Chances are, no marriage is without bumps in the road. Committing fully to another person—regardless of the love you have for them—can be tough. You agree to stay by their side through better or worse, but few of us can envision what that really means until we’re in the thick of it. Spoiler: Marriages take work—a lot of it.
"Partners in a couple can grow together, but it rarely happens at precisely the same time," psychosexual therapist Geoff Lamb tells Brides. There will always be ups and downs, peaks and troughs, and so you need to work on your relationship skills.
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"One partner is usually more aware of what isn’t working in the relationship than the other," adds Lamb. "This doesn’t matter if the second partner is open to listening and being responsive to the issues involved. Continuing to be curious, both about your partner and yourself is an ideal way of sustaining a long-lasting relationship."
Essential Relationship Skills
Whether you’ve just said "I do" or been at this marriage game for years, building your relationship skills will help strengthen your bond. So, what do you need to keep things moving? Here are six top traits.
Are you only seeing one side of the story? "One of the techniques I use in couple therapy is called 'circular questioning' where I ask one partner about the other’s experience of, say, something that’s happening between them," explains Lamb. "It has several purposes, but to feel compassion, you need to be able to put yourself in your partner’s shoes. Your ability to do this depends both on the level of communication between your sensitivity to other peoples’ feelings and experiences."
"One of the causes of impatience in relationships is, I find, that each of the partners wants the other to be like themselves," says Lamb. "Patience involves making space for your partner to be the way they are; negotiating the way your partner impacts you at a feeling level rather than at a 'this is how it or you should be' level. Being curious about why your partner sees the world the way they do, and also about the feelings that this brings up for you, will help in this and, again, help you to grow in the relationship."
"Teamwork, by definition, involves cooperation and this usually means compromise," says Lamb. "Surprisingly, many couples who come to me for help with their relationships list 'teamwork' as one of the positives in their relationships. Compromising is easy." At least, most of the time.
"The difficulty comes when you have to make a decision and you each have strong feelings about it. These kinds of decisions are usually binary. The resolution of this comes down to communication. When each partner has had the opportunity to express their feelings, had them listened to and taken seriously, the decision becomes less significant to both. Each feels valued by the other and the relationship becomes more important than getting your own way."
No one is perfect—not even your partner. "In a relationship between two fallible human beings, both partners are going to get things wrong on a regular basis," says Lamb. "The important thing is how you deal with this in your relationship, and forgiveness is crucial here. What makes forgiveness difficult is any kind of rigidity or holding. Assuming we’re talking about mistakes, forgetting, carelessness, etc. (in other words, the usual human failings which form part of any relationship), the problem can be in the meaning we attach to these things and also how we communicate them to our partner."
The key to forgiveness could be avoiding attaching your own narrative to your partner’s actions. You might not know the facts. "When we construct a story about our partner’s behavior and its motives, we’re creating a distance between us and them rather than responding to what’s actually happening between us," says Lamb.
"Listening to your partner when they are telling you something they find difficult about you is definitely challenging!" acknowledges Lamb. "But it’s also vitally important to make a marriage work." While your knee-jerk reaction may be to get defensive when your partner raises an issue, take a moment to reflect.
"There’s also a big risk of confusing 'not taking it personally' with 'not taking it seriously,' so I’ll clarify the difference," offers Lamb. "'Not taking it personally' means that if my partner’s experience of me conflicts with the way I think about myself, I don’t feel an overwhelming need to convince them that they’ve got it wrong, misunderstood me. However, I do need to take my partner’s feelings seriously—they may be seeing a part of me that I’ve been unaware of, which can be another opportunity for growth in the relationship.”
Your spouse is the one person on the entire planet who you should naturally feel yourself around. Of all the essential relationship skills you need, this is one that you should commit to developing wholeheartedly. "When you’re able to express what you think, feel, want. and desire and when your partner is able to receive this expression openly—not necessarily agreeing with or fulfilling it— then the relationship can be truly open and authentic."
How to Strengthen Your Relationship Skills
Not to get all Freud on you but how you act within a relationship may well be rooted in your childhood. "If we’ve been brought up in an environment where our feelings have been valued then feeling and expressing these will be second nature when it comes to our adult relationships," says Lamb. "But many of us haven’t. This means that we have to learn our relationship skills as adults—firstly the mechanics of expressing ourselves and listening, and secondly that it’s safe to do so and we’re more likely to get what we need when we do."
He adds, "Each of these skills has two different levels, one of which is structural and the other is more deeply psychological. Both are important and there’s a connection between them. You can start by focusing on observing the patterns between you and the language you use."
This won’t be a short process. If you’re looking to better yourself and your relationship, you’re going to need to put the hours in. "Sustaining this kind of change requires deeper psychological work," says Lamb. "Some of the couples I work with start off from the belief that their personality and their partner’s are fixed. 'That’s the way I am and my partner will just have to get used to it.’ Usually, this belief is defensive, and when they discover that being curious about their own patterns of behavior, exploring the possibility of changing can not only be safe but also lead to increased intimacy."