Strengthening emotional connection in a relationship can seem daunting when there’s been prolonged dissatisfaction. For some people, denying themselves the right to feel better seems the only option in order to cope and focus on what must be done to get by.
You have a right to feel better in your relationship.
The following 10 rules are adapted from the research of Mark Sichel in his book “Healing From Family Rifts” to help improve the quality of emotional connection in relationships without denying your emotional needs and boundaries.
Rule 1: Assume responsibility
You have the responsibility to act now and not wait for your partner to change first.
Focus on what’s within your direct control to start improving the relationship, which is only your own actions.
There’s a freedom in this to no longer waiting to be the type of person you want to be. If for some reason the relationship ultimately doesn’t work out, you’ll at least know that you did everything you could.
This also involves exploring your own responsibilities to yourself within this relationship.
You have responsibilities to:
- Figure out your boundaries and bottom lines
- Respect the boundaries of others
- Manage your feelings appropriately
- Accept your partner’s personality traits and identity
- Not exert power and control over your partner
- Communicate clearly and respectfully
- Compromise, but without sacrificing your core values
- Ask clearly for what you need
- Take ownership of the consequences of your actions
- Respect your partner’s right to privacy
Rule 2: Accentuate the positive
Assumption of Similarity
Psychologist Anatol Rapoport identified in his research what he called the “Assumption of Similarity” as an antidote to increase connection between people in times of conflict.
This means that when you identify a positive quality in yourself, try to see that very quality in your partner. And when you identify a negative quality in your partner, try to see if you may also possess that same quality at times. If we’re actively looking for qualities we share, it minimizes the tendency to view your loved one as an adversary.
John Gottman also revealed through his research that avoidant, validating, and volatile relationship styles all have the potential to be stable, happy, and functional if the ratio of positive to negative interactions during conflict is greater than or equal to 5:1 (1993).
It’s harder for positive statements to stick than negative statements, so actively prioritize using language of connectedness with your loved one.
Rule 3: When a conflict is minor, keep it to yourself
Don’t get pulled into a cycle of negativity by bringing up every little problem.
This can be difficult because the mind tends to fixate on negative emotion in order to identify problems that need solving (Korb, 2015). The urge then is to bring these issues up, although we don’t always do that in an effective manner, especially when trust has been damaged by larger issues.
Take some time to consider whether the present problem needs to be a discussion. This can help to avoid choking a relationship with compounding negativity and hurting your ability to address larger issues together effectively.
Rule 4: Never tear the other person down
Focus on building your emotional containing boundary if you find yourself using critical language.
This boundary is about reigning you in so that your anger, your control, and your anxiety doesn’t leak out inappropriately onto others and cause further damage to the relationship.
You’ll have to get really centered in the commitment to yourself that ending the negative patterns keeping this relationship stuck is more important than anything else. Any point you have to make, any fight you have to fight, is less important than building the emotional connection back up.
Don’t let the toxicity out.
Rule 5: Be patient when you communicate
Don’t jump at the first misstep the other person makes.
You’re building new patterns of communicating together, which takes time to unlearn old habits and reinforce new ones.
If the other person acts negatively, know that you have an opportunity to invite them to a new relationship with you – one in which you are patient, willing to explore misunderstandings, and do not bring the same emotional reactivity.
Make repair attempts when you notice personal missteps. Ask to take back a poorly worded statement or to start over. Notice small steps forward and allow yourself to feel good when they occur, no matter how far you might be from your ultimate goal.
Rule 6: Think action
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I do that makes my partner more receptive, open, and interested in positively engaging with me?
- What do I do that makes me harder to work with and makes the situation worse?
Reflecting on your answers to these will reveal a lot of information about how to continue building emotional connection.
However, what you do to improve your relationship should not be at the expense of your personal needs and boundaries that are listed in Rule 1. You shouldn’t have to bend over backwards just to get what you’re fundamentally owed in your relationship, which is outlined in this post on emotional rights in your relationship.
Then, actually pay attention to when you do feel more engaged, interested, connected, and supported. This experience may not last indefinitely, so delight in it when it’s present and know how you made it happen.
Rule 7: Don't turn a breach of trust into resentment
If your loved one has broken your trust, the process toward healing means that you need to know that they know the full impact of what they’ve done. Not to punish them for the transgression, but to give them the opportunity to really see you and make amends.
Mira Kirshenbaum offers this statement for communicating this point in her book, “I Love You, But I Don’t Trust You”:
“Look, I know you feel I’m accusing you and that makes you feel that you need to defend yourself. But it’s not what I’m doing and it’s not what I need from you. I just need you to see me. I just need to be able to talk about the impact of what happened and have you … just know that. I don’t need you to say you’re sorry. I don’t need you to talk about what you meant or didn’t mean to do. I just need you to show me that you understand what this was like for me.“
Healing damaged trust can be a long process. If you’ve been the one to damage trust, even if you disagree about what happened, seek the difficult task of exploring their experiences, building understanding and empathizing to the best of your ability, and expressing a desire mend rifts to finally move forward.
For resentments that currently exist and interfere with this process, read more in this post on letting go of resentment.
Rule 8: Build on your partner’s strengths
Everyone wants to be seen positively by those they care about, knowing that their best traits are held firmly in the minds of others.
It has been repeatedly shown that the most effective way to motivate new behavior is to positively reinforce or reward the other person when they’re doing what you want them to do (Cameron & Pierce, 1994).
While some situations are more complex and we can’t guarantee behavior change, if you’re forthcoming with well-timed compliments and expressions of gratitude, people will be more likely to change their behavior to get acknowledgment of those positive qualities.
Rule 9: Avoid avoiding
There are three ways we typically avoid confrontation:
- Withdrawing from all communication about the topic with the person
- Passive-aggressive comments about the topic
- Talking to a third party who’s not directly involved in the topic
While it leads to less tension in the short-term, avoidance creates more problems long-term. Invest the initial discomfort to have a conversation that needs to be had because it builds effective conflict management skills and builds trust that both parties can handle difficult discussions.
Rule 10: Rely on the healing aspects of time
This rule is somewhat misleading in that it’s not the time itself that brings healing, but rather what you do with that time.
Relying on the sheer passage of time can help you better respond to stressors because it allows your body time to filter stress hormones out of your blood stream. At least, this is the case if you don’t keep triggering a stress response with your own thoughts by ruminating on a source of conflict.
Take time to process information, reflect on your priorities and goals, self-soothe, and avoid re-triggering the stress response in your imagination by rehashing the other person’s transgressions.
This is an act of kindness to do what needs to be done to bring your best self back into the relationship with compassion, empathy, and a desire to move forward.
Disclaimer: I am a licensed therapist, but I might not be your therapist and this article does not create a therapist-client relationship. This article contains mental health material for informational use only and should not be seen as therapeutic advice. You should consult with a therapist or other appropriate professional before you rely on this information. I reserve the right to change the information contained within this blog at any time and am not liable for any damages that may result from its use.
Cameron, J., & Pierce, W. D. (1994). Reinforcement, Reward, and Intrinsic Motivation: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 64(3), 363–423. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543064003363
Gottman, J.M. (1993a). The roles of conflict engagement, escalation, or avoidance in relationship interaction: A longitudinal view of five types of couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61, 6-15.
Kirschenbaum, Mira. I Love You, But I Don’t Trust You. Berkley, 2012.
Sichel, Mark. Healing from Family Rifts: Ten Steps to Finding Peace after Being Cut off from a Family Member. McGraw-Hill, 2004.