No matter what stage we’re in in a relationship, we tend to wonder what the future holds. No two people, or two couples for that matter, are the same, so how can we predict where the road will take us? The truth is we can’t. Relationships are complicated and uncertain territory. Yet, in my years of working with all kinds of individuals and couples, I’ve noticed certain patterns that inevitably seem to creep in at some point in a relationship. Being close to someone and maintaining a deep level of intimacy is a precious but fragile thing. It can bring us our greatest sense of pleasure and fulfillment and our deepest feelings of vulnerability, fear and even anger. So what can we do to give ourselves our best chance of maintaining that loving feeling we have when we first realize we are falling for another person? Here are five resolutions I believe all couples would truly benefit from taking on.
1) Focus on small acts of kindness
If there is an easy answer to what makes people happy, it would be generosity. It is a natural mood booster, a scientifically proven method of living a longer and more satisfying life. Being generous with our partner isn’t about a tit-for-tat exchange of commodities or favors. It’s an ongoing feeling we foster within ourselves that (if we stay attuned) allows us to remain connected to what lights our partner up. It’s about being giving of ourselves in small, meaningful ways, offering a kind look, a supportive smile or a gesture of acknowledgment.
Over time, couples can become increasingly tight and stingy with each other. They can punish each other by withholding interest or affection. It’s important to stay in touch with our own desire to be giving toward our partners and the pleasure it can bring us. If we truly love them, it should be reflected in our behavior. We can do this by consistently engaging in acts that they would perceive as loving. This means offering something that matters to them, not just on our own time or with any strings attached. When we do this, we can feel a sense of satisfaction that is deeply rewarding. Plus, we ignite a spirit of generosity in our partner that creates a more natural give and take in the relationship.
2) Pay attention to the inner voice that creates distance.
Every person harbors an internal enemy whose sole purpose seems to be to undermine our happiness. This “critical inner voice” can even sabotage our relationships. It’s there to warn us not to trust or to remind us to be jealous and suspicious. It can put us down, letting us know that we are too fat, thin, ugly, boring or unsuccessful to find and maintain a loving relationship.
Our critical inner voice feeds on all of our negative life experiences from the day we are born to form a destructive perception of who we are. Because its negative point of view is so entrenched in us, it can be hard to shake. Try to notice how this inner critic creeps into your relationship. It may sound friendly when it says, “Don’t let her get to you. You are just fine on your own. She will only wind up hurting you.” It may also sound vicious, bombarding you with thoughts like, “He doesn’t love you. No one could ever care about you.”
This voice should be seen as an enemy. It’s there to drive a wedge between us and our partner. It can turn us off or shut us down in ways that push us further from what we want. Try to differentiate this “voice” from your own, real point of view. Don’t let it convince you that you’re foolish to be open and vulnerable to another person or that you’re unworthy of love.
3) Be aware of fantasies you may form.
A “Fantasy Bond” is a term coined by my father, psychologist and author, Robert Firestone. It describes an illusion of fusion that couples form that replaces real love. When two people start to fall in love, they see each other as independent individuals. They appreciate and respect the other person for who they are, separate from themselves. As time passes, however, they may replace these feelings of love for a sense of safety and security by starting to relate as a single unit. They may form routines or start making rules for each other that they believe will protect their fantasy bond. However, these forces actually serve to deflate their attraction to each other and suffocate the relationship. Their worlds, which at first grew bigger with the addition of each other, now seem to shrink.
It’s so important for couples to be aware of the threats this fantasy can pose and to break patterns that will ultimately hurt the relationship. Be wary of routines. Notice if you’ve started relating as a “we” instead of “you” and “me.” Ask yourself if you’ve started to rely too much on your partner. The degree to which we see our partner as a savior or an extension of ourselves is a degree to which we aren’t having an honest relationship with the real person who exists right next to us. When we regard our partner as a separate person, we appreciate and enjoy them much more for who they are. It’s only when we see someone as themselves that we can really share something meaningful with them. In this way, not getting into a fantasy bond will actually keep us closer to our partner and lead to a lasting, loving connection.
4) Help your partner feel secure.
Often, our focus in a relationship can be too much on ourselves. What am I getting or not getting from my partner? How is he or she making me feel? Failing to see things from the other person’s perspective can get us into trouble, leading to breakdowns in communication or a lack of empathy and understanding. Instead of focusing on ourselves, we should try to think of ways we could be more outwardly loving. How could we make our partner feel happy or secure? Maybe that will mean putting our arm around them more often or agreeing to keep our cell-phones out of bed. These little acts of kindness and affection can go a long way.
Unlike in a fantasy bond, this practice isn’t about giving in to manipulation or sacrificing ourselves as independent people. If someone is overly jealous or demanding something unreasonable of us, we shouldn’t necessarily give in. However, we can always reflect how they’re feeling back to them to make sure they feel heard. We can also express our own feelings toward them.
For instance, a friend of mine noticed his wife feeling more and more insecure after they got married. She started to become possessive and worried when he left the house or did things with friends. His response wasn’t to put a halt to his social life. Instead, he asked her what was going on. He showed compassion for the mean thoughts she was having toward herself. He made sure to acknowledge all the positive ways he saw her that were different from how she saw herself. He told her he loved spending time with her and that her feelings mattered, but his friendships were also an important part of who he was and what makes him happy. In the end, they both wanted the same simple thing, to feel understood and valued. They wound up feeling closer than ever, just from talking honestly each day.
The simple exercise of being consistently attuned and kind will usually spark reciprocal attitudes and actions in our partner. We are more likely to get a loving response when we approach someone from a warm and vulnerable stance. This leaves a relationship with a solid foundation, where both people feel seen, safe, soothed and secure, what Dr. Daniel Siegel refers to as the 4 S's of a secure attachment.
5) Be willing to be vulnerable.
A loving relationship may sound like what we want, but most of us actually have a lower tolerance for love than we think. We aren’t always used to being treated kindly or with affection. Valuing another person brings up a lot of sadness about the preciousness of life. As psychologist and author Pat Love has said, getting what we want can actually remind us of the emptiness we once felt in not getting it in the past. In order to grow our capacity and tolerance for loving feelings, we have to be willing to feel our sadness and stay vulnerable. It’s almost instinctive to want to harden or defend ourselves the moment we feel threatened, but the more resilient we can be in actually softening ourselves and staying open, the more love we can expect to both feel and receive.
Great joy comes with great sadness. Having something precious often reminds us it will one day be lost. Protecting ourselves by giving in to our fears will leave us much lonelier and less satisfied in our romantic lives. Being vulnerable, we will inevitably experience hurts or losses, but we will also have experienced much deeper levels of love and joy. And what better to wish for in the coming year than a fuller capacity for love and a richer experience of joy?