How do relationships get better over time? When people are so different from each other, is this even possible? If it is, what’s the secret?
Thankfully, the answer is YES! Relationships can become better and more satisfying as time goes on. Even though the infatuation stage of a relationship will fade, and you can get back to your regular habits of sleeping and eating and whatever else you did prior to beginning the relationship, the relationship can improve. But the question is how? How do we make things better, particularly if things are starting to go south?
One of the best ways to improve relationships is to get good at giving and receiving feedback from one another. The positive feedback and the not so positive feedback.
Learning to love one another is a collaborative process. No one knows how to love another person in the ways that are most meaningful to them except for that other person. And since you and your partner are not mind-readers, it's essential to figure out how to offer up feedback and receive feedback, so you can cultivate a relationship that works for both of you. Sounds easy, yeah? So why do so many of our interactions go south when we request that our partners adjust how they treat us, love us or touch us?
Here's where this usually goes wrong: Negative feedback is experienced in one of two ways. It’s either experienced as a Criticism or as a Critique. Neither of which usually feels great, but criticism is significantly damaging to a relationship, and critiques are essential for the relationship to grow.
Here’s the difference:
Criticism is stating your concern as an attack on a person’s character or a defect in their personality.
- You are always talking about yourself. You are such a narcissist!
- You never want to spend time with me. I guess I love you more than you love me.
- You never consider my feelings/needs! You're so selfish!
- You always make me be the bad guy/gal with the kids.
Offering a critique is honest feedback about something you’d like changed or addressed. It’s a critique of an action, not a person’s whole character.
- I want more time together because I want to feel close again/work on our relationship, but I haven't felt prioritized by you lately.
- It’s upsetting to me when you leave all the disciplining to me. Can you start sharing this responsibility with me so I can be the good guy/gal sometimes?
- I need you to work towards being more thoughtful of me/my time/my feelings because when you do _________, it feels like you're not thinking about how it affects me.
If you want your relationship to change for the better and get your concerns addressed, it's vital you communicate your feedback as a critique. Your partner will not be able to hear your request for change if it comes out as criticism, AND it will make the relationship worse.
Dr. John Gottman, a research scientist who has researched marital stability and divorce prediction for the last 40 years, identifies criticism as one of four of the most corrosive behavior patterns in a relationship. He actually calls these behaviors the "Four Horseman of the Apocalypse!" No confusion there!
When you're on the receiving end of a critique, listen to the behavior that your loved one is requesting you change. And challenge yourself to not generalize their critique as "I'm a failure" or "I'll never be enough". Offering critiques and being able to hear them is essential for creating a long-term loving relationship that works for both people.
Good relationships that get better over time are those that can acknowledge they don't know everything about how to love their partner well. They are open to critiques, willing to share critiques so their partner isn't in the dark and eager to learn what kind of actions leave their partner feeling loved and understood. This is why as marvelous as infatuation can feel, long-term loving and collaborative relationships win out every time.
The truth is, we all have room to grow in learning to love the people in our lives. In offering one another good critiques that are coated with a layer of "I love you, and you're a good partner, but I need you to hear me", we can learn how to love better.