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The Short Version: Learning how to effectively communicate and show love for another person are essential tools in any relationship. Dating Coach Merri Knox, who works with Relationship Hero, shares valuable advice about what it takes for couples to learn those skills. She offers practical steps to help people improve their relationships or identify when to end a toxic relationship.
Romantic relationships can be confusing and difficult to navigate, especially when people are still developing the skills they need to communicate with their partners.
Many individuals and couples turn to the counselors with Relationship Hero to help them learn those relationship skills and better understand themselves.
Merri Knox, a Dating Coach with Relationship Hero, said there are many relationship dos and don’ts. But anyone can learn new skills to help their relationship grow and improve.
Many people didn’t see positive romantic relationships as they are growing up or they may have had a string of troubled partnerships that caused trauma and pain. While they may feel like they can do nothing to improve, Merri said that is not true.
“Thank goodness for neuroplasticity,” Merri said. “Most of us have to learn relationship skills through our own personal experience and curiosity to grow.”
Clients need to be willing to take accountability for their development to succeed in building relationship skills, Merri said. That can help them become emotionally agile and learn new skills to move toward their desired mindset.
The rate of skill development can depend on a person’s history and experience with romantic relationships, family, and platonic levels of intimacy. Merri said that attachment style, self concept, and beliefs can also make change easier or more complex.
“The level of difficulty could depend on how enmeshed someone is in an existing pattern, their access to support both personally and professionally, and their sense of safety and motivation to learn and adjust. All of which can be built and developed,” she said.
Before people begin working to improve a relationship, they need to determine whether that relationship is so toxic they may be better off alone. If someone is wondering whether a relationship is toxic, it’s likely their instincts are kicking in, Merri said.
“Name-calling, put-downs, overcriticizing, threats, or controlling behavior are all causes for concern,” she said. “If there is a behavior that you or your partner demonstrate that you minimize or withhold from friends or family so as not to concern them, that’s probably an indication that something is off.”
People in relationships should also look for instances of coercive control, which is a form of emotional abuse. If you’re dealing with a toxic or abusive situation, professional help is available to answer questions and offer support. The National Domestic Hotline is a free resource for any person in crisis.
Some unhealthy relationship patterns can be helped with counseling or coaching, but not all relationships can or should be saved. In cases of broken trust or toxic behavior, the decision to split up or get divorced might by the healthiest option for everyone involved.
“Leaving any relationship, particularly one where abuse has been experienced, can be a painful process,” Merri said. “You undoubtedly deserve to feel supported and cared for.”
In cases where the love has faded but is still salvageable, some effort may be needed to get the relationship back on track. To maintain a feeling of goodwill and positive connection, Merri suggested practicing gratitude for the other person. Couples can strengthen their relationship by sticking to the 5 to 1 rule, which was created by relationship researcher John Gottman.
“For every one negative feeling or interaction between partners, there ideally need to be five positive feelings or interactions,” she explained.
Couples can also ask exploratory, open-ended questions about each other and their experience. Get curious about what a partner thinks, and truly listen to what they say. Take care to eliminate distractions and not start thinking of a response or a suggestion while the other person is talking.
Another practical tip is to focus on kindness and compassion. When someone doesn’t know what to do to help a partner, they can ask what their partner needs in that moment. Sometimes, that can lead to a difficult conversation. But Merri suggested not shying away from having those tough talks because that can lead to deeper intimacy.
“Avoiding difficult conversations because we’re concerned about the answer likely means it’s an important conversation to have,” she said.
While partners can sometimes provide help and alleviate stress, understanding their responsibilities to themselves is also essential. A common mistake many couples make is to presume that they should fulfill each others’ needs. But healthy relationships involve two people who have rituals and connections outside the partnership that enriches their lives.
Articulating their needs clearly and effectively can be challenging. Partners need to advocate for themselves, but that is one of the most common problems couples face in their relationships. They could also learn about their attachment style and their partner’s attachment style.
“Sometimes they are unaware of their own or their partner’s attachment style and how that impacts connection,” Merri said. “I also see people avoiding difficult conversations and demonstrating conflict resolution skills that have room for development.”
Even the healthiest and happiest relationships will involve disagreements. Learning how to resolve them so they won’t hurt feelings can bring couples closer rather than pushing them apart.
Merri said one rule is to avoid using absolutes, including the words “always” and “never” when talking with a partner. For example, if one partner is bothered that the other rarely does the dishes, using the word “never” could make them defensive and less likely to find a solution together.
Instead of criticizing, Merri advises thinking of what you’d wish would happen instead. Be self-reflective before — or after — you complain to see if there’s a better way to reframe a question about unmet needs. For example, if you say, “You’re always late, and I never get to see you” you’ll get a different response than if you say, “I miss spending time with you and would love it if we could schedule at least one night of the week to be together. Is that something we could do?”
Another tip for better conflict resolution is to reframe “you” statements into “I” statements. Changing “You let me down” into “I feel sad and let down right now,” takes away the finger-pointing and leads to more understanding and connection.
That can help people take responsibility for their roles in the situation, even if it’s just a small part of a bigger problem.
“Someone doesn’t make us feel something, although they may contribute to our emotional state. Our emotions are ours,” Merri said. “If we’d like to communicate more compassionately, we can incorporate that into our feedback.”