictual settings than women and that the stimulus takes a literal, physical toll on men. It’s okay! That is just the society that we were raised in. Men are also very unlikely to show fear. In a relationship, it is so helpful to know this, because you can talk through your metacommunication and be conscious of how to fix it.

o   Couple Communication by Dr. Sherod Miller and Dr. Phyllis Miller
o   Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenney

I hope this helps you go forth in your relationships in the future. Give it a whirl!

Yours truly,

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