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Let's just be real here: No relationship is picture-perfect. Even the couples who look like they are doing everything right might have some problems. Whether you're in a long-term relationship or just started dating someone, there are probably some things that you and your partner should work on. Issues—who doesn't have them?
While relationships are not exactly perfect (and honestly, wouldn't that be a little boring?), there are ways to work on them and address any problems or issues you're both facing. But you've got to be realistic and recognize that it's going to take two things: time and effort.
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To help, we chatted with Laura Heck, LMFT, who teaches the Seven Principles Leader Training Program at the Gottman Institute and co-hosts Marriage Therapy Radio, to get some tips to improve your relationship. Just remember that each circumstance is different and not every couple has the same issues, so all of these suggestions might not exactly fit your situation to a T, but maybe you'll find one or two that can help.
1. Be Me-Focused
You might have read that and thought, "That sounds selfish!" But let us explain. "The thing that I find quite often with couples is that when they come to see me as a therapist, they're usually so focused on what their partner is doing and how they're falling short in their relationship, and so they become very other-focused," Heck says. "So one of the very first things that I do with couples is that I help them to become so much more me-focused and focused on themselves because in reality there's really a locus of control, and that's just with yourself and how you can shift your own personal dynamic or mindset in the relationship."
That might mean thinking about what YOU can do to improve your relationship or what YOU can do for your partner or what YOU need from your partner.
2. Recognize Bids for Connection
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This sounds very fancy and like therapist-speak, but it really is just understanding when your partner is looking for attention or wants to be acknowledged. "One of the things that we really noticed with couples is that there are all these tiny little moments that happen throughout the day, and they're called these bids for connection," Heck explains. "We're constantly bidding for our partner's attention or affection or humor, conversation, whatever it might be, and they're happening all throughout the day."
A bid for connection can be something as small as your partner talking about the weather and you commenting back about it. You could turn toward your partner when they're making a bid or turn away from them. And this also plays into the first tip: "When we begin to focus on our own personal mindset, it really is about shifting and looking for those opportunities to turn toward your partner," Heck says. "That's kind of a major player when it comes to working with couples, you don't have to necessarily increase the times where you're reaching out to your partner, but you do have to be able to recognize it and interpret that your partner's making a bid and that they're making a positive gesture in the relationship."
3. Focus on the Small Moments
I love romantic comedies, but they have really conditioned a lot of us to think big gestures are EVERYTHING. So thanks a lot, classic movie trope of someone running through an airport before their loved one boards a plane and leaves their lives forever. Or when someone takes over the mic during a big event to profess their love. Insert classic romantic movie climax scene here. You get the gist.
But since we live in the real world, the smaller moments seem to matter most. "There doesn't necessarily have to be a whole lot of action," Heck explains. "Sometimes we think that we need to pour a lot of energy and action into our relationships, like that we need to go all out on Valentine's Day. But realistically, it's not those massive gestures that have the biggest impact. It's really the day-to-day ones. It's those small, tiny little moments that are happening."
Heck brings it all back to the bids for connection idea we talked about above: "Really, it's just about recognition that when you begin to look for your partner's bids for connection, you have the opportunity to turn toward them. It's not a huge gesture, but it's the frequency and consistency that matters."
4. Think About What You Like or Love About Your Partner
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Heck says this idea is especially helpful in long-term relationships where contempt or a feeling of superiority might creep in. She gives an example of thinking you're a better tipper than your partner and starting to think they're selfish because of that. It's about having rose-colored glasses on if you're in a new relationship versus what Heck says are "shit-colored" glasses in longer relationships of 10, 15, 25 years. The honeymoon phase might be long gone, but that doesn't mean it's worse.
While you can't exactly get back those glasses from the early days, you can shift your thinking. "A kind of antidote to that is trying to focus your attention on what you love and adore and appreciate about your partner, and becoming super mindful that there are qualities that you love and appreciate about your partner, and just really reminding yourself that there may be differences, but it doesn't mean you're better than your partner," Heck says.
5. Have Daily Check-Ins and Rituals
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If your communication skills have taken a back seat, a daily check-in or creating some rituals can help. This is especially helpful for couples who have a lot going on in their lives, whether they have busy jobs and schedules or are being pulled in different directions because of their children.
"I really love for couples to be able to have these daily rituals of 'What is it that we're talking about? Are we having a check-in conversation where we're going to cross our T's and dot our I's and have that shop talk of just the overall function of the household?'" Heck recommends. "Then we're going to create a ritual where we just talk about our dreams and our hopes and really meaningful topics that are going to help to deepen that connection and intimacy."
6. The 2 x 2 x 2 Rule
This rule is all about scheduling quality time and sticking to it. "Every two weeks, you take a date night for a minimum of two hours. Every two months, you're going to get away, and you're going to do an overnight. And then every two years, you're going to get away for a week," Heck explains.
7. The 3 x 3 x 3 Rule
"The three by three by three helps you to establish healthy individual time as well as together time," Heck explains. For couples, this means you spend three hours a week nourishing yourself, which might mean a night out with your friends or getting a massage or exercising by yourself. The other three hours is respecting your partner's alone time or individual time. And the last three hours are spent as a couple—and it doesn't have to be all at once. "It might be 30 minutes every night that just kind of consistently happens, or it might be a date night, or it might be a lunch that you meet up with, but it's a really good way for you to think about how to schedule your time together and how to schedule your time away from one another to nourish yourself."
8. Turn on Your Desire
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This is a way to help with intimacy problems, like if find that you are blaming a lack of time on your inability to have sex. Or maybe you feel like you're not in the mood or they're not in the mood. If you can't sync up when you both want to have sex, that could be an issue—especially for couples who have been together for a long time. So it's all about figuring out what turns you on, what turns your partner on, and discussing it with each other.
"We're so mismatched as human beings," Heck says. "It's very difficult. It's almost like flipping coins. How often are you and your partner going to both flip your coins at the same time and land on heads and magically both be desiring intimacy and sexual intimacy together? It's very rare. So if you happen to flip your coin and you land on tails, you might be thinking, 'Okay, I might not feel desire at this moment, but at least I know how I can turn desire on.'"
Heck says spontaneous desire doesn't happen all the time, so it helps to be intentional.
9. Talk About Your Sexual Fantasies
Heck recommends this for newer couples who might not know each other well: "If we can break down that discomfort or that barrier of talking about your fantasies, I think it could be really great for a couple to be able to explore different ways that turn each other on and give you endless ways to please one another."
This one's another tip for newer couples, and it's similar to the daily check-in and ritual we talked about earlier. This can help you sync up your schedules, especially when you aren't too familiar with each other's availability yet. "I think it's really good to just plan ahead, talk about what's going on, talk about how you can prioritize time with one another," Heck says. "I think oftentimes at the root of romance is feeling like you're important to your partner and you're not an afterthought. What I want couples to get ahead of is feeling like they're not an afterthought, but instead they're really intentionally protecting and making that time on their calendar for their partner. It's a good idea to have clear communication earlier rather than later."
10. Have a Designated Time to Talk About Schedules
This is another idea for newer couples, but it can also apply to long-term relationships, too. "I think that it's really helpful to be able to just give yourself a good foundation of saying, 'I didn't get a manual on this, I'm going to be super proactive and just understand how I can be the best at loving this person,'" Heck says.
And from there, she says, you can do your research on ways to improve and grow your relationship, like reading books, watching TED talks, attending workshops. "Just like any new skill that you want to develop, you have to put energy into doing it, and you can't just limp along and be self-taught," she explains. "I think you have to be really intentional about finding good information and trying to apply that information."
11. Realize There's No Manual, But There Are Ways to Develop