It's getting to be that time of year where the days get shorter, the pumpkin spice latte rears its whipped cream noggin again, apple picking adventures start clogging your newsfeed, and new romances blossom between lovebirds looking to settle down before the long winter. Yes, cuffing season, whether you're familiar with it or not, is in full swing. To help us survive this year's dating Olympics and to avoid the dreaded holiday breakup, we spoke to Jean Fitzpatrick, a New York-based relationship therapist, about several ways to establish a strong relationship with someone or work on keeping things afloat if you're already successfully, uh, cuffed. Find her tips and suggestions, below.
1) They accept each other's differences.
"In an intimate relationship, what looks like a communication problem is more often a difficulty accepting one another as two different people. When we first fall in love we finish each other's sentences. We can hardly believe we have met this person who totally gets us. But the real work of relationship—and what keeps it alive—is creating an emotionally safe space where we can connect authentically, as the people we really are."
2) They carve out time in their schedules for each other without any distractions.
"Take time each day to sit down together—devices out of reach and television off. Sometimes couples put their relationship on autopilot. They feel secure in it and they use it as a "home base" from which to focus on all the other aspects of life—work, children, friends, surfing the net—that are important to them. Time together is essential, not time side by side on the sofa gazing at screens, but time doing fun or interesting things together, just as you did in the early days of the relationship: explore a new neighborhood, cook dinner together, try a new sport or hobby."
3) They set up guidelines for tough conversations.
"Couples can work toward this by setting ground rules: no interrupting, set a time in advance for challenging conversations rather than having them in the heat of the moment, agree on a "time out" word either partner can use when they are too stressed to remain calm."
4) They use constructive communication in disagreements.
"Rather than talking about your 'needs' in an argument, share your inner experience of a situation with your partner. For example, if your partner is always late, avoid saying 'I need you to be on time,' and instead say, 'When you're late I get worried we'll lose our dinner reservation.' Your partner is more likely to respond when not being told what to do."
5) They consider ways to work better as a team.
"When you're unhappy with an aspect of your relationship it's easy to point the finger at your partner and his or her faults. It's usually more constructive to first consider what you might be bringing to the situation. The next step is to sit down with your partner and get curious together about how you end up bouncing off each other so badly. Usually one person's weak point is triggering the other's, and everybody's too reactive. For example, a woman who worries her partner doesn't find her desirable anymore might withdraw from him, sleeping far apart and avoiding contact. He then concludes that she isn't interested in him and stops pursuing, which only confirms her original fear that he doesn't want her. Each of these partners is reacting to the other, and both of them feel rejected. If they can sit down and talk about it without attacking, something beautiful can happen."
6) They work on being more mindful partners.
"In order to have difficult conversations, you need to take responsibility for getting calm enough to talk, rather than yelling or shutting down. Self-soothing techniques are an essential part of your relationship toolkit. What helps you calm down? Regular exercise and meditation both help lower your overall stress level. At a moment when you're stressed out by a relationship issue, try taking a walk around the block, getting into the shower, doing yoga breathing, or cooking or baking something that smells delicious. Agree on a "time-out word" with your partner so that either of you can soothe yourself rather than have an argument get too heated. Be sure to agree on a time when you'll resume the conversation."
7) They act as a support system for each other.
"Showing up at important work and family events is one way to show support for your partner. Listening when he or she talks about an accomplishment at work or a situation involving a friend is important. Ask a question. Don't give unsolicited advice, but ask if your partner would like help problem-solving. Recognize that relationships between family, friends, and partners may be uncomfortable or awkward at first but can grow over the years."
8) They balance time for their partner with time for other hobbies and friends.
"Finding friendship and meaning outside the relationship gives you more to bring to it. You have experiences to talk about, and you find fulfillment that doesn't depend on your partner. With couples today very busy, it's a precarious balancing act, and couple time is very important."
9) They make efforts to keep the romance alive.
"If you've been in a relationship for a while, get past being goal-oriented. Agree for a couple of weeks to refrain from intercourse and devote time to exploring touch and building desire. Focus on being generous with small gifts, compliments, and attention."
10) They remember to show appreciation and find new ways to connect with the other person.
"Express appreciation to your partner for a character trait, an accomplishment, or a household chore. Share a hope or a dream—a trip to Bali next year or a picnic in the park next weekend. Now invite him or her to do the same. By choosing to connect in a meaningful way you are creating a 'cushion of safety' that helps you both feel loved and affirmed in the relationship."
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