The Best Relationship Advice No One Will Tell You
I f you only read one blog post that explains what the best relationship advice you could get is, let this be it.
I am going to share with you the most effective relationship advice I have discovered (in all my time as a couple therapist). I will also give you one easy, practical tip that you can use, right away, to build a better relationship.
To illustrate how this advice works, I first need to share with you what my family life has been like for the past week.
In less than seven day’s time, my computer stopped working (a problem for an online couple therapist), my eldest daughter decided she no longer wanted to go to dance OR kindergarten (a problem for parents in desperate need of a break from children), and my youngest daughter of 22 months developed a blister-like rash on her nose, initially diagnosed as herpes.
While life with young kids is never a walk in the park, this was a particularly difficult week.
Luckily, with the help of AppleCare, bribery, and a second-opinion diagnosis of impetigo, we were able to take the stress in my cortisol-drenched home down a notch.
Losing our cool
How did I keep things together between my wife and me? My kids and me? Myself and me?
Well, to answer that in the simplest way – I didn’t.
This takes me back to cortisol.
If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a hormone that the brain releases when we are faced with stressful situations, elevating the heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, respiration and muscle tension (doesn’t that sound like a fun time??).
I have experienced its effects before, and I got well acquainted with it again.
Let me tell you, it’s not a hormone I enjoy having dumped in my bloodstream when I’m under tremendous stress.
I can still hear the word ‘herpes’ ringing in my ear and thinking that I’d completely failed to protect my not-even-two-year-old daughter from viral infections – which, in retrospect, makes me think I can’t actually.
But, when you’re under a tremendous amount of stress or come to learn devastating news, do any of us really have the wherewithal to think rationally?
Did I actually think I could prevent my daughter from picking up a cold sore virus? The same daughter who likes to share her soother with other children at her daycare?
The short answer is no.
Stop the self-blame
There is nothing I could reasonably do to prevent this kind of viral or bacterial infection, but to a parent, self-blame becomes the order of the day.
I bet you’re probably asking: what does this have to do with me giving you the best relationship advice you’ll ever receive?
Here it is: in a previous blog posts, I talked about how our ability to put our best foot forward is completely dependent on our external situations – especially after kids arrive on the scene.
Our role as a life partner has as much to do with our personal well-being as it does our interpersonal well-being.
When we find ourselves under extreme pressure or stress (like financial), our ability to relate well with others becomes infinitely harder.
Now, I won’t quote some neuroscience and start talking about the size of our pre-frontal cortex.
Why? Because, I’m systemic in my thinking and believe that neuroscience doesn’t do a good enough job of explaining our ability to relate to others or our circumstances.
In fact, we know more about outer space than we do our the human brain so, until scientists can point to the exact cause or reasons of our logical and emotional responses, I will err on the side of systems-thinking (here’s a brief description by GoodTherapy.org) and give the benefit of the doubt to the circumstances in which we find ourselves as the foremost mitigating factor in determining how we relate to others.
Calmness and patience out the window
Okay, back to my story and why it relates to the best relationship advice you’ll ever hear me give.
During the last week, the calm and patient Jonathan had exited stage left and in his place was the short-fused, emotionally charged parent fighting to keep his two children apart in order to prevent another cross-contamination of the ultra-contagious herpes virus.
Let me tell you, it is a monumental task to keep two sisters from sharing cups, popsicles and soothers (yes, my five year-old still wants her sister’s).
It was ridiculously difficult to stop them from kissing each other, touching each other and hugging each other too closely.
To say the least, I was on edge for five days straight – being hyper-vigilant for that amount of time is exhausting.
“My question for couples is when each partner is exhausted – and I mean truly tired because of work, stress, parenting – is it really possible to put our best foot forward in our relationship? Can we be there for our partner when we can’t even be there for ourselves? This is why we need to cut ourselves some slack.”
Keeping cool under stress
Amazingly, the one area in my life where I kept it reasonably together was my relationship with my wife.
Our ability to relate to one another during this incredibly stressful time was under pressure. It definitely wasn’t perfect. We had a few minor moments of bickering.
But, we held it together. We were still patient despite the stress of illness and potential financial loss (from my inability to work online).
Much of our success as a couple in working through this past week has to do with the best relationship advice I have, and here it is: give your partner credit for all the good things they do, say and generally bring to the table.
That’s right, just give credit where credit is due.
“The best relationship advice I give, when asked, is to not just thank your partner, but to tell them explicitly what they’ve done that you appreciate, and be generous in allocating responsibility for things going well.“
For husbands who are socialized not to express their emotions, giving your partner credit is a twofold process.
It goes beyond saying thank you.
Notice that my best relationship advice for couples was not to say thank you more?
That’s because thank you is said by all of us many times throughout the day.
Sure, our partner will appreciate hearing the words ‘thank you’.
But, what is so much more formidable than a simple thank you is telling your partner why you are thankful.
The importance of the ‘why’
The key to relationship success rests in the why.
This a controversial statement for me, as I’ve explained in previous posts that I never ask the question ‘why’.
So, please give me a little latitude here.
Why is ‘the why’ in thankfulness important?
The why is important because it conveys the meaningfulness of our partner’s actions to us.
It explains what difference it makes in our life that our partner undertook this action.
It tells our partner in complete detail what they did well and why it would be great if they do it again.
The power of smiling
Why is this an effective strategy for couples? One worth using in a relationship?
Let me answer that with a question:
Have you ever noticed what a person does if you tell them exactly what it was that they did to make you be happy and thankful?
You guessed it, they smile.
Second question: what happens when someone smiles at you? Most likely, unless you’re terribly unhappy, you smile back.
This is your practical, easy relationship tip for today: incorporate more smiling into your everyday exchanges with your partner.
Smiling can be the glue that binds us together with our partner.
It is the number one most important facial expression we use when relating to our partner.
With a smile, we can melt a heart, warm a soul and send a message that we care.
The beauty of a smile is that it is simple, easy and the muscles we use are fewer than when we frown. In fact, there is “magic in our smile”– it actually leads to healthier lives – go figure!
Simply bringing more smiling into your interactions is one of the most effective things you can do for your relationship.
Can you guess how my wife and I kept things together while we awaiting the news that our daughter’s blood test came back negative for herpes?
We smiled through it all.
And can you guess what we used to prompt those smiles most often?
We told each other why we were thankful that we were in each other’s lives.
Keeping relationships intact
In doing so, we kept our relationship intact and solidified our logical and emotional responses towards one another in a positive way – or at least the most positive way possible.
This past week tested my relationship with my wife and children immensely.
We got through it.
But, isn’t the point of life more than just surviving? Shouldn’t we be thriving?
I know that’s hard to do when you’re raising two young children without much familial support.
But, one thing that makes things infinitely easier is to give our partner credit.
Let them know why it is exactly that you are thankful and watch the smile stretch across their face.
Personally, I have a lot of practicing to do when it comes to giving my wife credit. I dispense this as the best relationship advice I can ever give, yet often times fail to heed that very advice.
So, yes, I know what you’re going through and how hard it is to keep a relationship together.
I don’t think I need to remind anyone that relationships and life are full of challenges.
But, I promise, when we are smiling more, somehow, the challenges seem a little easier to face and rising above them a little easier to accomplish.
I will not oversimplify relationships and tell you that giving credit (and smiling more) will solve all your troubles.
But, doing so feels a whole lot better than frowning.
And try building a better relationship with a frown. I doubt you can.
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About the Author
Jonathan Van Viegen is a full-time online therapist and relationship coach helping adults and couples improve one of the most important relationships in their life – the one with their partner.
Jonathan’s approach has helped 100’s of clients struggling to maintain a lasting, loving relationship while navigating the challenges of parenting.
Jonathan’s goal with this blog is to offer you a behind the scenes look at his life to show that it is possible to create the kind of relationship you desire – using simple skills that anyone can learn.