Just as the seeds we plant in our gardens need cultivating to grow, relationships need tending in order to flourish. This cultivation is a continual and evolving process in every relationship; however, it’s easy to get mired in a cycle of stagnation or even negative sentiments when relationships get difficult. In an effort to help couples bring back the positive and nourish their relationship through closeness, I often encourage them to try the following exercises. Recommended by some of the nation’s leading relationship experts, these exercises can help bring you closer together by enhancing your connection, communication, and appreciation.
1. Create rituals of connection.
In his book The Intentional Family, William J. Doherty describes “rituals of connection” as an important tool for successful relationships. A ritual of connection is a pre-planned, regularly scheduled event that involves focusing on another person. Rituals can be simple events, but should be well thought out so they can be counted on to occur regularly. Take into consideration when the ritual will occur, how often and where it will happen, which partner will initiate it, etc. One example of a ritual of connection is saying goodbye before leaving the house for the day. Will there be a hug or kiss? Will there be time for chatting or just a quick goodbye? Couples can decide which rituals to create together and include in their lives using this exercise. These rituals can become traditions and ensure that connections occur even on the most hectic days.
2. Use intentional dialogue.
According to relationship expert Harville Hendrix, “Couples are able to create stronger relationships by first becoming more aware of just how deeply interconnected they are.” His four-step intentional dialogue exercise can help you work through disagreements or issues that may arise. Hendrix’s four steps include 1. mirroring (listening to your partner without distorting their thoughts and feelings); 2. validating (learning to pay close attention and understand your partner’s truth); 3. empathizing (putting yourself in your partner’s shoes); and 4. giving a “gift.” Hendrix explains that the “gift” starts with asking your partner if you can make a request and then asking for what you need (“May I have a hug?” or “Can you tell me one thing you appreciate about me?”). Your partner should comply, and if you keep working at giving each other these types of “gifts,” a dynamic shift should begin to occur, leading to more productive communication. You can learn more by reading Hendrix’s book, Getting the Love You Want.
3. Express appreciation.
In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, renowned clinical psychologist and marriage researcher John Gottman, along with author Nan Silver, reveals what successful relationships look like and teaches activities to help couples strengthen their own relationships. One of these exercises is called “I Appreciate.” It is very easy for people to lose sight of the positive in their partner and in their relationship. In the “I Appreciate” exercise, couples are asked to look at a list of characteristics and find three that are characteristic of their partner. Once they each choose three, they are asked to think of an actual example that illustrates that characteristic in their partner. Then, partners can share their thoughts with each other and express why each characteristic is valued. You can check out this exercise and the complete list of characteristics on gottmanblog.com. In most relationships, there are times when finding something positive to say seems hard. Think back to good times and draw from the emotions you started your relationship with, if needed.
The process of tending to your relationship through exercises can sometimes feel unnatural, especially if your relationship has suffered a “dry spell” from emotional closeness. Stay focused and see them through—in a short time these exercises will feel natural, and the feelings of connectedness they create are well worth the effort as you rediscover one another in a fresh new light.