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Improving romantic relationships

Author: Dr Simon Moss

Overview

Many activities can enhance the satisfaction and attraction that individuals feel during relationships. For example, after couples are instructed to recall events they recently shared in which they remember feeling positive about each other they feel more satisfied with the relationship. However, if asked to recall events they recently shared in which they remember laughing together, they are even more likely to feel satisfied.

Communication

Reminiscing

Step 1. To improve relationships, couples should be encouraged to recall two events they recently shared in which they remember laughing together and to describe these events vividly. One person can describe one of the events--including their feelings during this episode as well as the aftermath or consequences. The other person can then describe the other event. >Indeed, couples should develop the habit of reminiscing about events they shared that provoked laughter.

In addition, when individual laugh, they tend to perceive specific events or issues from a different perspective (Fraley & Aron, 2004). Therefore, after couples reminisce over events that evoked laugher, they experience a sense of growth or expansion--one of the key goals of relationships. Hence, they feel their relationship has fulfilled some of their fundamental needs.

Consistent with this premise, one study showed that couples asked to reminisce about events they shared that provoked laughter were more satisfied with their relationship than were couples asked to reminisce about events they shared in which they felt positively about each other (Bazzini, Stack, Martincin, & Davis, 2007).

Support

Sharing emotions

Step 1. Individuals sometimes share their emotions with each other.>When your partner expresses anger, you should initially attempt to confirm their perspective. Statements like "I can see what you mean--that is terrible" form a sense of connection and, therefore, facilitate the conversation. However, when your partner expresses regret, perhaps shame over an error they committed, you should not confirm their perspective. Instead, diminish the gravity of this event, using statements like "That could happen to anyone". Alternatively, you could specify how you might respond in this situation. This approach ensures that you can offer advice without denigrating the other person.

When individuals express their anger, they are more likely to appreciate a person who confirms their opinion, with statements like "That person really did act inappropriately". When angry, individuals are not likely to change their course of action or perspective. Indeed, anger had evolved, at least partly to strengthen their motivation towards an obstructed, but plausible, goal (Carver, 2003). They will, therefore, prefer a partner who confirms their perspective.

When individuals express regret or shame, they are more likely to appreciate a person who diminishes the gravity of this event (Wetzer, Zeelenberg, & Pieters, 2007). That is, when regretful, the self esteem of individuals diminishes and they seek solutions to overcome this feeling. They will, as a consequence, prefer a partner who boosts their self esteem, highlighting the problem is not acute, or offers solutions they could apply to solve the issue.

Step 2.  Both men and women should learn to express themselves at the same rate as their partner. For example, if the wife expresses her thoughts and feelings immediately, the husband should seldom if ever delay his responses or opinions until a more opportune moment. Likewise, if the husband reflects carefully upon how he should express his thoughts and feelings, the wife should also defer some of her opinions occasionally.

To illustrate, a man who waits until a more opportune moment before he expresses his thoughts and feelings is more likely to maintain a solid marriage if his wife exhibits the same tendency (Swann, Jr., Rentfrow, & Gosling, 2003). That is, individuals prefer a partner who expresses opinions and emotions at the same rate as themselves. Marital difficulties, therefore, arise when only one of the partners expresses thoughts and feelings immediately. In these instances, individuals who express their thoughts and feelings immediately will feel their partner is withdrawn. Individuals who wait until a more opportune moment--and reflect carefully upon how they should express these thoughts and feelings--feel overwhelmed by their partner. These difficulties are especially likely when the wife expresses her thoughts and feelings more rapidly than her husband.

Divergent forms of support

Sometimes, your partner is stressed, tense, or upset, and needs some form of support. Individuals are often uncertain as to whether they should provide emotional support or advice.

Step 3. If these individuals seem very trusting and open in relationships and friendships, you should offer emotional support--encouragement, understanding, and empathy. If, however, these individuals do not seem trusting and open, you should offer advice--suggestions they could follow--instead.

If individuals are uneasy in close relationships and tend to describe their life at home during their childhood as fine but with no memory of details, referred to as avoidant attachment (see Attachment theory), they feel better after receiving advice but not emotional support from anyone else (Simpson, Winterheld, Rholes, & Orina, 2007). Individuals who are dismissive of close relationships, and hardly even remember the past, do not trust that anyone else will provide support when needed. They like to remain independent, therefore. They will accept advice, however, because such information could boost their capacity to retain independence.

If individuals feel more secure in relationships, and are not unduly sensitive to minor conflicts, they are especially inclined to feel better after receiving emotional support rather than merely advice (Simpson, Winterheld, Rholes, & Orina, 2007). That is, these individuals trust that other important figures in their life will be able to improve their mood when they are stressed and, therefore, respond favorably to acts that are intended to improve their wellbeing and emotions.

Resolving conflicts and frustrations

Choice

Often, individuals would like their partner to change. They might, for example, want their partner to assist in housework or share their feelings more frequently.

Step 1. To persuade someone else to change, individuals should never articulate forceful phrases--phrases that do not grant the other person a sense of choice and freedom. For example, avoid words such as "must" or "need", but instead allude to choice, such as "I'll leave the choice to you". Second, curb any derision towards other perspectives, such as "Any reasonable person would agree that..." Third, avoid absolute allegations, such as " You cannot deny that..." but instead show more balance, such as "There is some evidence that...". Finally, present impartial, objective information, not dire warnings.

When individuals attempt to persuade someone else, but begin with a forceful phrase like "You must agree that everyone needs this product", the other person will tend to reject any further arguments. That is, such forceful phrases tend to encourage individuals to entertain conflicting thoughts--thoughts that challenge the person who has acted forcefully (e.g., Quick & Stephenson, 2008& Silvia, 2006).

Step2. Individuals should not, if possible demand their partner engages in some act. Instead, they should ask their partner, somewhat incidentally, the likelihood they feel they will enact this behavior. For example, they could ask, "How likely is it that you will be able to wash the car next week?"

This practice is more effective if the behavior can be readily imagined. After individuals are asked to estimate the likelihood they will engage in some act, such as perform some chore, they indeed become more likely to engage in this act. This effect of estimating the likelihood of engaging in some act is especially likely to influence the behavior of individuals if this course of action can be vividly imagined. That is, when individuals estimate the likelihood they will engage in some act, they inadvertently simulate this behavior in their mind. These mental simulations then invite these behaviors in the future, when the appropriate conditions prevail (Levav & Fitzsimons, 2006).

Reflections during arguments

Step 3. Whenever employees argue with a close friend or partner, they should immediately identify some of the qualities or strengths of this person. Second, they should form a brief image of an enjoyable experience they shared with this person. Third, they should concede the unpleasant emotions they experience, but highlight they do not entirely understand the source of these feelings. For example, they could assert, "I'm feeling angry, but I don't know exactly why". This strategy curbs their need to conceal their emotions during arguments.

After conflicts and disputes with their spouse, individuals are often unable to remember the precise details, requests, or arguments their partner proposed, especially if they tend to conceal their feelings and emotions. That is, to ensure that arguments do not escalate, some individuals attempt to conceal their anger, frustration, or distress. Unfortunately, individuals who adopt this approach unwittingly focus their attention on their emotions instead of the conversation. As a consequence, they do not remember the arguments their partner proposed. They are, therefore, unlikely to resolve the underlying problems and difficulties.

In contrast, some individuals attempt to focus their attention on pleasant images, such as the desirable qualities of their romantic partner. Before they raise a contentious issue, these individuals often recall an intimate or desirable experience they shared. This outlook encourages individuals to listen carefully rather than defensively. They are more likely to remember, and thus address, the problems their partner identified (Richards, Butler, & Gross, 2003).

Forgiveness

Individuals should attempt to forgive their partner as rapidly as possible& forgiveness has even been shown to enhance mental and physical health (e.g., Witvliet, 2001& see forgiveness) as well as improve relationships. That is, somehow individuals need to be able to relinquish negative emotions, like anger or resentment, as well as feel motivated to reestablish warmth and even hope the other person is happy. Nevertheless, forgiveness is not always easy to cultivate.

Step 4. >Rather than criticize the other person, individuals should merely attempt to communicate the values they cherish. That is, they could emphasize how the other person usually aligns to these values. They might maintain "I was upset, because I really value your openness, which is so important to me. But, I suppose, I wasn't sure you were open that day, that's all".

After individuals reassert their values, they experience a sense of justice (Wenzel & Okimoto, 2010). They feel the situation was fair, and their resentment thus dissipates.

Step 5. >Individuals should, if possible, identify the anxieties or concerns their partner experienced that might have prompted the behavior you did not like. They should attempt to clarify the motivations of their partner. Perhaps, their partner was feeling unconfident and, therefore, acted defensively. The individuals should then consider how they can help their partner overcome this anxiety or concern.

This exercise provides two benefits. First, the individuals will experience a sense of empathy. Second, the individuals will feel a sense of power or control. Both empathy and power tend to promote forgiveness (McCullough, Rachal, Sandage, Worthington, Brown, & Hight, 2008& Karremans & Smith , 2008, cited in Karremans & Van Lange, 2008).

Activities

Novelty

Step 1. Each week, if possible, couples should together engage in activities or experiences that are exciting or novel--something that neither individual has undertaken before. They might, for example, visit a place, attempt an exercise, learn a skill, or engage in some other activity that is novel and expands the repertoire of experiences. Studies have shown that couples who engage in exciting and novel tasks together are more likely to experience relationship satisfaction and passionate love (Lewandowski & A. Aron, 2004& see The self expansion model).

The yearning to grow and expand is key motivation in humans (A. Aron & E. N. Aron, 1986). That is, as a consequence of this motivation, individuals inherently enjoy novel, exciting, and challenging activities, which promote this growth and expansion. Romantic relationships, especially with someone who is different to the self (Aron & Aron, 1997), can fulfill this desire to grow and expand. Individuals begin to associate the positive emotions associated with growth with the relationship.

Personal development

Many mental exercises or activities that enhance personal wellbeing also tend to improve relationships. Hence, individuals are often especially motivated to engage in these activities, because they fulfill many purposes.

Relaxation exercises

Step 1. Each morning or evening, if possible individuals should sit quietly, with their eyes closed, and focus their attention towards their breath for several minutes. They should then attempt to cultivate the feelings they usually experience towards someone they love unconditionally, perhaps a child. These feelings might include a sense of warmth, love, kindness, and excitement as well as hopes for this person.

Next, they should learn to direct each of these feelings or thoughts towards themselves. They could, for example, imagine themselves from the perspective of someone else, working, relaxing, socializing, or playing for example. They can then direct feelings of warmth, love, kindness, or excitement to this image.>Finally, they should apply the same feelings or thoughts to images of their romantic partner--and eventually to their friends, their acquaintances, or even strangers.

This form of meditation has been, scientifically, shown to promote many benefits such as improvements in wellbeing, relationships, and health. Because each meditation varies marginally across days, each experience is unique, and hence the positive emotions that are evoked do not dissipate with time. In contrast, some enjoyable activities become fairly predictable and the benefits thus diminish.

This form of mediation, and the corresponding positive emotions, has been shown to improve awareness and involvement in life. Second, these emotions increase the capacity of individuals to identify opportunities to solve problems, called pathway thinking. Third, individuals do not feel overwhelmed by their current responsibilities. Furthermore, illness declines and positive attitudes towards the self escalate. These benefits arise because positive emotions broaden the focus of attention, shifting this focus from only threatening or difficult features (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008).

Sexual attraction

Clothes and accessories

Step 1. Red clothes or red accessories--or even a red background--has been shown to increase the likelihood that individuals are perceived as attractive. A red feature wall in the bedroom, for example, could enhance sexual attraction.

Men tend to perceive a woman as more attractive if she is wearing some red clothes (Elliot & Niesta, 2008). Indeed, even a woman stands in front of a red background, she is perceived as more attractive. That is, men tend to associate red in women with sexuality. For example, concepts such a the lady in red, lip stick, and red light districts all reinforce this association--an association that might have evolved from the increased blood flow that coincides with ovulation in primates. Furthermore, preliminary evidence indicates that men who wear red clothes or accessories might be perceived as more attractive by women.

Resolving distress after relationships end

Step 1. After relationship end, each partner should consider precisely two other individuals in their social network with whom they could, potentially, form a relationship. They should not attempt to identify more than two individuals. Specifically, individuals can, usually, complete this exercise readily. They will, therefore, experience an almost unconscious sense they could probably establish relationships with more than two individuals. This optimism has been shown to reduce distress, especially in individuals who are especially sensitive to rejection (Spielmann, MacDonald, & Wilson, 2009).

If they strive to imagine 10 or so individuals with whom they could form a relationship, their optimism actually diminishes. That is, they cannot perform this exercise as readiy, and their confidence in attracting another partner wanes (Spielmann, MacDonald, & Wilson, 2009& for resolving distressing emotions, see Alleviating unpleasant emotions).

References

Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1986). Love and the expansion of self: Understanding attraction and satisfaction. New York: Hemisphere.

Aron, A., & Aron, E. N. (1997). Self-expansion motivation and including the other in the self. In W. Ickes, (Section Ed.) & S. Duck (Ed.), Handbook of personal relationships: Theory, research, and interventions 2nd ed., Vol. 1 ( pp. 251--270). London: Wiley.

Bazzini, D. G., Stack, E. R., Martincin, P. D., & Davis, C. P. (2007). The effect of reminiscing about laughter on relationship satisfaction. Motivation & Emotion.

Carver, C. S. (2003). Negative affects deriving from the behavioral approach system. Emotion, 4, 3-22.

Elliot, A. J., & Niesta, D. (2008). Romantic red: Red enhances men's attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1150-1164.

Fraley, B., & Aron, A. (2004). The effect of shared humorous experience on closeness in initial encounters. Personal Relationships, 11, 61-78.

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1045-1062.

Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 228-245.

Karremans, J. C., & Van Lange, P. A. M. (2008). Forgiveness in personal relationships: Its malleability and powerful consequences. European Review of Social Psychology, 19, 202-241.

Levav, J., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2006). When questions change behavior: The role of ease of representation. Psychological Science, 17, 207-213.

Lewandowski, G. W., & Aron, A. (2004). Distinguishing arousal from novelty and challenge in initial romantic attraction between strangers. Social Behavior and Personality, 32, 361-372.

McCullough, M. E., Rachal, K. C., Sandage, S. J., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Brown, S. W., & Hight, T. L. (1998). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships: II. Theoretical elaboration and measurement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1586-1603.

Richards, J. M., Butler, E. A., & Gross, J. J. (2003). Emotion regulation in romantic relationships: The cognitive consequences of concealing feelings. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 20, 599-620.

Quick, B. L., & Stephenson, M. T. (2008). Examining the role of trait reactance and sensation seeking on perceived threat, state reactance, and reactance restoration. Human Communication Research, 34, 448-476.

Silvia, P. J. (2006). Reactance and the dynamics of disagreement: Multiple paths from threatened freedom to resistance to persuasion. European Journal of Social Psychology, 36, 673-685.

Simpson, J. A., Winterheld, H. A., Rholes, W. S., & Orina, M. M. (2007). Working models of attachment and reactions to different forms of caregiving from romantic partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 466-477.

Spielmann, S. S., MacDonald, G., & Wilson, A. E. (2009). On the rebound: Focusing on someone new helps anxiously attached individuals let go of ex-partners. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1382-1394.

Swann, Jr., W. B., Rentfrow, P. J., & Gosling, S. D. (2003). The precarious couple effect: Verbally inhibited men + critical, disinhibited women = Bad chemistry. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 1095-1106.

Wenzel, M., & Okimoto, L. G. (2010). How acts of forgiveness restore a sense of justice: Addressing status/power and value concerns raised by transgressions. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 401-417.

Wetzer, I. M., Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2007). Consequences of socially sharing emotions: Testing the emotion-response congruency hypothesis. European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 1310-1324.

Witvliet, C. V. O. (2001). Forgiveness and health: Review and reflections on a matter of faith, feelings, and physiology. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 29, 212-224.



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Last Update: 6/22/2016