When the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, we all turn to one another for a kiss and we celebrate. But New Year’s Eve rarely goes by without most of us taking stock of how the year has been, and thinking about what we hope the new year will be.
We review the events that made the news, rate the best songs and movies, and then we inevitably turn to our own lives. We think about the joys and sorrows of the past year, who has left us through death or breakups, who has arrived in our lives, and we take stock of our health status. We haul out our list of goals and resolutions made in the past and measure our status against them, and we set new goals for our lives in the coming year. Most people pursue this kind of self-examination ritual at year’s end.
But very few of us sit down with our partner, the most important one in our life, to have a love check-in. In this article, the Center for Relationship Wellness will make suggestions on creating a positive process to bring you closer to your partner and address difficult issues in a constructive way. We’ll present some helpful questions to ask and topics to explore, and bring you some checklists to make the process easier for you. Finally, we’ll make some recommendations for resolutions to ensure that next year is the best one yet for your relationship.
Let’s Get Started
It’s no secret that successful relationships take work. Everyone has misunderstandings, distractions, and conflicts, and it takes commitment to bridge the gaps between us when they occur. One gift the holidays give us is the time for one or more intimate conversations to check the vitals in our love nest. But where do you start?
The most logical place to start is to share your reflections about your own life with your partner. Under ideal relationship conditions, you would already be fully aware of one another’s current status, goals and most important, life dreams. But the rush of every day always seems to get in the way, what with jobs, kids, extended family and other challenges life throws our way. So instead of plunging into an intense conversation, how about preparing yourself by just sticking a toe in first?
The perfect way to start would be a more lighthearted warm-up question and answer session like this one from Psychology Today that will let you deepen your ties. So pop some popcorn, brew up a pot of coffee or hot cocoa, get cozy with your partner, and have at it:
- Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
- Would you like to be famous? In what way?
- Before making a phone call, do you ever rehearse what you’re going to say? Why?
- What would constitute a perfect day for you?
- When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
- If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you choose?
- Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
- Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
- For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
- If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
- Take four minutes and tell you partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
- If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?
- If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
- Is there something that you’ve dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
- What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
- What do you value most in a friendship?
- What is your most treasured memory?
- What is your most terrible memory?
- If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
- What does friendship mean to you?
- What roles do love and affection play in your life?
- Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
- How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
- How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
- Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “we are both in this room feeling…”
- Complete this sentence “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
- If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
- Tell your partner what you like about them: be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
- Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
- When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
- Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
- What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
- If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
- Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
- Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
- Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
As you dig into a check-up of your relationship, you’ll find it’s much easier to target the areas that are working well. But if you can address the issues that need attention without getting agitated, it’s entirely possible you and your partner can unite to generate new understandings.
To help you both in this process, we’ve found a questionnaire called The Relationship Checkup to give you lots of fodder for discussion:
The Relationship Checkup is a list of 11 points that will help you evaluate your relationship. These points are based on recent research completed separately by psychologists Judith Wallerstein and Dr. John Gottman (see Suggested Reading, last page). Check off the statements that apply to your relationship, and you will quickly gain a sense of the strengths and the opportunities for improvement.
1. People in successful, long-lasting relationships invested themselves fully in the relationship. While they have positive relationships with their parents, siblings, and other relatives, they are not overly involved with them. Some signs that you have a healthy relationship with your family (not too close, not too distant) include:
__ Your families visit when invited.
__ Their visits are short but satisfying.
__ You speak with family members by phone, but not too often.
__ Family members give advice when they are asked.
The following are some signs that your family may be too involved in your life. This can create problems in your relationship over time.
__ Your family members visit too often.
__ They stay too long.
__ They telephone frequently.
__ They give unsolicited advice.
__ They drop in unannounced.
2. People in successful relationships have their own identity as a couple. There is a feeling of both togetherness and independence in the relationship. If you have developed an identity as a couple, the following things are most likely true:
__ You feel loyal toward each other.
__ You listen carefully to each other.
__ You know each other’s histories.
__ You pay attention to each other’s moods and body language.
__ You share your thoughts and feelings.
__ You allow each other a private space and don’t intrude on it.
__ You respect each other as separate, autonomous people.
If you have not fully developed your sense of identity as a couple, you will recognize signs like these:
__ You are sometimes disloyal toward each other.
__ You don’t listen carefully to each other.
__ You don’t know very much about each other’s pasts.
__ You ignore each other’s moods and body language.
__ You keep your thoughts and feelings to yourselves.
__ You sometimes invade each other’s private space.
__ Even though you may live in the same house, it sometimes seems like you are living parallel lives.
3. Bringing children into a relationship changes it radically. Couples with children learn to successfully integrate them into their relationship. Positive signs include:
__ You accept that there are times when you must place your own needs after the needs of your child.
__ You do your best to stay in touch with each other emotionally and nurture your relationship.
__ You set aside time every week for the two of you to spend time alone together.
The following signs indicate that you have not fully integrated children into your relationship:
__ You resent the times when you must put your child’s needs ahead of your own.
__ You are overly focused on your child.
__ You have lost touch with each other emotionally.
__ You hardly ever find time to be alone with your partner.
4. Every relationship is challenged by crises and life transitions. Losing a job, a death in the family, a serious accident, or other significant event can test any relationship. If your relationship has successfully navigated life’s crises and transitions, the following statements are most likely true:
__ You never blame each other for the stress that comes with the crisis.
__ You face difficult times as a team.
__ You look for ways to support each other emotionally.
__ You help each other keep your perspective when there is a crisis.
__ You seek outside support during times of crisis (talking to friends and family, seeing a counselor, etc.).
If the crises and life transitions have done harm to your relationship, you have probably experienced the following during the difficult times:
__ One partner seems to emotionally abandon the other.
__ One partner blames the other.
__ One partner becomes extremely angry, worried, or anxious.
__ You don’t seek support from people who could help you.
5. Successful relationships are safe places where anger, conflict, and differences may safely be expressed. Each partner is allowed to have and express their own views. The following signs point to this being true:
__ You have had serious conflicts, but you have not allowed them to damage your relationship.
__ You respect the other person’s right to stand his or her ground.
__ You may find anger uncomfortable, but you accept that it is a part of life.
In relationships where it is not safe to express conflict, the following things are true:
__ Your conflicts have harmed your relationship.
__ You disagree about many things but never talk about them.
__ You both try to intimidate the other into agreeing with your point of view.
__ Anger is so uncomfortable that you avoid it.
__ There are no limits to what you will do when you become angry.
6. Successful long-term relationships have a positive sexual component. The partners take care to protect their sexual relationship from the demands of work and family. The signs of such a relationship are:
__ You sometimes have different levels of sexual need, but you make room for each other’s changing levels of desire.
__ You are honest with each other about your changing sexual desires and feelings.
__ You set aside time for your sexual relationship and protect your privacy.
__ If a sexual relationship is less than satisfying, the following statements are true:
__ You find it hard to talk about sex.
__ Sex is like a battlefield.
__ You never have time for sex.
7. Successful partners share laughter and fun times, and work to maintain their mutual interests. For example:
__ You have fun together.
__ You make each other laugh.
__ You find each other interesting.
__ You each have your own interests that you pursue on your own.
If your relationship is becoming stale, you will tend to describe it like this:
__ You rarely have fun together anymore.
__ You don’t laugh much when you are together.
__ You are bored with each other.
__ You avoid spending time together.
__ You have few shared interests.
8. Relationships that last are safe places where you can let down your guard and be vulnerable. You know you can count on the other to comfort and encourage you. If this is true, you might describe it as follows:
__ It is okay to be vulnerable when you are with your partner.
__ You understand each other.
__ You encourage each other.
__ You pay attention to each other’s moods and respond when the other seems needy.
If your relationship is not a very safe place, the following is probably true:
__ It is not safe to be needy and vulnerable in your relationship.
__ You exhaust each other’s emotional reserves.
__ You don’t pay attention to each other’s moods.
__ When you are worried about something, you avoid telling your partner.
__ You feel worse about yourself when you are with your partner.
9. People who have successful long-term relationships stay romantic and idealistic about each other, even though they are growing older. These are some of the signs of such a relationship:
You have good memories of when you fell in love with your partner.
You are glad to be growing older with your partner.
If you have lost some of the romance of your relationship, you are likely to agree with these statements:
You can hardly remember the days when the two of you first fell in
Seeing your partner grow older makes you feel badly because it reminds you that you are growing older.
10. You have far more positive moments in your relationship than negative ones. Some signs of positive moments include:
__ You show affection for each other.
__ You apologize for the hurtful things you may say or do.
__ You show each other empathy.
__ You are polite to each other.
Examples of negative moments include:
__ Your discussions often leave you feeling frustrated.
__ You often pick on each other.
__ Many of your conversations turn into arguments.
__ You behave disrespectfully toward each other.
__ You are physically violent with each other.
11. People in successful relationships are able to manage conflict productively. They are skilled at keeping times of discord from getting out of control. For example:
__ You call a time-out when your emotions escalate.
__ You know how to calm yourselves down.
__ You take care to speak and listen nondefensively.
__ You take care to validate the other person’s point of view, even when you disagree with it.
Couples in less successful relationships allow conflict to become damaging in the following
__ You blame each other.
__ You treat each other disrespectfully.
__ You deny responsibility for your own actions.
__ You become so angry that you leave or emotionally withdraw.
Number of items you checked in the [positive] areas:
Number of items you checked in the [negative] areas:
Ideally, you checked no items in the [negative] areas. If you checked more than five, you have some opportunities to improve your relationship.
New Year’s Love Prescription
You and your partner have done the hard work to take stock of your relationship’s health. Hopefully you’ve carefully sidestepped any land mines, and have come out of the process with a greater understanding. You can now appreciate and give thanks for the blessings, but have pinpointed areas where there is work to be done.
It may be relatively easy for you both to know the goals you want to set now. But the challenge is how to make the new behaviors stick. To get you both thinking along these lines, this excerpt from Woman’s Day offers some new ways of thinking about things by presenting seven resolutions:
“The great thing about relationship resolutions is that once you see a result, you activate reward centers in your brain, and you’ll naturally want to continue,” says Deborah Anapol, PhD, relationship coach and author of The Seven Natural Laws of Love. Here, seven relationship resolutions—and how to make them stick.
Resolution #1: Be more understanding of my partner’s faults.
So, you’d like to switch off that nagging gene and let the little things slide (such as socks on the floor)? Good idea! “No man wants a partner who nags him, and no woman wants to be that type of woman,” says Julie Spira, dating/romance coach…
How to make it stick: Every time you’re about to let loose with a “You always/You never [fill in the blank],” stop yourself and ask, is it worth the argument? Instead, sit down with your partner and make a list of things that you’ll agree to nudge each other about, like paying bills on time or getting the car inspected, and agree to let the rest go.
Resolution #2: Have more/better sex.
Would it help you to know that virtually all couples want this? “For a lot of women, the problem is they’re not satisfied with the sex they’re having, and they either complain about it or avoid it altogether,” says Dr. Anapol. For men, there’s often ego involved—men want to feel they’re good at pleasing their partners.
How to make it stick: The key to a more active, satisfying sex life is to make it a priority, says Dr. Anapol. Set aside time to talk about how you can improve the situation—preferably not when you’re in bed after a long, tiring day. “Find something you like and appreciate about what your partner does, and tell him what that is. Then follow that up with a request.” For example: “I love when you reach out to cuddle me when we get into bed. Can we spend more time doing that before we move on to sex?”
Resolution #3: Find happiness outside of my relationship.
Sure, you want to lean on your lover when times are tough, but when you’re too needy, it can be a turnoff. “We’re all more appealing when we have our own lives and are confident and feeling good about ourselves,” says Spira.
How to make it stick: Think of things that used to make you happy that you don’t do as much anymore, such as taking art lessons, practicing piano or even just seeing movies your partner doesn’t enjoy—and do them. Make dates with your girlfriends, join the softball team at work, whatever. “Live your life as though it’s not wrapped around his,” suggests Spira. Having interests and experiences that have nothing to do with each other means you have more to bring to the relationship.
Resolution #4: Increase my gratitude for my partner.
There has been research that shows that the biggest difference between happy and unhappy couples is that the happy pairs express gratitude for each other, says Dr. Anapol. Expressing thanks creates a feedback loop: Your partner feels good, which makes you feel good, and so on…
How to make it stick: You’ve heard of keeping a gratitude journal for yourself, so why not create one for your relationship? “It doesn’t need to be a daily thing, but maybe once a week each of you can write down a few things you’re pleased about and want to thank your partner for,” says Spira. Like, “I’m grateful that you took the dog for a walk on three early mornings,” or “I’m grateful that you didn’t say anything about how much time I spent on the phone with my sister.” Then share it with each other. You can express gratitude physically, too. Did he get up and clear the dinner dishes without a word, letting you sit and read a magazine? Give him a hug at the sink.
Resolution #5: Be a better listener.
Here’s a perennial female complaint: The men in their lives have what they call “selective hearing.” But being a good listener has to be mutual—maybe he didn’t “hear” you when you asked him to get the laundry out of the dryer, but you didn’t listen to him when he wanted to vent about his boss.
How to make it stick: When there’s something you want your partner to hear, ask him if he has 5 minutes to talk so you both can focus on the subject at hand. Shouting “Listen to me!” is sure to get the other person to shut down, but sharing a few minutes of mutual active listening gets results, says Spira.
Resolution #6: Show more interest in my partner’s life, work and interests.
Are you feeling guilty because you’ve been doing a lot of nodding and smiling as your partner tells you about his favorite sports team or latest work project? “It’s easy to fall into a rut,” notes Dr. Anapol. Why? We assume, wrongly, that the people we love stay the same, but they don’t. No one does; what we enjoy, what we think about and what makes us tick changes all the time.
How to make it stick: “Try to notice things your partner is doing, and comment on them,” suggests Dr. Anapol. For example, “I see you were reading that finance magazine; I didn’t know you were interested in that. Tell me about it.”
Resolution #7: Institute a date night.
Busy couples, especially those with young children, always say that they’d like to make their going-out habit more regular, but too many keep it at the bottom of their to-do list. Date nights (or date afternoons or stay-at-home dates after the kids are in bed) are important, not so much for what you do, but for the ritual. By making dates regularly, you acknowledge that your romantic life is just as important as your job, parenting, household responsibilities, and so on.
How to make it stick: This may seem like a no-brainer, but the way to keep this resolution is to…just do it. “You have to create a day per week or every couple of weeks, and honor it,” says Spira. “Take turns choosing an activity. Try some date-night foreplay, like sending an email or leaving a note for your partner saying how much you’re looking forward to it.” And though regular dates, especially when they require a babysitter, can get expensive, you can find ways to cut costs. “Look for local listings of free or low-cost events, like an art opening or free concert, so you can spend your date-night budget on the sitter,” suggests Spira.
Your Resolutions for More Love This Year
The next step is formulating your understandings into resolutions. The Center for Relationship Wellness recommends that you write down each area that needs work, along with a positive resolution for improvement you each can commit to.
After you state your resolution, be sure and include several ways you will be able to observe and measure the results of your work toward your mutual goals. We also recommend revisiting the list on a regular basis throughout the year, so you can stay on target and make progress you’ll be able to see clearly at the end of next year.
Finally: Need a Skills Refresher?
You may discover during this process that you’d both like to brush up on your communication skills. If a weekend getaway is a possibility, consider our two-day couples workshop, The Art and Science of Love (ASL), presented by Dr. Don and Carrie Cole. Here’s how we describe it on our website:
Unlike many couples counseling retreats, we do more than simply suggest ways to enhance your relationship, we offer real practical help for couples struggling with conflict. Research has taught us that conflict is universal in intimate relationships. Success in our marriages and intimate relationships hinges not on the absence of conflict, but on healthy conflict management. In this workshop, you will learn practical tools to help improve your conflicts:
- What are the four relationship “killers” and how to make them better
- How to process an argument and come to a sense of healing and forgiveness
- How to soften the way you bring up a problem with your partner
- How to repair your conversations when they get off track
- How to deal with the “gridlocked conflicts” which seem to never get any better
We’ve also learned that successful couples have found ways to listen to each other’s dreams and deepest needs. The Art and Science of Love workshop gives you an opportunity to share those dreams and to listen to your partner’s so that you might have a better chance of making those dreams come true. That’s a lot to cover in two days but the vast majority of those who attend marriage retreats and learn new couples therapy exercises report significant improvement in their relationship over time.
To see our ASL workshop schedule and register, click this link:
If a more affordable option is desired, we recommend reading the following books by Dr. John Gottman:
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert
The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships
Happy New Year to all our readers! Wishing you a year of fulfilling connections!