It may seem like the happiest couples who have deep connections, and are highly compatible; don’t put effort into their relationships. This isn’t true! Loving and secure relationships don’t just happen; they take work. I have found in my practice that while there may be a deep love for each other, many people lack the skills and habits to maintain a healthy relationship. What can couples do to help build a secure, loving relationship? Here, are ten habits that healthy couples have.
1. Sending clear signals
Don’t you hate it when you see a concerning expression on your partner’s face, hear their tone and ask them “what’s wrong?” and they say “Nothing!”. It’s so difficult to try to decipher a mixed message. They are saying one thing but you see something very different in their body and face. Secure couples have built habits around sending clear messages. First they have learned how to turn inward to understand what they are feeling. They believe their feelings matter. They practice verbalizing their feelings and reach out to their partner to let them know what they need. They work to send clear emotional signals. Their face, their body, their tone, and their words are all in alignment.
2. Working through conflict.
Conflict is a normal part of being a human; but for some of us, facing conflict can be very difficult. We tend to do one of two things with conflict: avoid it and push it down or we lash out and attack our partner. Neither of these two strategies work well. If we avoid it, we risk developing resentment over time. And eventually it comes out in an explosive manner. If we attack our partner, they tend to get more defensive. This just creates more conflict. Healthy couples have learned how to work through conflict. It’s the third option, the one in the middle – not avoiding and not lashing out. It’s discussing how you feel about the issue in a civil manner and making space for how your partner feels about the issue as well. Secure couples have learned how to make space for various viewpoints and to not let these viewpoints threaten the relationship. Feeling respected regardless of our viewpoint goes a long way to working through conflict.
3. Making space for differences.
You love art museums and your partner loves sporting events. You want to attend church on Sunday, your partner loves to sleep in and lounge on the weekends. You want to save every penny, your partner loves to splurge on travel and adventure. When we are initially attracted to one another we see these unique qualities in our partner as fascinating, intriguing and interesting . We love these things about them because it is different from how we see the world. For some couples, over time these differences can be a source of conflict. For secure couples, they have developed the habit of making space inside the relationship for these differences. They have learned to not be threatened by the differences. Each partner extends themselves in ways that might be slightly out of their comfort zone. For example they might go to an event that their partner chooses and enjoy watching their partner have fun. Our differences are what make us unique. Practice celebrating them in your relationship as it will help you grow together.
4. Identifying negative patterns.
All relationships have patterns of behavior. Sometimes we get stuck in a negative cycle of interaction. We have a communication breakdown that leads to a terrible disconnection. This can happen in all relationships. Secure couples have learned how to notice and identify this negative pattern. They can identify the things they each do to contribute to a negative pattern. For example, “the more I get quiet and pull away the more you feel anxious and come after me”. Healthy couples can slow these conversations down and notice that they have gotten themselves into a negative pattern. They realize that their partner is not the enemy but it’s this negative pattern that is the problem. They may not yet know how to create a positive loving pattern, but identifying the negative pattern is an important habit to develop.
5. Understanding triggers.
Healthy couples understand that they each have raw spots that let them know they are sensitive to something in the moment that reminds them of a past experience that caused their needs to be neglected, ignored or dismissed. As a result they are left feeling unimportant, alone or emotionally deprived. Healthy couples understand this trigger is something that is happening inside of them, not necessarily something their partner is doing to them intentionally. This perspective allows the couple to share in a way that opens up the dialogue in deeper more connecting ways.
6. Having boundaries.
Sometimes people think setting boundaries is being cruel or having an attitude of “it’s my way or the high way”. Instead of thinking either your way or my way, think “both/and”. Healthy couples make space for the needs of both individuals and the needs of the relationship. They practice learning to identify what they each need and they practice reaching toward their partner to express these needs in ways that their partner can hear. Some of these needs might include spending time with friends, having hobbies that are unique to them or having a life of their own. They maintain their individuality AND they nurture the relationship.
In relationships we all make mistakes. We will hurt our partner and our partner will hurt us, its unavoidable. What matters most is how we repair these injuries. Entering into a process of forgiveness is a choice. If you choose not to forgive, you close yourself off and lessen the possibility of closeness and connection. If you choose forgiveness it must be authentic. “I’m sorry that you feel this way” or “Fine…I’m sorry” aren’t the most genuine apologies. Frankly, it’s probably better to keep these apologies to ourselves. Once we can tap into what we are truly sorry for from a sincere place, then our partner can begin to move closer to us.
8. Taking care of yourself.
Healthy couples are made up of healthy individuals. They take care of themselves as a way of taking care of the relationship. Healthy couples recognize that constant stress, too much work, not enough sleep and not taking care of one’s mental or physical health, doesn’t make for a very good partner. In a healthy relationship, both partners recognize that they are responsible for their own physical and mental health.
9. Making intimacy a priority.
We all have days where the last thing on our mind is sex. We find lots of reasons to avoid physical intimacy, such as being too tired, stressed out, or feeling unattractive to our partner. Secure couples have created habits that cultivate physical intimacy and emotional intimacy. They recognize that affection, touching and sex are languages of attachment. For many people emotional intimacy can be the doorway to physical intimacy. For others, the reverse is true, physical intimacy can be the doorway to emotional intimacy. How about for you? What is the best pathway to cultivate your intimacy? What do you wish you could say to your partner about your intimate and sexual connection? What are your fears and longings? What kind of affection do you like? Secure couples have learned how to have conversations about their intimate life and take risks with each other by talking about their needs, fears and longings. They more openly express affection with each other.
10. Creating a mission together.
Couples who have shared values, principles and goals have more meaningful relationships. They have habits of sharing their expectations and desires with each other. Some couples have a formal mission or vision statement other couples have less formal discussions around their mission or vision. Creating a shared mission helps couples clarify their individual needs and longings and help build a long lasting relationship. Here are a few questions to get you started on a mission conversation. What do you stand for as a couple? What matters most to you? What makes your relationship worth protecting? What are your shared goals? What do you hope to accomplish as a couple? How do you settle your differences? How are decisions made? What do you do with your free time? What is your sex life like? How do you make decisions about finances? You may think about your individual answers to these questions and discuss them as a couple. You can write down the ideas that you generate and agree on. Take your time with this topic.
Developing habits takes practice. Maybe you and your partner can pick one or two from the list to work on at a time! If you would like additional help developing healthy habits, check out The Guide to Rewire Your Relationship – practical steps to build connection. This is exactly what you need to identify patterns that aren’t working for you anymore and create new patterns that are based on your specific needs. You can find out more information about The Guide to Rewire Your Relationship here.