I remember how powerful it was to learn in one of my trainings that it really only took one person to take the first step to change an unpleasant dynamic between a couple.  That shocked me on two fronts.  First, I was hearing that I had the power to affect change in our relationship even when I felt my partner was behaving badly.  Secondly, I didn’t have to focus on trying to get HIM to be different, I could just change my own behavior.  Suddenly I felt more hopeful.  The ball was in my court and I could focus on growing in the new ways I desired.  This awareness has brought me back from the brink of a disagreement going ballistic many times!  The author of Marriage Rules, Harriet Lerner, says, “Change comes from the bottom-up; you have to do the work because no one else will do it.  Waiting for the other person to change first may spell relationship disaster.”

So it is normal to expect in a long time relationship that there will be times of too much distance, too much blame and anger, times where you get too focused on your partner and too under-focused on how you could “warm” things up.  So if you are wanting more contact with your partner, do the things that will foster a deeper connection.  You can practice the 5 to 1 ratio of praise to criticism—positive interactions to critical ones.  Remember, no one survives in a relationship if they feel more judged than loved and respected.  When two people have been together awhile, it is easy to get lazy and forget to find time to check-in with one another, to have fun, and we give voice to what we don’t like too often.  What if you were to comment on what you love and enjoy about one another?  Try it.  One person begins to say caring comments, it becomes contagious and you just may find your partner freely reciprocating. 

Lerner also suggests having “difficult” conversations in a new venue.  She proposes two conversations when there is a hard topic where you share different views and have strong feelings.  Together you agree on a time and a shared desire to practice whole-hearted listening.  So the first person invites the conversation s/he dreads.  Their listening practice will be to stay calm, be curious, minimize defensiveness, and ask questions rather than correct facts.  Then you and your partner take a break for an hour or maybe a whole day to assimilate what was shared.  The second conversation will be started by the partner who listened and s/he will express held differences and may even apologize for their part in the misunderstanding or if something hurtful was said.  The partner who already spoke now has the opportunity to listen fully by being present, open, calm and curious and non-defensive.  It is a wonderful practice to cultivate to get through the inevitable difficult conversations every couple has.

In the “best” marriages, Lerner believes that one partner can be more light-hearted, use humor and be non-reactive.  They choose not to throw fuel on burning embers.  I would add that it is a great practice for each partner to learn to calm down, stay curious, laugh at themselves and accept their mistakes.  But, remember, only one person responding with equanimity can keep the conversation from getting derailed and both parties moving toward more acceptance and closeness.