Nothing has a bigger influence on our well-being than the quality of our closest connections. In this blog, I wanted to offer 21 ways to build stronger and closer relationships.
Part of my motivation is personal. I've always known on an intellectual level that relationships were deeply important, but I've never felt it more acutely than in the past few years as I was recovering from an extended illness.
Frequent fatigue and other struggles led to social isolation, which eventually resulted in a major depressive episode. Nothing sustained me more during those months than the love of my family, and reconnecting with others was a crucial part of my healing.
This experience convinced me like nothing else that our relationships deserve our time and nurturing. Or maybe I should say that we owe it to ourselves to invest in our relationships.
So here are 21 practices, divided (as the deck is) into "Think," "Act," and "Be" categories. They're practices that I've found useful in my clinical practice and in my own life. I've selected ones that apply directly to relationships, though the deck has many other types of practices.
Choose one of these exercises to use per day, which is how The CBT Deck
is designed to be used—one card per day. That way your efforts can be more focused and intentional than if you were trying to change everything all at once.
Use these cognitive approaches to train your thoughts in directions that strengthen your relationship. Don't worry that you need to brainwash yourself or practice positive fictions about your relationship (e.g., "My partner is perfect in every way"). CBT aims for accuracy and usefulness, not being overly positive.
1. Observe Your Thoughts
The most fundamental cognitive technique is to recognize your thoughts as thoughts, rather than as direct reflections of reality. Bring to mind an unresolved point of tension between you and your significant other. Notice the thoughts your mind has about this situation.
What judgments or fears come to mind? What assumptions are you making that may or may not be based in fact? Practice observing these thoughts and being curious about them, without becoming completely absorbed in them. Be aware that thoughts like these are products of the mind.
The more you practice noticing your thoughts, the easier it will be to recognize when they're misguided in some way—which can lead to less conflict over time.
2. Counter All-or-Nothing Thoughts
Pay attention for times today when you’re thinking about your partner in black-or-white terms, such as, “They never
think of my needs.”
Consider whether the situation is actually that extreme. For example, are there times when they do, in fact, think of your needs, and even put your needs first?
Practice seeing shades of gray in your significant other.
3. Watch Out for "Shoulds"
Anger toward your loved one is often driven by the thought that they should
behave differently (e.g., “They should have remembered to do what I asked”).
Often, though, these statements express wishes
, not facts about what the person has done wrong. Try stating your preferences (e.g., “I wish they would have remembered”), instead of accusing the person of wrongdoing.
Notice any changes in your feelings toward your partner.
4. Assume the Best
Most likely your significant other will do something today that annoys you. When that happens, aim to make the best possible interpretation of their actions.
For example, if they say something that you think might be an underhanded criticism of you, you might deliberately choose the more benign interpretation (e.g., "They didn't mean it that way"). See how this reaction affects your peace of mind and your interactions with your partner.
5. Ask Yourself What They Need
As you interact with your partner today, ask yourself, “What does this person need right now?” Are they hungry? Exhausted? Overwhelmed? Lonely? This question may be especially powerful to ask during a disagreement.
How does this question affect the quality of your interaction? Is there anything you can do to help meet their need?
6. Examine Your Thoughts When You're Irritated
The next time you’re upset with your partner, write down the thoughts you’re having about them (this exercise builds on the first practice, above). Then, take a closer look at each one.
- Is it definitely true?
- Does it tell the whole story?
- How do these thoughts affect my feelings toward my loved one?
Write down any alternative ways of thinking that might better fit reality.
7. Question Your Assumptions About What They're Thinking
We often assume that our partners are thinking negative thoughts toward us—that they're disappointed with us or are being critical toward us in some way.
These thoughts are often projections that have more to do with how we see ourselves than with what others think of us—if they’re thinking of us at all.
Notice your negative assumptions about what your partner is thinking of you, and question whether there’s any solid evidence to support these thoughts.
Our behaviors are based on habits, which may or may not be helpful to our relationship. We can choose more useful actions by bringing greater awareness and intention to the ways we behave toward our partner. Over time these new behaviors can become second nature.
8. Spread Joy
What’s one thing you could do today for this person you're spending your life with that would make their life better? It could be something small, like making them a cup of tea or doing one of their chores.
Since feelings often follow actions, don’t wait until you feel like doing it. Lead with action and see what happens.
9. Be Encouraging
The next time you’re feeling down, reach out to support your partner. Showing them love and concern might help you feel better, and even if it doesn’t, it will help this person you care about.
And, more importantly, it shows you that you can be of service even when you’re feeling less than 100 percent.
10. Make Their Life Easier
Ask your partner to tell you about one source of frustration in their life which they run into repeatedly that you could help them with. It might be something like a disorganized and overstuffed drawer in the kitchen, or your tendency to leave messes for them to clean up.
These daily hassles take a toll on us and our relationships in ways we might not realize, like making us more easily irritated by other people.
Set aside some time to fix the problem so your partner—and you—can enjoy more peace and ease.
11. Tend to Your Relationship With Technology
While technology can be a powerful force for connection, it can also be an alienating presence when a screen is continually between us and the people we love.
Notice today how often you’re glued to a screen when you don’t have to be. Technology has a way of spreading into every moment of our lives if left unchecked.
Designate some screen-free zones today to keep technology in its proper place.
12. Send Your Love Just Because
Write your partner a card, email, or text message letting them know how much they mean to you. It doesn’t have to take a long time or be the “perfect” message. Just let them know you’re thinking of them and that you’re glad they’re in your life.
13. Say Thank You
Bring to mind one meaningful way in which your significant other has made your life better.
Choose a way to let them know today that you’re grateful for them: in person, by phone, in a handwritten note, or by email or text.
Expressing gratitude to another person is one of the best practices for your well-being, especially when you’re feeling down—and it's great for your relationship.
14. Build Them Up
Pay your loved one an unexpected compliment today for behavior that often goes unrecognized.
It might be the care your partner takes in cleaning the kitchen, the hard work they put into their job, their skill and love as a parent of your children, or anything else you find.
Notice the person’s reaction and your own experience of seeing and commenting on their strengths.
Mindfulness practices invite us to be more fully in our lives, just as they are. While we often think of meditation when we think of mindfulness, we can practice presence and open to reality no matter what situation we're in—not least of all during our interactions with our significant other.
15. Practice Gratitude
Place a pen and paper by your bed. Just before you go to bed tonight, write down three things from the day that you appreciated about your partner.
Your gratitude list might include the physical affection you enjoyed from your partner, the effort they exert at work or at home, their love and support, or whatever you like.
Allow what you write to fill your mind as you turn off the light and go to sleep.
16. Meditate on Loving Kindness
Sit comfortably in a quiet place. Take three slow, calming breaths. Bring to mind your loved one, and mentally send them these wishes:
“May you be safe.”
“May you be happy.”
“May you find ease in your life.”
“May you be free from suffering.”
Feel a glow of loving-kindness radiating from inside you.
Dwell in that love as you direct these wishes toward yourself:
“May I be safe.” “May I be happy.” "May I find ease in my life." "May I be free from suffering."
17. Listen With Presence
Pay close attention to your significant other when you're talking with them today. Focus intently on what they’re saying, their eyes, their body language, and their facial expression.
It's a rare gift to give someone our full attention when talking with them. Notice what happens when you bring your full presence to your interactions.
18. See Your Loved One
The best parts of our lives often fade into the background and become invisible, unless they’re taken from us. Practice seeing your partner today as if for the first time, like you've never laid eyes on them before. Take in as many details about them as you can.
You might also notice the ways that your partner has changed your life for the better, like having someone to hug each day and a sympathetic ear at the end of a hard day. Feel what it's like to really experience the person you share your life with.
20. See the Good in the Hard Times
The next time you experience conflict with your partner, see if it may be pointing to something positive. Often a person's strengths and limitations have the same underlying cause.
For example, if you feel like they worry too much about your children, perhaps it reflects the consistent care they show them. Or if you're concerned about the money they want to spend on your home, are there positive ways that their spending has improved your life?
If you struggle to find a positive, you might simply notice that at least you have a partner to be frustrated with! Maybe it beats being alone all the time. Allow occasional difficulties with your partner to reveal what is right in your life.
21. Practice Presence at Your Meals
Just before you start eating a meal with your partner today, pause to feel your feet on the ground and your weight pressing into your chair. Breathe slowly in and out as you take a moment to look at the person (or people) sharing the meal with you.
Carefully notice the food in front of you, taking in its colors, textures, and aroma. As you pick up your utensil, feel its weight and contours in your hand.
Enjoy this meal and the time you spend with your significant other.
Bringing These Practices Into Your Life
If you commit to doing one of these practices each day for the next 21 days, I would be amazed if you didn't notice a significant improvement in your relationship at the end of three weeks. You can repeat these exercises, of course, and integrate them into your life as new habits.
It may sound funny to say but I'll be using the 101 daily practices from The CBT Deck
myself, starting today. As much as anyone, I need the consistent practice of fostering helpful thoughts, intention-based action, and greater presence. Ready to get started? Print out this list and pick one practice to use today. May we all experience greater connection and harmony in our loving relationships.
This blog originally appeared on PsychologyToday.com
Do you want to improve thoughts, be in the moment, & take action in your life?