All relationships go through tough times but, interestingly, the issues they face are often about the same things. According to relationship experts and certified Mars Venus Coaches (MVCs) Soulaf Imam and Khaled Ghorab, the majority of couples in the UAE will fight about these five things: dealing with stress; communication and listening; finances; how they appear in public; and, if applicable, how they are raising their children.
According to Dr Lavina Ahuja, personal development trainer and consultant at LifeWorks Dubai, the biggest issue with Dubai life that can have an impact on couples is having a busy social life. Although it may be fun, she says, couples can forget how to be with each other – how to talk to each other, spend time with each other and, as cheesy as it sounds, how to be each other’s best friend.
And while it’s true that after the honeymoon phase of a relationship, some couples begin to lose their spark, or feel less connected than they did at the beginning, there are small activities we can do and changes we can make in our daily lives to help prevent the cracks from forming and driving a space between you.
1 It’s easy to get caught up in daily routines and habits and forget that, rather than just telling your partner you love them, there are other ways you can express affection. Ask them questions such as, “What can I help you with right now?”, “How can I show you that I love you?” or “Is there somewhere special you’d like to go?” American psychotherapist Barton Goldsmith says that by asking what they want, you are showing that you care about how they feel and what their needs are.
2 Relationship coach and international bestselling writer Jordan Gray has compiled a collection of ‘connection games’ to help the couples he sees in therapy. One of his favourite and most effective games is called ‘Five things… Go!’, in which both partners have to list five things to do with a chosen theme. The theme could be, for example, five things you are grateful about in your life; five things you love about your partner; five things you would love to do with your partner in the upcoming month/year/decade; or even five things your partner has said in the past that had a huge impact on you. The playful exercise is only limited by your imagination and creativity.
3 Replace critical thoughts with a positive one. Instead of remaining in a critical state of mind, whereby you focus on your partner’s mistakes, change to a positive one, in which you notice when they do something right. It could be just something small they have done, but make a remark about it and praise them (without patronising them) and be genuine about it. According to relationship guru and self-help author John Gottman, doing this will change your interaction patterns and stop the negativity, creating a feeling of appreciation instead.
4 Do the nostalgic memories exercise. With your partner, choose a shared memory from the early days of your relationship and take turns in talking about what you felt at that exact moment and what was going through your head while it was happening. If you feel comfortable enough, you can talk about the sensory memories, such as what you could see around you, or smell or even hear, if you can remember it well enough. Dr Bryce Kaye, author of The Marriage First Aid Kit, says this will help take you back to a time when you were happy as a couple and will help put any bad times you go through in perspective.
5 Relationship expert and author Samara O’Shea recommends taking a class together. It has been proven that couples who learn new things together share a stronger connection than couples who do not. Figure out a shared interest that you can do together, such as dancing, cooking, art or a new language, and go from there. Marriage and family psychologist and author Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill specifically recommends taking a cooking class, because the process of making a meal and enjoying it together creates a sense of security and safety in your relationship.
6 Start using the word ‘we’ when talking to your partner. In 2009, researcher Robert Levenson and his colleagues at the University of California discovered that couples who use ‘we’ when talking are more satisfied with their relationship, and are happier and calmer than those in relationships who do not. Instead of using ‘you’, ‘me’ and ‘I’, use ‘we’, ‘our’ or ‘us’ – for example, use “we can work it out” instead of “you/I need to work it out” or “we shouldn’t have bought that expensive car” instead of “you/I shouldn’t have bought that expensive car”.
Psychologist and author Dr Tamar Chansky, who reported on the research, explains that using ‘we’ creates a feeling of connectedness in the brain and lets your partner know that you are in a collaborative mindset – you are a team and in this together. By using ‘you’ or ‘me’, it signals that you are thinking in singular terms rather than as a couple. The collaborative mindset can make a person feel more affectionate towards their partner and relationship.
7 John Gray, author of the famous relationship manual Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus said recently, “The worst things you can say to a woman are that she’s selfish, overreacting or irrational. And what’s the worst thing a woman can say to a man? ‘We need to talk about the relationship’.” According to Gray, men and women use different language and respond to it in different ways, so what a woman hears as upsetting can be seen by the man as being a helpful suggestion. For example, when he says, “That dress doesn’t really suit you”, what he could mean is, “There are other dresses that look amazing on you” – but what you hear is “You look awful”. Another language tip is to avoid using the word ‘but’. American relationship expert Susan Krauss Whitbourne says that when you use the word ‘but’, the positive feeling that came with the sentence before the ‘but’ is quickly turned into a negative one with the critical comment after the ‘but’. For example, “The dinner was really lovely, but the chicken was a bit dry.” Instead of wording it this way, try the other way around: “I think the chicken could have done with a little less time, but, other than that, I really enjoyed it!” This way your partner hears the criticism but it is followed up with good news and it feels more positive.
Three ways you can make a positive and immediate difference to your relationship
1 Say goodnight, every night
Go to bed at the same time and remember to say goodnight, regardless of what has happened before going to bed. Dr Mark Goulston, psychiatrist, international speaker and bestselling author, says that even if you have had an argument and you are upset with your partner, saying goodnight shows them that you being in a relationship is bigger than any problems that may come up. Going to bed at the same time, or cuddling before going to sleep, releases oxytocin; this not only enhances bonding but makes for a better sleep, and is a natural painkiller.
2 Stop thinking in absolutes
Dr Lavina Ahuja, personal development trainer and consultant at LifeWorks Dubai, says, “Don’t use words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ – they are very rarely true! If you use these words when complaining to, or about, your partner, you dismiss all the times your partner has put in effort and this creates a sense of ‘what’s the point of trying?’ for both of you.”
3 Change the way you talk
Separate action from emotion. Dr Lavina says, “It’s quite simple. You phrase your sentence as, ‘When you do (action), it makes me feel (emotion)”. For example, ‘When you didn’t answer or return my calls today, it made me feel ignored and unloved’. The idea is to allow your partner to address the action without denying the emotional impact it has had – which may not have been your partner’s intent at all. This phrasing can allow either partner to state what his or her actual intent was, without him or her denying the emotional impact it has had on you.”