Dr. Barbara Fontana, PhD
Barbara Fontana, PhD - Psychologist & Imago Relationship Therapist
Suffolk County, Long Island, New York - Couples Therapy

Tips of the Week for Couples

Since I have retired, I will no longer be sending a weekly tip via email or posting one each week on my Facebook page. If you have been receiving my weekly tips, thank you!

Here are some of my favorites:

If you have something important you want to discuss with your spouse or partner, asking “Is now a good time to talk?” can make a big difference. It gives the other person a “heads up” that you want their undivided attention, that this is important to you, that you want them to really listen to you. It also shows that you are respectful of their time and are not assuming that they are available on your time schedule. If your partner or spouse says no, it’s not a good time, accept that and ask for an appointment within 24 hours when he/she will talk to you.

Hugs are very important! Couples who hug and cuddle regularly are more satisfied with their relationship. They feel more emotionally attached to their spouse/partner. Make the effort to hug each other every day, your relationship will benefit. I sometimes give couples a homework assignment to give each other a thirty second hug daily.

Take a few minutes each day to ask each other “What was the best part of your day?” It will give you an opportunity to connect with each other in a positive way.

When you are discussing something that triggers strong feelings, learn to mirror. When you mirror, instead of responding by being defensive or by telling the other person why you disagree, you repeat back what you just heard the person say. It does not have to be word for word but try to get the main ideas without adding your “stuff” to it. When we mirror, the other person feels really heard and respected.

Give your partner one appreciation every day. So often people tell me they don’t feel appreciated by their spouse. Tell your partner how much you appreciate something nice or thoughtful he/she did for you today. Or, tell him/her something about their personality that you appreciate (like their sense of humor or their dependability). Appreciations help us feel emotionally safe with each other.

Make time to have fun together. Couples who laugh and play feel closer and more connected.

Take turns planning a weekly date night. Be creative, it doesn’t have to cost a penny. You can have a quiet dinner at home after the children are in bed. You can dance in your kitchen. You can give each other back rubs or play a board game or whatever you like.

Sexual intimacy is an important part of a relationship. If you find you are too busy or too tired for sex, planning a date for sex can help. It gives you something to look forward to and prepare for. Take turns planning the date in whatever ways you both find romantic and sexual.

Differentiation and togetherness are both important in a relationship. You need time as a couple and you need time as an individual. There will be activities you do together and ones you do separately. There will be values you share and values that are important to one of you but not the other. Learn to accept and respect both.

Poet John Donohue said “bless the space between us.” Think of your relationship as living in the space between you and remember to take care of that space. Everything you say and everything you do affects the space (your relationship): the way you look at each other, the tone of voice you use, the words you speak, the way you touch each other, if you smile, if you roll your eyes, and everything else.

Give up criticism. When we criticize we say something negative about the other person: you are lazy, you are a slob, you are a nag. These remarks are hurtful and often trigger the other person becoming angry and defensive. See the next tip for an alternative approach.

Use sentences that start with “I” rather than “you.” For example, I feel invisible when I come home and you ignore me; I feel angry when I see your clothes on the floor; I would appreciate it if you would call me if you are going to be late so I don’t worry about you.

Make “moments of connection” special. Research shows that certain moments in your day, as a couple, do matter. These are: when you first awake, when you leave for work, when you return home and when you say goodnight. Take the time to greet each other, hug, kiss, look at each other eye to eye or anything else that helps you two feel connected.

Your spouse/partner can read the emotion on your face in a fraction of a second, long before you say a word. Be aware of what you communicate by your facial expressions.

Marriage or a committed relationship is the most intimate of all human relationships. We know our spouse/partner better than anyone else. We can love them deeply or wound them deeply. Choose to love.

Your touch is powerful. Studies using fMRI’s have shown that when partners hold hands, their brains calm down, there is less emotional responding in the brain, they feel soothed and calmer. Try sitting face to face while holding hands and breathe, let your partner’s touch calm you and watch the change in him or her too. Try doing this every day for a week and see what happens or try doing it when you have a difficult topic to discuss.

Ever notice a couple out to dinner and each is on their phone rather than talking to the other person? Psychologist Dr. John Gottman’s research has shown that unstructured moments (like being out for dinner) that couples spend together are an opportunity for conversation, laughter, a shared moment or observation and hold the most potential for building closeness and a sense of connection. When looking at a phone, people miss their partner’s overtures to connect. Try putting away your phone in those unstructured situations and give you and your partner a chance to connect.

Consider this tweet from @HarvilleHelen on 3/31/2016: “You can’t cuddle up and relax with ‘being RIGHT’ at the end of a long day.” Do you stop your partner from being affectionate with you because you insist that YOU ARE RIGHT? Can you be open to the notion that neither of you is right or wrong; you just have different ways of looking at the world sometimes?

Arielle Ford, author, defines a Soulmate as: “Someone with whom you can completely be yourself, share unconditional love with and when you look into each other’s eyes you have the experience of being home.”

Consider these words from Dr. Harville Hendrix’s book, Getting The Love You Want:
“We cannot experience life in its fullness unless we have an intimate relationship with another human being…” If you work on maintaining an intimate relationship with your partner, you will feel more fully alive and whole.

According to Dr. Harville Hendrix, we all have unmet needs from our childhood and look to our partner to meet those needs and help us heal and grow. When we are most frustrated or upset with our partner, it’s usually because he/she is not meeting one of those unmet needs from childhood. The next time this happens, pause and try to figure out what is the underlying cause of your negative reaction. Do you remember feeling like this when you were a child? Share this with your partner to increase his/her empathy for your experiences.

I don’t know anyone who wants to get close to a porcupine. By that I mean someone who often pricks their partner with words of criticism. So often people tell me that they can’t do anything right or are never good enough in their partner’s eyes because they feel criticized all the time. Pay attention to how often you criticize your partner this week and make an effort to stop.

One of the problems I observe in my office when couples are dialoguing (taking turns speaking about a specific concern) is one person “flooding” the other with words. The listener often stops listening when the speaker goes on and on. When you are speaking try to be brief, try to summarize your concern rather than going on and on. This will improve your communication.

In my practice, I often reassure couples that good relationships do take work. I think these words from Dr. Bonnie Eaker-Weil sum it up very well: “Intimacy doesn’t just happen and it doesn’t come ‘naturally.’ It takes time and skill to create a truly close connection. Intimacy means sharing, trusting, confiding in each other, and bonding – without fusing.” If you both keep working on your relationship, it will get better and better.

If you cannot improve your relationship or marriage on your own, seek professional help. I think Imago Relationship Therapy is the best approach for working with couples. You can find a certified Imago therapist near you by visiting: www.imagorelationshipswork.com

Retired Psychologist Shoreham, Long Island | (516) 982-1199