In conversation with Kate Thompson - a couple psychoanalytic psychotherapist, faculty staff member and clinical lecturer at Tavistock Relationships, where leading training programmes in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychosexual Therapy are offered.
Every couple goes through relationship ups and downs. Being part of a couple is an unending, ever-developing process: so it takes ‘work’. Research shows that relationships are important for a sense of general well-being and good health – for the couple themselves and that of any children they may share. Investing in the health of intimate relationships, checking that both partners’ needs are largely being met, accepting each other’s differences, having regular, open communication together, carving out time for each other and negotiating the balance between being two individuals AND a couple, are all important to think about.
Below are some simple truths that can increase a sense of closeness and mutual pleasure in a relationship, as well as help a couple to understand each other better.
- Saying 'Thank You' - Despite the length of a relationship, saying 'thank you' is important. Some couples assume the other knows they are grateful but ‘thank you’ is a magical phrase that can unlock important feelings of validation - two things that make being in a relationship rewarding. It prevents feelings of being taken for granted and creating resentment. It creates a benign cycle between partners, encouraging ‘the giver’ to repeat a generous act – even if it is just unloading the dishwasher or making a cup of tea in the morning.
- Noticing a partner and giving an authentic compliment - Again, to counter feelings of being taken for granted, a relationship can be boosted by a well-placed compliment. It’s normal to have doubts about being desirable and loveable at times, so promoting a partner’s self-esteem with a comment about a detail of their appearance or behaviour you have noticed and like, can benefit relationships positively.
- ‘Playing’ - Adults laughing and ‘playing’ has all kinds of health benefits, from easing stress, countering depression and boosting positive mood: they release hormones that can increase a sense of wellbeing. Research reveals that most people look for a good sense of humour in their ideal mate and sharing a sense of what’s funny affirms an intimate relationship – so trips to a comedy show, watching a funny film together or doing something light-hearted can increase a mutual sense of pleasure in life and each other.
- Talking and creating new understandings - Seedlings need daily attention, watering, feeding and removal of dead leaves to flourish and grow. If we use this as a metaphor for a relationship, what is the equivalent in terms of nourishing it, with the knowledge that it’s constantly developing, along with the two.
Making assumptions about a partner’s thoughts and feelings is a common trap in long-term relationships that can often lead to misunderstanding and conflict. Instead, taking time out to ask open questions and considering a partner’s needs, rather than automatically falling into standard routines, can transform a relationship. Questions like, “That’s what I think but what about you?” or “I might have got this wrong, but are you unhappy about something?” demonstrate that a partner’s thoughts and feelings are important. Being attentive to the other’s needs, alongside one’s own, is a crucial part of relating.
- Accepting and tolerating difference - Compromise is essential in every relationship. Both partners must adapt and learn to accept the other’s difference, tolerate it and, at times, even embrace it. Stepping momentarily into a partner’s world to think of something that makes them happy, can strengthen a relationship. Planning a date around a partner’s favourite hobby or interest can create positive feelings of being valued and thought about, a sense of intimacy and security in the relationship. There needs to be some level of mutuality around these ‘generous’ acts and both partners’ needs can’t necessarily be met at the same time. A patient approach and confidence that there is ‘time enough’, as well as turn-taking, are ways to cope with differences that some couples arrive at.
- Team work - Every day stressors stack-up within everyone and the majority of people are oblivious to the resulting ‘weight’ they are carrying around. It can be helpful for partners to get to know not only feelings of stress mounting up within themselves, but also in their partners. Helping each other with even small domestic tasks, is a way of understanding another’s struggle, minimize blame and create more time to relax, with a shared sense of accomplishment.
- Coping with stress and increasing self-care - Exercising is healthy for both mind and body, but also great for boosting relationships and reducing anxiety, whether it be walking, cycling, dancing or swimming. The added bonus, as well as boosting physical and mental health, is a shared sense of endeavour and of self/couple care.
- Balancing the tension between being two individuals AND being a couple - Exclusive time together as a couple is key, despite the everyday demands of life. Finding a balance between individual pursuits, work, friendships, couple and family time needs constant renegotiation for couples. Carving out space for the relationship reaps dividends. Conversely, experiences and stories from separate activities and friendships can also be bought back and shared in a relationship. Replenishing couple space with individual experiences can ease a sense of couple pressure to be ‘everything’ to one another.
- Remembering and sharing stories of the past - Processing and thinking about good times spent together, remembering with warmth or excitement a particular break or celebration can help a couple recall their shared history and commitment. It can serve to remind them why they are together and why a relationship is worth the work that goes into it.
- The recipe of a relationship - Couples can get to know the vital ingredients needed in their relationship to create their own unique couple ‘recipe’. For some, sexual intimacy comes top of the list while, for others, honest communication and time with family. Whether it is guarded couple space, loyalty, mutual friendships, daily exercise, individual ambition or shared dreams, if one of the vital ingredients is missing for a length of time, a couple might come to recognise the relationship is starting to feel more strained. Perhaps a rebalancing and renegotiation needs to occur?
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