A renowned scholar on the psychology of women and family relationships, Harriet Lerner is the author of numerous articles and eleven books on relationships and connection, among them New York Times bestseller The Dance of Anger, Women in Therapy, and The Mother Dance.
The following is an abridged selection from Harriet’s most recent book Marriage Rules: A Manual for The Married and The Coupled Up (Gotham Books, 2012), in which she delineates 15 steps for sustaining a long-term relationship.
1. Respect Differences. We all view reality through different filters depending on our culture, gender, birth order, genetic makeup, and unique history. A good relationship requires us to stay emotionally connected to a partner who thinks, feels, and reacts differently, without needing to change or fix him up.
2. Warm your Partner’s Heart. Make a concerted effort to focus on the positive and do the little things that make your partner feel loved, valued, and special. This may feel impossible when you feel like the wronged party and you have a long list of legitimate complaints. Actually, it’s not impossible. It’s just extremely difficult.
Make at least two positive comments every day to your partner and speak to the specifics about what you admire (“I loved how funny you were at the party last night”). Make sure that your positive comments exceed critical ones by a healthy margin.
3. God is in the Details. Be intentional about making specific positive comments (“I loved the way you used humor to deal with your brother on the phone tonight.”) After all, you have no trouble being specific about the negative (“Why are you putting so much water in the pot for the pasta?”)
4. Dial Down the Criticism. Many people value criticism in the early stage of a relationship, but become allergic to it over time. Remember this: No one can survive in a marriage (at least not happily) if they feel more judged than admired. Your partner won’t make use of your constructive criticism if there’s not a surrounding climate of admiration and respect. When you have a criticism, make it in three sentences or less.
5. Apologize. You can say, “I’m sorry for my part of the problem” even if you’re secretly convinced that you’re only 37 percent to blame. The failure to initiate repair attempts — or the failure to respond to a partner’s attempt to offer the olive branch and move forward — are flashing red lights in marriage.
6. Don’t Demand an Apology. Don’t get into a tug of war about his failure to apologize. An entrenched non-apologizer may use a nonverbal way to try to defuse tension, reconnect after a fight, or show he’s in a new place and wants to move toward you.
7. Say it Shorter! Many men tell me they don’t like to talk when what they are really afraid of is getting trapped in a conversation that feels awful to them. Sometimes the culprit is the sheer number of sentences and the intensity in our voice.
Slow down your speech, turn down the volume, and make your point in three sentences or less. It can be incredibly difficult to say, “I want you to say “thank you” when I cook dinner.” Or “This is the second time this week you forgot to take the garbage out,” and leave it at that. Of course, longer conversations are sometimes necessary, but they’ll go better if you practice lightness and brevity on a daily basis.
8. Sweat the Small Stuff. When you say you’ll do something, do it! Never assume that your overall contribution to the marriage or household compensates for failing to do what you say you’ll do, whether it’s cleaning up the coffee grinds or moving your boxes out of the garage by Sunday.
When your partner makes a reasonable request, she needs to know her voice can affect you, and that she can count on you to follow through. Don’t use your Attention Deficit Disorder (or any other diagnosis) as an excuse for not being accountable.
9. Drop the Defensiveness and LISTEN. Defensiveness is normal and universal. It’s also the archenemy of listening. Enter a difficult conversation with the intention to listen only to understand — without interrupting, offering advice, defending your position, or correcting distortions, exaggerations, and inaccuracies. Save your defense for a second conversation.
10. Under Stress, Don’t Press. If you pursue a distancer, he or she will distance more. Consider it a fundamental law of physics. Focus less on your partner, and more on your own life plan. A distant partner may avoid conversation because it feels overwhelming, and is more likely to move toward you when there is breathing room. Slow down your speech, turn down the volume, and lower the intensity.
11. Know Your Bottom Line. Be flexible in changing for your partner 84 percent of the time, but never sacrifice your core values, beliefs and priorities under relationship pressures. If you have an “anything goes” policy, your marriage — and sense of self-worth — will spiral downward.
Exit a conversation when you are on the receiving end of rude or demeaning treatment. You can say, “I’m giving myself a time out from this conversation. I’m here to listen when you can talk to me calmly and with respect.” Keep your actions congruent with these words.
12. Be a mystery. It’s comfortable and cozy when two people know absolutely everything about each other, but we’re more likely to be drawn to a partner who has connections and a passion for life outside the relationship. So take a dance class, skiing lessons, or join a book group with friends. The more passion you show for life outside your marriage, the more zest you’ll find within it.
13. Make rules about technology. Agree on “time-out rules” from anything you’re prohibited from using during takeoff and landing in an airplane. For example, cell phones off and out of sight during food preparation and eating meals and no answering land lines. No taking calls in the middle of a conversation or when people are visiting.
14. Initiate sex, even if you don’t feel like it. If you’re the distancer in bed, initiate sex once in a while even though you don’t feel like it. A long-term relationship won’t flourish if your partner is someone for whom sex is an enlivening essential force and you’re too unavailable. To decide you won’t be a physical partner because you don’t feel like it is like his deciding that there will be no more conversation because he’s not a talker. If you have a fair and good partner, there is probably something you can do that wouldn’t be too terribly difficult. (P.S. If you’re the pursuer in bed, back off.)
15. Work on relationships in your first family. Become a good questioner about family history, and observe and change your part in triangles and dysfunctional family patterns. You’ll stand on more solid ground with your partner if you navigate family-of-origin relationships with more creativity and less reactivity.
Be the one to change first. While it takes two to couple up,
it takes only one to make things a whole lot better.