Do you begin each year by telling yourself you want to lose weight, change your job, remodel your house or be a better parent? For many couples, starting a new year includes a list of personal resolutions. Why? What is the attraction of a list of things you want to change? It’s this: A new year offers a time for reflection; a time to plan, to dream, to evaluate what is working and, most importantly, to change what is not.
In many families, there are established rituals and traditions for ringing in the new year. In my family, it was common to spend New Year’s Day in the car, driving home after spending the holidays with relatives. We were squeezed in our station wagon, surrounded by luggage and our newly acquired holiday treasures.
The theme of the New Year’s Day drive was always the same: “sharing resolutions and making goals.” It was an exercise my dad started, and participation was both a requirement and a ritual. The task was simple: Each person had to reflect on the year that had passed and to dream about the year ahead. Little did my dad know he was following the advice of relationship experts by having us create shared meaning.
You can create shared meaning with your partner, too. What would happen if, instead of making your own personal to-do list, you made a joint list of New Year’s resolutions with your partner? You could trust your partner; share your wild ideas, fears, and dreams for the coming year. While this exercise requires time and a willing partner, it can be a fun and effective method for couples to explore the quality of their relationship, increase connections and improve their happiness in their relationship.
Resolutions reflect the mood of the relationship, both good and bad. They can be a way to identify challenges, rekindle the spark or even start over. If you pay attention, you will find that the theme of your partner’s resolutions is a window into their world and their needs. Most importantly, sharing your resolutions offers an opportunity to move from a state of “me-ness” to “we-ness” in your relationship.
Research shows that this “we-ness” is important for a relationship to be successful. In fact, if one partner remains focused only on themselves, it can be a deal-breaker, causing increasing conflict over time. Simply said, when a couple acts as an “us,” they evaluate their individual goals and choices in terms of how their decisions affect their partner. When necessary, they make sacrifices for the “family team” that they would never have made as an individual.
The key to making this a positive process is to focus on the importance of your relationship. Making the “us” matter is key to creating shared meaning and building something special and important between the two of you. Research by the Bringing Baby Home Program shows that creating shared meaning leads to greater stability in relationships. It helps couples settle conflicts and collectively pursue goals, such as raising a balanced, socially responsible child, or building a successful business. When two people have shared meaning, they are willing to support one another’s goals, even when there is little to gain personally from doing so.
Here’s an example: Imagine that he wants to golf more, and she wants to spend weekends as a family. She wants to take a class in the evenings, he wants to eat dinner together. She wants to travel more, he wants to spend less money. Many couples would look at these resolutions as either/or scenarios: “If we pick your goal, then we can’t pick mine.” Not true! Research shows that if couples do not support one another in making a desired change, then the change can become a major source of conflict. Instead, the task is to discuss the needs behind the resolutions and find ways for both partners to win.
Another mistake partners make is to keep resolutions to themselves. This tends to pull couples apart as each person works towards their own goal. Both have good intentions, but without a plan for how to use resolutions to connect, the resolutions become sources of conflict and personal failures, decreasing the quality of the couple’s relationship.
Ask yourselves the following questions: What are your visions for 2008? What do you hope to accomplish as a family? What is working in your relationship? What needs to be changed? How do the activities and social engagements you choose fit into this? Do you have any goals that will enhance the quality of your relationship? Explore these questions and create a list of resolutions that are important for your family. May 2008 be your best year yet!
Carolyn Pirak is the director of the Gottman Institute’s Bringing Baby Home Program. She is married and the mother of two children. For more information, visit www.bbhonline.org.
Resolutions that can improve relationship satisfaction:
1. Resolve to listen. I once heard a colleague say, “There is a reason we were given one mouth, but two ears … to listen more than we talk.” Research shows that couples who listen well connect on a deeper level with their partners. They ask more open-ended questions and have more satisfying relationships than those who do not.
2. Resolve to express your fondness and admiration. Do you say thank you? Do you remember why you chose your significant other as “the one”? Have you shared that with them? In this busy age of technology, we often forget to say how we feel. While a text message is nice, hearing the words “I love you” will mean so much more.
3. Resolve to be compassionate. Be aware that it’s not just your words that have an impact. Approximately 70 percent to 80 percent of communication is nonverbal, so be aware of your body language. Try not to send mixed messages. For example, the words you say are nice, but your arms are folded, your expression blank.
4. Resolve to have fun together. Pick an activity you both enjoy. Think back to when you were dating. What did you do “just because”? Do it again now.
5. Resolve to be together. We live in a time of doing. Are you a person who puts a task on a to-do list just for the pleasure of crossing it off? Try to move your relationship from a state of doing to a state of being. Sometimes, the best moments are those when you just share space and time with your partner, rather than solving household, financial or child-focused problems. Successful couples find happiness in the small moments.