The 3-Step Plan to Building a Better Relationship

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This article first appeared on Happify

In an earlier piece, I spoke about three unhealthy dynamics that can play out in intimate relationships. These dynamics are often based on the beliefs we developed in our early years and inhibit our ability to form relationships of trust and genuine connection.

But here’s the great news: We can, with the help of our romantic partners, change any negative patterns we may have fallen into due to events from our early years. By building trust and forming a healthy bond, we can not only enhance our relationship but also our own growth and well‑being. Here’s how.

Step 1: Be Present with Your Partner

It may sound trite, but take a moment to think about how often you’re truly present with your partner. Being truly present means not having your eyes glued to your phone throughout dinner or spending a date night worrying over a work problem. When your partner talks to you, are you tuned in to their emotions, or simply waiting your turn to offer a solution or share your own story? In her book Ambiguous Loss, Pauline Boss, Ph.D., says that these seemingly mindless habits create a gap between physical and psychological presence and make our partners feel unseen and unwanted. And that’s perhaps the worst feeling of all.

Luckily, building connection doesn’t mean we have to engage in Herculean efforts to prove our love. John Gottman, Ph.D.’s research on intimate relationships has found that trust is built in those small moments when we put our concerns aside and show up with empathy. You can begin with tiny changes, like looking at your partner when they talk to you. This one act helps you read their body cues and thus tune in to what they really want from the conversation (and it’s often just your emotional presence).

Inner work: Are you present with yourself and connected to your own needs? Can you tell when you’re tired? Are you able to name the emotions you’re feeling? If not, a regular practice of body scans and/or mindfulness can help.

Step 2: Judge Less

Think about the times when your partner shared that they were having a tough day or were stymied by an issue they needed to solve. Were you truly listening, or were you waiting for them to finish so you could fix the problem? Are you often critical of them when they struggle; or worse, do you ignore their challenges because you don’t believe they’re capable of solving them? Judgment is common in people who fall into the avoidant and disorganized attachment categories because we tend to judge others if we were once judged for our physical or emotional wants or needs.

In my coaching work, I’ve found that almost all of us (barring true narcissists) can overcome judgment by building curiosity. If you tend to be overly critical of your partner’s behaviors, try asking yourself: “What would I say to myself if I were their advocate?” This doesn’t necessarily mean agreement or approval. But it does help you see where they’re coming from. If, on the other hand, you tend to take a harsh view of their capabilities, start noticing and valuing their strengths and virtues. Think of three things you admire about them. It will help you see them as whole individuals. Next time they share something difficult with you, ask yourself: “How will I respond in this moment to help them be their best self?”

Inner work: Almost always, the extent to which we judge others grows from the way we judge ourselves. Do you value your own abilities and goodness as a person? Or do you doubt yourself and avoid situations where you may not be able to shine? Can you identify and own some of your strengths?

Step 3: Set Boundaries

In her book Dare to Lead, Dr. Brené Brown talks about the importance of boundaries in building trust. Boundaries are about letting your partner know how you want to be treated in your relationship. If you’re not sure, think of times when you wanted to say “no” but instead said “yes” for fear of making them upset. This is especially critical if your attachment style is ambivalent or disordered, because you may be letting your partner dump their emotions on you or get away with demands and behaviors that make you feel resentful.

The best way out is to reflect on which one of your values is being compromised when you do so. This knowledge gives you the strength to convey your boundaries without blame or criticism. But here’s the catch: It’s up to you to make sure your boundaries are respected. All too often, that’s where we fall short. We expect our partners to change overnight, and feel angry when we have to remind them. If you appreciate their efforts instead, you make it far easier for them to change.

Inner work: It’s not always easy to respect our own boundaries. I’ve often reverted to old patterns of pleasing in order to avoid the discomfort of speaking up for myself. Again, it is connecting to our values that helps us overcome underlying fears of rejection.

Here’s the magic that happens as you practice these three relationship-building skills: You strengthen the safe base of companionate love, which allows you to be vulnerable with your partner. Esther Peres, renowned couples therapist and author, says that healthy relationships are a perpetual dance between seeking stability and pursuing novelty. When you feel secure, you’re able to imagine your partner in exciting new ways, instead of getting triggered every time they chew loudly. You become creative in expressing yourself, and thus reignite the passion that every romantic relationship needs, yet few have once the initial spark is over.

Don’t wait for a special occasion. Commit to building this safe base so you can dance between stability and novelty every day, not just once a year.

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