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5 ways to build a stronger relationship — a therapist’s toolkit

5 Feb 2021

Boundaries, communication… we all know the foundations for a healthy relationship, but how can we put it all into practice? This guide delivers some of the essential advice therapists suggest to their couple clients, to help build a stronger relationship

There are many different types of relationships, and what works for some people may not be right for others. But what exactly constitutes a ‘good’ relationship? And what tools do therapists suggest when it comes to finding, building and maintaining a strong relationship?

‘The initial attraction and falling in love — that’s the easy bit,’ says Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Licensed Psychotherapist at Livi. ‘It’s what happens when the passion and sparkle become less intense that matters.

‘A strong relationship is where there’s also a deep friendship. So, there should also be respect, trust, empathy, kindness and a willingness to try and understand each other. That’s what builds a deeper connection that lasts beyond the physical.’

Here are some practical tools Gauffin suggests to help you build a better relationship.

1. Prioritise being kind to each other

Kindness is the number 1 predictor of a good relationship, a study showed. In the research, being kind to each other — for example, taking turns when looking after children or a pet, and supporting each other through stress — was even more important than sexual attraction, compatibility, wisdom, intelligence and shared values.

When researchers analysed 2,500 long-term (more than 20 years) couples, they found those who reported higher levels of agreeableness (being kind and considerate generally) and lower levels of emotional instability (worrying a lot) were also happier with their relationships.

2. Practice the 5:1 relationship ratio

The 5:1 ratio simply means that in a healthy relationship, for every negative interaction there should be at least 5 positive interactions and it’s a psychological tool used by many therapists. Examples of negative interactions include being critical, dismissive or defensive or forgetting a special occasion. Examples of positive interactions include showing appreciation, interest, affection and empathy.

3. Use these tips to communicate more clearly

‘If you’re not able to communicate effectively with your partner, it can lead to misunderstandings, resentment and conflict,’ says Gauffin.
Here are 5 steps to help improve communication between couples.

  • Don’t ignore or sweep things under the carpet. If there’s something bothering you, talk to your partner about it. By addressing smaller issues along the way, you can prevent damaging resentments from building up.

  • Avoid being accusatory. Instead of telling them exactly where they’re going wrong or getting personal, explain how their behaviour makes you feel. For example, rather than saying ‘you’re so selfish, you never tidy up,’ tell them how you feel. For example, ‘When you don’t help with the tidying up, it makes me feel upset and stressed.’

  • Pick the right place and time. There’s no point launching into a discussion about something when your partner is about to go into a business meeting. Instead, if you want to bring something up, do so when there’s time, for example, after your evening meal or when you’re out walking together.

  • Make time. Whether it’s trying new activities, or just relaxing and having fun together, schedule times when you put everything else aside and focus on each other.

  • Know your boundaries. Ideally, this is something you should set early on in the relationship. Having boundaries is about letting others know how you wish to be treated. For example, you may have a boundary about being spoken to with respect. Therefore, it’s important to clearly and calmly state that, rather than expect people to automatically know your limits.

4. Learn to argue more effectively

‘If you’re in a relationship, it’s normal to argue,’ says Gauffin. ‘Arguments enable people to learn from each other and show there’s enough space and trust for you both to stand up for your own needs. It’s how you manage the conflict that counts.’ Here are some guidelines:

  • Try to remain calm. Even if you feel emotional. This isn’t always easy and you may have to remind yourself to count to 10, or take a few deep breaths
  • Don’t get personal. Keep on topic. If you’re angry because of something they’ve done or said, don’t start to insult your partner or bring up issues from the past
  • Really listen to what they’re saying. Even if it’s hard, try to ‘hear’ where they’re coming from. Part of the reason people persist in arguing is that they want to get their point across and make the other person understand how they feel. If you make it clear that you’re listening and empathising with their point of view — even if you don’t agree — it can really help to defuse a situation
  • Use humour to lighten the tension. Sometimes, it helps if you can see the funny side

5. Be aware of your own history and triggers

If there’s something your partner does or says that always drives you mad, this may be a trigger for something that’s happened in the past that you haven’t dealt with, says Gauffin.

Or, if you’ve always had a tendency to fly into a rage, or get very jealous, in every relationship, these are issues you need to resolve within yourself. If not, you’ll only keep repeating the same patterns of behaviour to the detriment of this relationship and others.

‘If you are prone to jealousy, for example, you may need to work on building up your self-esteem,’ says Gauffin. ‘This is where talking to a therapist can be useful in helping you to identify issues from your past that may be causing you to react in a certain way. Likewise, if your partner has any issues, it’s not your place to try and fix them.’ A Livi doctor can help you identify any issues that may be triggering your behaviour.

This article has been approved by Madeleine Gauffin, Licensed Psychologist and Psychotherapist at Livi.

Livi is available free on the NHS to over 5 million people in eligible areas, but anyone living in England can use the pay-as-you-go service. Download the Livi app and see a GP the same day, or book up to a week ahead. Livi GPs are available seven days a week – even evenings and weekends.

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