When it comes to a lasting relationship, falling in love is the easy part. Cultivating a relationship for the long term takes patience, communication, and sometimes a little outside help.
This Valentine’s Day, we caught up with Bozeman, MT based relationship counselor Blair Anne Hensen. In addition to running her private practice, Blair runs outdoor wilderness workshops for couples, families and groups. She occasionally writes relationship advice for local and national magazines , and is actively working to minimize sigma around emotions, mental health, and relationship issues.
We called up Blair to get her top five tips for couples cultivating long-term partnerships. Here’s what she had to say.
1. Stay curious
Whether you’ve been together for a year or 20 years, one of the most important things partners can do is ask each other questions. “When we’re dating there’s so much excitement and newness,” says Blair. “We’re asking questions and exploring. Then, our brains start to automate each other as we become familiar with our partners . When this happens it is easy to forget to be curious. Most of the time couples get stuck [in their communication] is when they stop asking questions and they just assume things.”
Staying curious can keep couples connected and feel like you’re going on that first or second date again. “What are the things you’re learning about yourself in the world? How are your goals changing now that you’ve been in your job for 10 years?” Blair suggests. “We are multifaceted people and we have lots of different things that we’re doing, especially in this era. There’s often so much we can get to know, but we forget because we just assume we know each other.”
2. Seek new experiences
In line with being curious is trying new things together. There’s even a chemical benefit– it helps release dopamine (the neurotransmitter that makes us feel excited) and balances serotonin (the long-term reward neurotransmitter).
“During the height of pandemic restrictions,” says Blair, “I think people’s dopamine levels actually dropped because they were not doing new things like traveling or eating new foods." Only seeking dopamine comes with its own issues and shouldn't be the sole focus of the relationship but it does play an important part "It’s like going to the gym instead of eating a cookie. The gym is going to create serotonin, and the cookie is going to create dopamine.” It’s important to maintain a balance of both.
3. Be on the same team
It may seem like a given that couples would inherently be on each other's side, but it’s helpful to check in and affirm this by practicing empathy and validation. Empathy, Blair shares, is feeling with each other and understanding your partner’s experience, and validation lets your partner know they are safe to feel those feelings and that they make sense.
“Empathy expressions can look like: I can really understand what you’re saying, or it makes sense that you feel really angry at your coworker.” This includes being empathetic even when it’s over conflict within the relationship.
Validation requires stepping out of your experience and into your partner's, even if the complaint is your behavior. An example is, "I can see why you are angry I have been home late this week, even when I said I would be home." All too often, we jump into a defensive stance, and that automatically splits the team.
“It’s not our job to tell our partners that their feelings aren’t right or aren't correct. We can help perspective-take with each other and help draw questions. But our goal is to be on the same team and not be teaching or holding each other accountable in certain ways, except for when it comes to the relationship.”
4. Agree on how you manage thirds
A third isn’t necessarily literal–as in a third person–but it is an entity (or many) outside of a relationship.
“I think of it as a couple bubble,” says Blair, citing relationship researcher Dr. Stan Tatkin. “The couple bubble is this protective two-person team and anything outside of the ‘coupledom’ is a third. Work can be a third, our kids can, our best friends and extended family.” Oftentimes, thirds can be the things that pull the couple bubble apart, which means they need to be managed.
“Think about the principles that guide your relationship. For some couples, they can agree that work is a third that comes first, then the relationship. The guiding saying in the couples world is as long as you both agree on how you’re managing your thirds, there are usually no problems. The minute that somebody decides differently, you have a relationship problem because the agreement has been shifted and it's up for negotiation.”
When it comes to negotiations and our thirds, Blair says the goal is mutually shared benefits and avoiding resentment. “I hate the word ‘compromising’ with couples. It’s about negotiation. Any decision a couple makes benefits both partners in a way that they’re satisfied so that resentment doesn’t get carried. Resentment comes from unexpressed, unresolved issues and it threatens relationships.”
5. Accept each other where you are
“Back to curiosity,” says Blair, “we change. Our bodies change, our capacities change, our individual interests and values change all the time. I hear so often from couples, ‘you’re not the person I married anymore’. If you expect each other to change in a specific direction, you’ll always be disappointed. You have to accept each other as you are at the point of the relationship and where it is. If you don’t, there’s going to be constant turmoil. Then we’re creating these fantasies or ideas about each other and trying to push or control each other into that. And that hurts.”
One way to foster acceptance is by requesting and sharing feedback like, ‘I really love it when you do this,’ instead of ‘you used to do this, but why don’t you any more?’ Use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’, and focus on finding ways to change and adapt with each other.
The relationship you create with your partner is uniquely yours, and just like anything we create, it requires care, attention, and support. (Sidenote: LifeLabs was born of a thriving relationship, between founders Dr. Yi Cui and Meng Sui.)
One of the final things Blair suggests is to take really good care of your relationship. If you notice you are getting stuck in patterns or conflicts, seek support, just like you would if you had a physical injury that wasn't healing. Don’t let each other stay in distress for long–repair quickly, and stay intentional with your relationship care.
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