Ask the Expert

How can I make my relationship happier and healthier?

Wayne Altman, an associate professor of family medicine at Tufts School of Medicine, gives us his prescription
April 27, 2012

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As a family physician, I have the privilege of caring for couples who have been together for several decades. I often take the opportunity to ask them about the keys to a healthy, happy, long-lasting relationship. Here are the most important lessons I have learned from these patients and my own family over the years:

Be willing to sacrifice some of your wants and needs. Take pride in your willingness to compromise and put aside your need to be right. This also means that you need to have a higher threshold for voicing disapproval of your partner’s behavior. Being more tolerant of each other makes your everyday life a lot more pleasant. Whatever habits your partner has right now that annoy you, count on them getting worse—not better—as you get older. Learn to tolerate your partner’s quirks and identify your own, so you can try to keep them in check.

Spoil each other. You know best how to make your partner happy. Do it as often as possible. This applies to many areas. If your partner is trying to be healthier, be healthier with your partner: cook him or her healthy food. If your partner is a sports fanatic or likes romantic movies, indulge him or her by attending them together occasionally. When you do this, do it with a spirit of joy, not resentment. You know what your partner likes sexually (at least you think you know). Talk about sex with your partner and be good to each other.

"When two people feel safe enough around each other to let themselves feel vulnerable, this is how a relationship grows to places you never thought possible." Illustration: iStockSay nice things about your partner in public. Doesn’t it seem sometimes like the whole world is trying to tear you down? The one person who should never do that is your partner. Don’t criticize, tease, insult or ridicule your partner in front of others. Make your partner feel safe, that you always have his or her back.

Create an atmosphere of safety. If you can make each other feel safe, it allows both of you to take risks. When two people feel safe enough around each other to let themselves feel vulnerable, this is how a relationship grows to places you never thought possible. This is how two people who have known each other for many years can learn new things about each other and add intimacy and freshness to their relationship.

Communicate respectfully and honestly, with the goal of reaching real resolutions. A disagreement without resolution is pain without the gain. How do you fight with your partner? Do you fight to win or do you fight to resolve? If you are fighting to win, you end up losing. Winning the fight really does not matter. What matters is that you both understand why the other is angry and what you each can do differently in the future to avoid conflict.

Know that your partner may try very hard to avoid this behavior in the future and will still not be perfect. As you see an improving trend, have tolerance for some occasional transgressions. And, when you fight, speak the truth. If you are in the midst of a big fight, and if it seems like you are stuck with this conflict, I recommend an exercise that almost always helps: Each partner should make a list of what he or she could have done better, what mistakes he or she made and what he or she will do differently next time. If you want, you could turn this into a contest to see who can have the longest list. Sharing your lists with each other can be an effective tool to begin resolving the conflict.

Never say “I told you so.” This utterance humiliates the other person and almost always makes them defensive, which will only make things worse. How do you feel when someone says “I told you so” to you? Have discipline and resist the incredibly strong urge to tell your partner that you were right. Remember, it is not about being right. If you get really good at this, you and your partner will practice what I call the “anti-I told you so. This means that when you are wrong, admit it freely as soon as possible and acknowledge your partner.

“Honey, remember when you told me if I ate that, I would feel sick? You were right. I do not feel good at all. I will listen to you next time.”

“Sweetie, remember when you told me not to mess with that person at work and that only bad things would come of it? You were right. I got into a big argument with him, and my boss is angry with me. I will listen to you next time.”

Try saying this: “You were right. I should have listened to you. I will next time.” It takes strength, but if you do, you will see good things happen in your relationship.

An apology is an act of generosity and a demonstration of commitment. A high-quality apology can have an enormous positive impact on a relationship. Aaron Lazare, the former dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has a fantastic formula for an ideal apology: Remember to own up to your mistake, acknowledge the pain it caused, show remorse, explain your actions and when appropriate, make reparations. The lack of an apology or a poor apology (“I’m sorry you feel that way”) can be quite toxic to a relationship. Who is better at apologizing in your relationship? If it is not you, try to get better at apologizing. Feel free to refer to Lazare’s formula when preparing your apology.

Have clear roles and expectations. Don’t share all responsibilities. Having defined roles is more efficient and less stressful than trying to be in charge of everything. Trust your partner with some things, and let your partner trust you with others. By doing this, life becomes easier for both of you, and your trust in each other builds.

Go to sleep together and wake up together as much as possible. This habit restores your connection with your partner on a daily basis. It also may help you improve the quality and quantity of your sleep, which is an extremely potent tool in dealing with stress. Less stress is always a positive thing for your relationship.

Maybe tonight you could cook your partner a nice dinner, review these strategies and start talking about how you can do some of these things—or even one of these things—better. Remember to focus on what you can improve. Give of yourself.

Invest in your relationship. There is no greater dividend in life than a nurturing relationship. Nat King Cole said it best in his 1948 song “Nature Boy”: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

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