Heading into the new year, I find myself working with so many couples that are burned out, fed up, and feeling that their relationship isn’t as good as it could be. They don’t like their partners as much as they used to, they’ve lost the thread of the relationship with so much else going on, and some wonder if they should still even be together. No wonder the current movie “Marriage Story,” about a couple embarking upon divorce, has struck such a cultural nerve.
In his book and TED talk, “The Element,” Sir Ken Robinson explores when people feel most themselves and most inspired to achieve at their highest levels. He draws on stories from a wide range of people, from former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney to Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” and many others who figured out how to get in their “element” – the point at which natural talent meets personal passion.
Robinson looks at the conditions that enable us to find ourselves in our element and those that stifle that possibility. While Robinson is talking about personal and professional success, there’s something to be said for getting into your “relationship element.”
I’ve been thinking and, talking to some of my colleagues about, good relationship resolutions for the new year to get you to your relationship element.
Have sex once a week
There’s no right number for how often couples should have sex, but I always encourage them to aim for once a week. Studies have shown that couples who maintain their sexual connection once a week are more satisfied overall in their relationships than couples who do not.
Sex produces a positive “after-glow” that lasts for up to two days, which is linked with relationship quality over the long term.
Make time for each other
It’s easy to have a good time at the beginning of a relationship, when things are new and exciting. “When we get comfortable in our relationships and all of life’s stresses come in to play, that tends to fade,” said sex therapist Rachel Needle. “Continuing to play around with and have fun with your partner will keep you happier and more satisfied.”
Needle also recommended doing meaningful things together, like volunteering. “Spending time giving back can create a deeper connection and can strengthen your bond with your partner,” she explained.
Practice presence with compassion
“Many of my couples talk about their relationship a lot to the point that they forget to be in it,” said sex therapist Sara Nasserzadeh. “Put your intention and efforts where it matters most so you’re doing preventive work on the ‘cracks’ rather than waiting for them to become ‘canyons’ and then seek help.”
That work can include paying closer attention to your partner’s nonverbal cues and subtle shifts in their emotional state, said sex therapist Emily Jamea. “Notice what the shifts in your own body and emotional state tell you about what is happening around you. This will enhance the relationship bond and cultivate a deeper level of empathy resulting in a deeper connection to yourself, your partner, and the world around you.”
“Be mindful and stay present when engaging your partner, or when they are trying to engage you on anything – from coordinating schedules, to finances, to kids, to needs, to desires,” said Yvonne K. Fulbright, a sexologist.
That means stepping away from your computer, putting down your phone, and becoming totally present in the moment. “Consider where your partner is coming from in how information is being communicated, versus simply jumping to how you’re being impacted by your partner’s style of engagement,” Fulbright said.
“How can you alleviate your partner’s concerns or distress, or simply acknowledge the situation and emotions in a way that fosters connection, compassion and support?” she added.
Whether you’re single or in a relationship, try to approach conflicts from a place of curiosity rather than judging and blaming. “Making the choice to redirect stress into friendly curiosity” – instead of black and white thinking and judging – “is the quickest way to improve communication during conflict,” explained sex therapist Heidi Crockett.
Sex therapist Barbara Gold agreed. “If you and your partner treat each other with respect, you will solidify the basis for a constructive and collaborative relationship comprised of two people who have care and regard, not only for each other, but for each other’s boundaries, as well,” she said.
When you do argue, take steps to repair those arguments, advised sex therapist Deborah Fox. “Begin with an apology for what you contributed to the argument, even if you think you’re only responsible for 2% of what happened,” she said.
“Repairing is also preventive because healing the rupture goes a long way in creating a feeling of safety and security with each other, resulting in fewer sparks to ignite.”
Envision the future
A couples vision board of images, pictures and affirmations of your dreams and all of the things that make you and your partner happy can be a fun way to ring in the new year together.
“A couples’ vision board is meant to empower you personally and as a couple,” said sex therapist Marissa Nelson. “And create dialogue about the things that truly matter to you both, and the things you would like to work on and achieve together.
Go into the basement
Think of a relationship like a house. The main floor is where the action is: It’s where we eat, sleep, cook clean, argue, have sex, don’t have sex and generally deal with all the problems that life throws at us. The main floor of life is often busy, practical, incessant, repetitive and crowded with others. We spend a lot of time up on the main floor of life.
But we also have a basement, which is our emotional underground (both our own and the one we’ve built with our partner). Residing in the basement are the vulnerabilities, traumas, primary emotions and painful memories that we want to submerge and not think about. Compared to the main floor, the basement is dark and quiet and a lot may have gotten put down there over the years.
Up on the main floor, we may engage the defensive emotions of anger, frustration, anxiety, jealousy and resentment when arguing with a partner. But down below, in the basement, we may feel hurt, alone, shameful, neglected and unloved.
Learning to communicate from the basement, from a place of primary emotion and vulnerability rather than defensiveness and escalation, is at the heart of a healthy relationship.
And of course, do your best to …
Put your relationship first
“There are many ways that couples can put their relationship first” said sex and relationship therapist Joanne Bagshaw. “For instance, demonstrating equity between partners when managing finances, completing household tasks and initiating sex, and using humor to resolve conflicts and maintain connection,” she said.
“These types of relationship-maintenance strategies promote a relationship-first framework,” Bagshaw explained. “Asking yourself, ‘Is this good for my relationship?’ when making decisions or resolving conflicts, is a practical way to start a resolution of putting your relationship first in the new year.”
Ian Kerner is a licensed couples therapist, writer and contributor on the topic of sex for CNN.