I’m American. It’s Thanksgiving. Because this is a sex blog and not a broader social justice blog I’m not gonna talk about genocide or global hunger. I’m using the occasion to talk about how to make your romantic (and indeed every interpersonal) relationship better, cz that’s what I do.
Gratitude. Appreciation. Saying “thank you,” just like your mother taught you.
It shows up over and over again in research, pop psychology, and Oprah. Must be true then, right?
Well in this case it is.
It’s very simple, really. Complaining and criticizing make a partner feel underappreciated and rather like, “Well look if you don’t like it, you can just leave” or “Why do I bother trying if you’re never going to be satisfied anyway?”
John Gottman’s research goes so far as to offer a ratio: 5 positives for everyone 1 negative. He’s actually referring there to codes in his research – facial expressions, tones of voice, physiological stress responses, and words. But you can make it happen for real with a few simple tricks for increasing the salience of the good stuff.
Let the first thing you say be positive. The first thing you say sets the tone for everything else. If it’s negative, you’ll have the spend the whole rest of the conversation compensating for that; your partner will already be feeling defensive and criticized, and life will be much more complicated and painful. So start on a good note.
This is easier for some people than others. Some people are temperamentally serious. If someone asks your opinion of, say, their outfit, and the first thing that goes through your mind is “that belt should go,” you might be temperamentally series. For serious people, Marcy Kurcinka tells us, the first thing they notice is what can be improved.
Which is valuable, important.
It is not, however, the way to make your partner feel good about themselves, you, or the relationship.
So no matter what your first thought is, allow the first thing you say to be positive.
“What do you think of this outfit?”
“I think you look great! Love the shoes!”
Should you mention the questionable belt? Well, that’s another post – that is, offering criticism is another post. There are times when it’s appropriate (and many other times when it is not) to criticize your partner. But I’ll write about that another time.
Reflect. That means listen, sorta. Really what it means is that when you respond to something your partner says, you check in with them to make sure you heard them right.
“What I hear you saying is…”
“I just want to make sure I understood. Do you mean…”
“You want… (whatever). Did I hear you right?”
This simple but crucial skills makes your partner feel understood and respected, which diffuses defensiveness. Which is good.
Make your non-verbal language positive. Something like 70% of the meaning we convey in communication comes through the non-verbal parts of our communication – body posture, tone of voice (aka, paralanguage), facial expression, body tension, that sort of thing. POSITIVE body language is relaxed, open, and welcoming. Smile. Meet your partner’s eyes.
Please note that positive body language doesn’t really work if it’s fake. That said, you can actually change your state of mind by changing your body – when I was a teenager, I had a boss who would paste a fake smile on her face when she was cranky, and keep it there until her mood changed to match her expression. And it completely worked. But it has to be real in order to count toward your positivity ratio.
So if you’re feeling tense, stressed, defensive, angry, or hurt, relax your body, remember something that you love about the person in front of you, and smile into their eyes with love.
Let the last thing you say be positive. Like, if you have a fight, express gratitude for your partner’s willingness to be to honest with you and to work toward solving problems. End on a high note too.
As David Schnarch tell us, the ultimate – nay, the ONLY – aphrodisiac is: Be Nice to Your Partner. It’s pretty much the advice I have for every holiday – remember Valentine’s Day? Be nice, say thank you, tell them what you love.
Oh, and while we’re at it, Happy Thanksgiving and why not donate to the World Food Programme? Did you know hunger disproportionately affects women and children?
And just for kicks, the brilliant, brilliant Singing Detective’s reinterpretation of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters singing “Accentuate the Positive.”