The Do's and Dont's of a Healthy Relationship, According to Couples' Therapists
Valentine’s Day is a great time to shower your loved one with perfume, massage oil or other go-to gifts to love. But it can also be a great time to check in, take the temperature of your relationship, and reflect on how to create a stronger, lasting connection. We asked three local couples' therapists about behaviors they consider potential red flags, what can be done about them, and how to avoid them—because “no one teaches us a lot of this stuff,” says Charles Davenport, of Davenport Psychology. And as a result, “we tend to get defensive when issues arise," he says.
Ditch These Behaviors for a Better Connection
"Right fighting is saying, 'Here's why I’m right,' and listing the reasons why, instead of asking yourself, ‘What is the other person saying?,’" Davenport explains.
Generally, we all want validation. "Say, 'I see it differently. Do you want to hear how?'" he suggests. "When they say 'yes,' you have a captive audience."
The Blame Game
"Blaming leads to defensiveness and that never helps," says Joann George, a licensed clinical social worker who's been practicing for roughly 40 years.
"You have to look at what works for you and what doesn't," she says. Once you discover that, find a way to talk about it. For example, if someone is always late, say, "When you’re late, it makes me feel this way" instead of "You don’t respect me or my time."
Speaking in Absolutes
"Saying, 'You always do this and never do that' is what I call 'fast thinking,'" says Brett Sondag of the Center for Revitalizing Psychiatry. "Fast thinking is often a trauma response, versus slow thinking, which uses more attention and is reality-based. When I hear those absolute terms, I ask [patients] if that’s coming from their fast thinking or slow thinking, so they can clarify their words."
Embrace These Behaviors
“You have to be active in keeping up with the relationship and intentional about checking in regularly," says George. "Call to ask 'How are you doing?' That leads to better relationships, especially with couples who have been married for 20, 30 or 40 years. Don't take the other for granted."
Sounds simple, right? Not always the case. “When couples argue, they can get flooded with emotions," says Davenport. "They can't hear what's being conveyed because that anger actually changes the blood flow activity in the body, and we get defensive." If you’re feeling like that, take at least 20 minutes to come back to a place where you can think more clearly, he advises.
“Usually when I work with couples, if I ask one person a question, the other person is already figuring out how they want to respond," George adds. "That means they haven’t really heard much. Listening is all about figuring out what this person is trying to tell you."
Leading With Feeling
“Speak from feeling and belief," says Sondag. "Start from, 'I feel this when you do that. Or, 'I believe this.'"
You can disarm each other by stepping into the other's shoes. That doesn't mean you see it their way necessarily—"it just means you’re listening and communicating more effectively,” says Sondag.
Sticking to the Facts
“You have to agree on who said and did what before moving forward. Part of that is language and some people use language to mischaracterize the situation. You can't see the facts if you’re in defensive or offensive mode. Slowing down with responses helps,” Sondag says.
“I talk about courage—the courage to tell your partner that you care about them but that you need something, or feel something about certain behavior," says George. "When you care about someone, that's hard to do and it can get put off, but that’s when issues build and can get ugly."
Appreciation feeds respect. "It often takes one person to do it first, and the other person is flattered, which can often feed a healthy cycle,” says Sondag.
“In its simplest form, do what you say and say what you do. Don’t make empty promises," George says. For example, don't commit to something when you know your schedule is tight and it may not work out. Keeping your word builds trust, which is one of the biggest challenges couples face.
Getting Real About the Deal
People talk about relationships as transactions—and to some extent, it’s true, says George. "If you feel like you're working to understand your partner, then you will want to feel that they're doing the same for you. I think that’s human nature."
For example, if a bank loans you money, you agree to pay it back. The same thing happens in relationships. "The more we can talk about that so one person can figure out if they can provide the same value, then the more they can figure out how the relationship can work,” George says.
Red Flags to Watch Out For
Abuse covers a wide spectrum, from emotional to physical. One good way to think of it: "It's toxicity and showing disrespect in some way—or at least the other person receiving it as such,” says Sondag.
Attraction to Others
"Being attracted to others without being attracted to your partner is high risk," says Davenport. Ideally, you would notice the change and talk about it, he says.
Lack of Courtship
“One red flag, with men in particular, is when they're pursuing sex without wanting to date or give to the other person," says Sondag. Relationships need courtship to stay alive.
An Uptick in Arguing
We all argue, but if you see a notable increase in the frequency or intensity of your arguments, without identifiable reason, it’s worth talking about and seeking help, Davenport says.
Finally, remember the importance of connection. “You will never learn as much about yourself alone, as you will in a relationship," says George. "That's because you have to compromise, and everything won’t always go your way. That’s why connection is so important. If you can get that, every day is Valentine’s Day."