Just recently, our nine-year-old daughter taught us a profound lesson about the nature of relationships.
She arrived home from school one day in a frenzy. She stomped around her room trying to get our attention. She complained incessantly about our dinner choice. She broke down into tears over a slight bonk to her knee.
When we finally sat down for dinner, we asked her, “Is this how you act at school?”
“No, you guys,” she said, “I use up all of my good behavior at school. By the time I get home, it’s all gone and this is what’s left.”
After a day spent managing the stress of work, caring for your kids, or even just watching the latest news, you may find that you’ve used up all of your good behavior.
Wise words from a nine-year-old. Because, if you’re like us, you might find yourself falling into this very same pattern. After a day spent managing the stress of work, caring for your kids, or even just watching the latest news, you may find that you’ve used up all of your good behavior.
The result is that your coworkers, friends, and even the random people you pass on the street—they get your best. Your partner? Well, they often witness your worst moments. This is especially true in times like these, when we’re presented each day with the news of illness, death, and political turmoil.
With that in mind, how can we show up as our best selves in interactions with our partners?
Daily Practices to Help Strengthen Your Relationship
1. Take five slow breaths when things get tense
Decades of scientific research on breathing suggests that, when we relax, lengthen, and slow our breathing, we can unwind the tension in our nervous system that creates anxiety and irritation. In one recent study, researchers found that slow diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing) led to enhanced mood, increased focus, and significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
This research—and practical experience—indicate that your breath is like an inner portal to a state of calm. It’s perhaps the most powerful way to interrupt thoughts about the past and future that lead to tension and resentment. Each inhale and exhale, after all, isn’t happening tomorrow or next year (the way thoughts might jump ahead). You’re breathing right now.
How can you bring slow belly breathing into your daily life? Notice those moments when you get triggered. Use these moments as a cue to slow down your breathing. A good rule of thumb here is to strive for five-count breaths (five counts in, five counts out). Then, bring your attention to where you’re breathing. See if you sense the subtle rising and falling of your abdomen with each inhale and exhale.
2. Give your partner a hug whenever you can
This may sound like a trivial act. But a growing body of research has found that simple acts of touch are positively associated with greater marital satisfaction and may act as a buffer against relationship conflict and anxiety.
Giving your partner a surprise hug is a powerful cue that you’re open, supportive, and present —a cue that might just change the entire tone and trajectory of your time together.
3. Show your partner love and appreciation
Rather than scanning your partner’s actions for what they did wrong or how they dropped the ball, look for what they did right. See if you can catch them in the act of contributing. Or see if you can appreciate them for all the hidden forms of work they do for your family.
The research of John Gottman indicates that the simple practice of appreciation can shift the entire culture of your relationship. Without appreciation, your relationship can easily slip into patterns of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness.
Add a little appreciation, however, and you’ve changed everything. You’ve triggered a shift from blame and resentment to gratitude and connection.
Most importantly, this simple practice of appreciation can break you out of the habit of bringing home your worst during these challenging times. What’s more, it has a contagious quality that may also inspire your partner to do the same.
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