The best gift you can give your partner this Valentine’s Day isn’t flowers or chocolate, but rather the experience of the relationship they desire, according to a York University psychologist.
“In order to have a successful relationship, you really need to be able to give of yourself – to go outside your own needs, wants and viewpoints,” says David Reid, a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychology in York’s Faculty of Health.
Left: A Victorian Valentine’s Day card. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
“It sounds obvious, but I see so many clients who cannot put themselves in their partner’s shoes. Either they aren’t used to thinking in terms of the point of view of their spouse, or they simple refuse to,” he says. “This doesn’t mean you cave in to everything your partner wants. Rather, you learn to be more intuitive and emotionally sensitive towards your spouse. When this is done reciprocally it can create a very positive symbiotic shift in a relationship,” he says.
Reid has studied and documented the dynamics between couples for more than 15 years. He developed a new type of therapy that helps partners create a greater identity for themselves within their relationship, so much so that they begin to talk as if the relationship is part of their individual identities.
“You’re changing the relationship in ways that draw the partners into feeling and thinking of themselves as part of the relationship,” says Reid. “At its best, a relationship can actually allow you to express your identity and get to know yourself in ways you never thought possible,” he says.
His most recent research shows that as a result of participating in couples’ therapy, partners become significantly better at inferring what the other is thinking and feeling – the cornerstone of a healthy relationship.
With couples’ consent, Reid videotaped therapy sessions and then painstakingly studied how each set of partners related to one another. He designed techniques that accommodate the uniqueness of each partner and their relationship, including their respective personalities and added factors such as culture, family dynamics, and other challenges like medical problems.
Reid revisited the couples two years later to document how their relationships had progressed, using an unbiased interviewer. He repeatedly found that couples’ satisfaction was connected to how well they had learned to identify with their relationship as a result of the therapeutic intervention.
“It’s as if they learn to be their own therapists,” Reid says. “When you improve the relationship in ways that accommodate the idiosyncrasies of each partner, often the original issues that you argued about either dissolve, or are really quite easy for the couple to solve themselves,” he says.
Part of his therapeutic process involved interviewing a partner who agreed to pretend to be their spouse, attempting to answer questions from their partner’s viewpoint. Their spouse sat out of sight, and was later interviewed in the same manner.
“There’s a big impact witnessing one’s partner knowing you so well,” Reid says. “In doing this exercise, a husband may find that he knows more about his wife than he’s aware of, and vice versa.”
Reid offers the following tips for couples to strengthen their relationship:
- Put your own issues aside and respectfully engage the point of view of your spouse. If you can’t solve the problem, maybe you’re part of it.
- Pay attention to your intuitions. Be honest with yourself. Do you feel something isn’t right? There’s a bias in our world to think you can solve every problem with reason.
- Learn to listen honestly – not to win a point. Communication is based on feedback. Listen to understand your partner’s meaning, rather than just the words they are using.
- Try to accept each other. That includes accepting yourself; no one is perfect. Acceptance can go a long way towards resolving differences.
- When you’re having a major disagreement, remember to also speak for the relationship and not just yourself. In those moments of discord think of what would be best for the relationship. Research has found that partners in a well-functioning relationship have learned to make the relationship the bigger priority.
- Quit naysaying. Phrases like “I can’t,” “that won’t work,” “we can’t afford it,” can be replaced with formative thinking, such as, “How can we make this work,” “Is there another way we can do this.”
- Remember that the only person you can change is yourself. If your partner exhibits behaviour that is upsetting to you, half the battle can be to change yourself in such a way that it leads the other person to evolve, as well.
- The secret to longevity is good maintenance. Do those little things to keep the relationship humming along; nurturing, finding value in the relationship, and not taking it for granted. Relationships are not “things.” They are a dynamic ongoing process for growth, well-being and good health.