We all know the value of exercising and staying fit. It’s practically recommended by every doctor and expert in the world. Does that mean we all do it? Not exactly.
It’s the same in your marriage and other relationships. Unlike our physical health, we often have the unfounded expectation that our relationships are going to stay fit and in good health with little to no effort.
The renowned relationship researcher, Dr. John Gottman, found in one study that couples wait an average of six years before they seek out counseling for their marital issues. Six years! Can you imagine having a twisted ankle or a serious stomach ache, but not consulting a doctor about it for six years?
We often get very nervous when it comes to talking about our relationship “stuff”. It’s no surprise, really. Many of us, myself included, were raised to keep our feelings and personal relationships very close to the vest.
As with physical fitness, there are myriad ways to keep your relationships fit and in great shape. Even if you’ve fallen out of shape, there’s still plenty of hope. You just start small.
Remember when you were newlyweds, how many nice things you’d say to one another? Turns out, appreciations spoken out loud are the pushups of relationship fitness, an absolute staple of personal and relational wellbeing. My wife and have had a simple fitness practice for over ten years: before we go to sleep, we both share at least three appreciations to each other.
Alongside increased appreciations, there is often a decrease in complaints, blame, and criticism. We all know how easy it is to devolve to routine bickering with our partner, but we might not know that it’s proven to be fateful to marriages. Dr. Gottman, quoted above, found by studying several thousand couples over many years that we need at least a 5:1 ratio of positive-to-negative interactions per day in order to avoid marital breakdown or divorce. That means for every critical or blaming remark, it takes a full five positive remarks to counter the negative effects. And if we want a thriving, healthy relationship, we should probably aim for a 10:1 or 20:1 ratio.
We’ve had several coaching clients over the past few weeks, both couples and singles, for whom the absence of the relationship fitness basics have taken a toll. A young couple with three kids, both parents working full time, find themselves feeling so drained and stressed by the responsibilities of work, kids, house, and family, that any advances from their partner seems like just another chore, and they inadvertently end up pushing each other further apart. When the general stress level is elevated is when we’re most prone to activate our own as well as our partner’s “hot buttons” and go down a rabbit hole of triggered reactions. And then we forget all about our relationship fitness basics.
For a single mom I coached, this shows up a bit differently, although it’s the same dynamic at work. She’s also feeling scared and pressed by the never-ending responsibilities of making life work, being the only adult to handle everything. Just like couples end up complaining to each other and rejecting each other’s advances, this single woman finds herself complaining to other people, to herself, and completely forgetting the relationship fitness basic of appreciating herself and finding space to recharge her batteries, another absolute necessity for anyone to remain sane, calm, and functional.
For both the couple and the single mom, the immediate remedy is to return to relationship fitness basics. Sure, there could be a bigger process about how to set up the life to function better, how to communicate better, and how to create structures that support deeper connections, even with a gazillion chores. But it didn’t take more than 10 min into our session, with some guidance to relax, connect, and express appreciations, before they both were crying and holding hands, relieved to be “back to basics”. They even expressed it themselves, saying that when they regularly engage in activities just for the two of them, like attending the workshops with LoveWorks, setting up time for fun, dance, music, and exercise, everything works out better.
As is true for our physical fitness, it’s no use if we just do it once or twice. We have to make appreciations and quality time, for ourselves and/or with our partners, an ongoing practice. It has to become a staple in our daily lives. We need to keep learning more effective ways to communicate, deepen intimacy, and resolve our problems, so that connection and intimacy are the rule, and breakdowns the exception. And when breakdowns do occur, as they will, we have the skills to deal with it them in short order.
Along with your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual fitness, your relationship fitness will hopefully now become part of your regular routines. As one couple in our workshop said, “Appreciations are a lot cheaper than divorce!” We believe that keeping your relationship fit will pay dividends for the rest of your life.
If you’re ready for a relationship fitness kickstarter event, by yourself or with your partner, check out our Level 1 workshop, Give Yourself To Love. We still have room in our Oct 5-6 workshop in Auburn, CA. More info here ….