The first day of spring! I’m eager for warmer days, longer hours of daylight, and a renewed sense of purpose. The term spring cleaning is popping up everywhere I look and, for someone who could easily be described as “neatness-challenged,” seeing all the Facebook posts, HuffPost articles, and news stories about ways to improve your spring cleaning regime don’t typically inspire me as much as they trigger a sense of guilt. But this year has been a little different. Oh, I still feel guilty about my struggle to keep the house tidy (much less “clean”), but I have felt inspired about the concept of “cleaning” and how it connects to my work as a couples therapist. My work with couples and individual clients struggling with relationship issues both inspires and challenges me on a daily basis. In the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how spring cleaning can, and should, be applied to our relationships – probably all year long, but I’ll settle for an overhaul every spring.
Last weekend I had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop for couples – Relationship Recharge – which is based on Dr. John Gottman’s book, Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. The Seven Principles Program, an educational couples class/workshop based on Gottman’s nearly 40 years or research, offers practical tips for how couples can ensure that their relationship is on solid ground, and stays that way. The workshop is designed to teach, or remind, couples these crucial seven principles that will enhance their connection to their partner. My husband, Patrick, tags along as my “assistant” at the workshops and I’m grateful that we get to do these together, although my busy schedule only allows me to offer them a few times a year. In many ways, I think our relationship benefits as much as those of the participants who attend the workshops.
The workshop highlighted to me that I need to make a point to take time out of my busy schedule more often to focus on practicing what I preach. After the workshop, Patrick told me that he’d learned some new things about what I appreciate about him through the role plays that we did for the workshop audience. That struck me as sad. I realized that I had said some wonderful (and true!) things to the workshop participants about him that I don’t take the time to tell him directly, at least not on a regular basis. This needs to change. Our relationship, just like those of so many other couples I know, is certainly in need of some spring cleaning. So what would spring cleaning for your relationship entail?
This is a great time to review your daily interactions with your partner. Do you and your partner have “rituals of connection?” Gottman talks of the crucial importance of having a number of rituals in your relationship to help make frequent deposits into your relationship bank account. This encompasses things like daily partings and reunions. Do you stop and take the time to kiss, hug, and say goodbye *mindfully* to your partner each day? No, a quick peck on the check and a murmured “love ya” don’t count! How do you reconnect at the end of each day? When was the last time you had a “6 Second Kiss?” The next time you and your partner kiss, do a mental count, “One, one-thousand, two, one-thousand…” How often do you even come close to SIX?
Cleaning out the Closets
Are there things that you are storing up in your relationship “closet” that no longer fit, are broken, or out of date? It’s time to let go of some things that aren’t helping you out. How many times are you going to bring up the fact that he forgot to get you a Valentine’s Day card three years ago? Bringing up examples of how you’ve been wronged by your partner in the past only serves to escalate your interactions. It doesn’t help you get your needs met and it certainly doesn’t help you feel more connected to your partner. Perhaps it’s time to pack up these items and drop them off at your local Goodwill. While letting go of old, unrepaired hurts can be difficult, it can also be quite freeing. When you give yourself permission to just let go of something that’s been weighing you down, you’ll feel lighter. It opens up room in your heart to feel something new, something positive.
Tackling the Garage
The city I live in offers a free “large item” junk pick-up every spring. If only we could call up a service and ask them to come pick up our big relationship trash! This spring, challenge yourself to take a look at the big issues that come up over and over in your relationship. Yes, it’s time to tackle the big stuff. The “I don’t want to look at it, so keep it in the garage” stuff. How about bringing it into the living room and trying to get to the heart of the issue instead? Dig deep and ask yourself, “Why is this so important to me? What is my ideal scenario with this issue? What’s my nightmare scenario?” The answer to those questions will give you some clues about how to overcome gridlock and move toward productive dialogue in your relationship. While the “big issues” are likely to continue popping up from time to time (or more often) over the course of your relationship, the key is to be able to have meaningful conversations about those issues.
Bottom line: it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dig in. If you take time to make some changes in your relationship that matter, you will reap the rewards. Commit to giving your relationship a thorough cleaningthis spring. You’ll be happy you did.