When Your Relationship Needs Some Spring Cleaning

Source: ©Mireilla Stern 2018 used with permission

Welcome to spring! As everything is starting to buzz and bloom and blossom, you may be welcoming that lushness into your relationship. But if you’re not so much feeling the zing of spring right now, no worries. Some spring cleaning may be in order. The intimate clutter that gathers in relationships—resentments, hurts, misunderstandings and maybe a little stagnation of the long winter—may seem to stand between you and love. Seem to stand in the way, but not really. The emotional clutter between you, it’s yours and only yours, this is love too. Here are some ideas for sorting through this clutter, understanding it, and making room for new growth.

Start at the very beginning: Tell the love story you know best  A good way to start the spring cleaning of your relationship is to borrow inspiration from your own first sparks. Take yourselves back to the very beginning of your story when the feeling came over you that this was it, you were home. Those moments needn’t match up and be identical for the two of you—in fact usually they’re not, but research suggests that couples who are able to recall and savor early memories of love experience more satisfaction in their relationships. It makes sense—savoring together multiplies the good feeling between you and sets you on a good course. So go ahead, tell the story anew of how you got here and feel the whoosh of those early feelings rise up again and making your swoon.

Jumpstart intimacy: Learn something new about each other Sometimes when those same stories come out at a dinner party that we’ve heard so many times before, we might be tricked into believing that we know everything there is to know about our partners. The anxiety of imagined stagnation rushes in and we put up a wall. But as any expert knows, there’s always more to learn about your subject of interest. If we feel we’ve reached the end it’s because we’ve stopped looking. You can deepen your knowledge and build intimacy by asking questions—thirty-six of them if you’d like as couples researcher Arthur Aron found. And I daresay, that asking these questions is a way of falling in love all over again. Click here for my blogpost about that. Don’t have time for 36? How about completing this one statement that goes to the core of who you are: “To know me is to know that….” and reveal a secret you haven’t shared. You can do this question periodically—the answers may change. It may come as no surprise that building intimacy by sharing secrets is an important way that couples build connection and satisfaction.

Add some new touches (so to speak) to your landscape: Learn something new together We welcome in spring the promise of new growth. We respond to the budding trees, the pop, pop of color in the daffodils and tulips—we are awoken out of the long winter by these delights and surprises. As much as familiarity is one of the great comforts of being in a relationship: you know how to read each other—you can tell when after a hard day it’s got to be a night out, and when it’s got to be mac and cheese and watching Love Actually, and you can take that familiarity to the emotional bank with you. At the same time, comfortable can also feel uncomfortable if we feel limited by it. And in fact, research has shown that couples who share new experiences have greater relationship satisfaction. So borrow from nature’s surprises and try something new: a new restaurant, a few words in a new language, a new skill—of any sort, whatever strikes your fancy—there are no limits to the imagination.

Letting go of grudges: We need to finish to forget  While it is best to “clean up as you go” bringing up your complaints and misunderstandings as they arise, in most relationships there are some leftovers. You may have little grudge remnants, stuck like burrs in your memory, but here’s the thing to know: You’ve got to really finish that story in order to forgive it and forget it. Cognitive science calls this The Zeigarnick Effect. Our brain wants closure and will keep tapping us on the shoulder with the reminder of unfinished business and won’t let go of us until we get that feeling: done! So, the answer to the question: “Do we really have to talk about that again? is… “Yes!” Until it’s finished. When is something finished?  Ask the person for whom it is not. Bring out many of the details. Share them. Remember there are no bad guys here. While you’re sharing that you are unhappy reassure your partner that you are bringing this up because you want both of you to be happier in the relationship, and to be happy truly is to be understood. We need each other’s help; making it more of a “we” project will help prevent the natural defensiveness which could come from simply unleashing your long list of complaints.

Source: ©2018 Phillip Stern used by permission

Preventing new clutter: Use a preface to connect from the start  There are things we feel we need to say to each other. Often after the fact we’re not so sure. Such is the human condition! Rather than having to clean up after yourself, the mess of apologizing and consoling two upset people, consider using a preface instead to soften the edges of your message. Like this: “I love you and there are some things I need to say, can you help me”, …. Or, “I’m upset so this may not come out the way I want”…. Or, “I want to be open to what you’re saying, but I’m feeling closed right now.” This way you’ve prepared the two of you that this is a rough draft, not a final proclamation, you are leading with some ambivalence, some room for refinement in the conversation that follows. Does this seem wishy-washy to you? Time for a reframe. This is life. You are in a conversation with each other. Refining our own and each other’s understandings of ourselves and each other is a privilege—what we get from the gift of love.

Cleaning supplies for a lifetime: A thousand “I’m sorry”s and “I want to understand”s “I was wrong”s  There it is. Your cabinets are full. Like the cherry blossoms petals flurries of pink snow—the abundance—we have an endless supply of love.  Conflicts, disconnections whether about deep hurts or the dirty dishes upend us into a place of defensiveness, we feel we need to protect ourselves from the person who would want to protect us the very most in the world. After the fact we realize this. We can prevent the pile up of unfinished business of regret, or guilt, or distance by finishing things sooner.  Maybe we aren’t ready to say I’m sorry or I love you, or maybe we think it’s not fair that we should have to say it. But remember being freer and back in connection is more important than being fair. Maybe we can’t decide if we are ready to say sorry, but we could say that, that we’re not ready, or we could hold up cue cards for what we need to hear—sound childish? Try it; it works.  Oh the clutter that you will not accumulate— it will be magnificent! 

Good Housekeeping: Kisses, please How do you do daily maintenance on the lines of connection between you when there are so many demands and sources of stress pulling on those lines? Many couples drift into a bit of automaticity with the kisses and I love yous that bookend their day. Kiss? Check. I love you? Check. Good night. We know that when kissing is good, it’s very good, and when it’s not good, it’s just well, not much to report there. So why not commit to clearing away the winter slog and enjoy kissing every day this spring. Here is my strange association with that. When I was in college my modern dance teacher was trying to encourage us to put more presence and intention into our movements she, a young mother at the time, talked about the difference between defrosting frozen string beans in the microwave for her kids and cooking fresh vegetables. She was not looking for microwaved from us.  And we’re not looking from microwaved from each other. When we kiss, we want that simmer of fresh vegetables. We want to feel in that moment the connection of everything we need to know about ourselves. A mindful kiss, a beginner’s kiss where there is all openness, I guess is what we’d call it these days. If it doesn’t happen the first time, go back again, nicely, until you get it right. As long as one of you is making sure that the kisses would pass my dance teacher’s test, all will be well.

Cleaning Up, Together: The Hidden Rewards of Sharing the Job  Yes, with all this talk about spring and buzzing and blooming—how could we not mention sex? While there are many ways to jump start intimacy, here’s one that actually has particular relevance to the spring cleaning theme, so, ahem, no, this is not simply a gratuitous mention of what is on everyone’s minds anyway, there’s research.  It turns out that couples who share household chores more evenly have greater relationship satisfaction (Really? Sharing the workload makes people more satisfied and less stressed? Go figure.) AND have sex more often than those couples with an uneven distribution of household duties. So grab that mop and broom and prepare to be amazed. Birds and bees are doing it, but now nature’s got nothing on you.

Happy spring all!

©2018 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. Click here to read about how to clear away the emotional clutter of negative thoughts.

Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. is author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: 4 Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want and Freeing Your Child from Anxiety.

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