As a parent, you learn new skills every day. How to decipher the cries of your baby. How to bounce an infant while sleep deprived. How to quickly clean and dismantle a breast pump as though you’re a soldier cleaning a rifle. It comes with the territory. A happy marriage also requires a certain set of skills, skills that husbands and wives need to bust out every day. How to properly display appreciation, for instance. Or how to keep an argument from spinning out of control. Learning these skills — and knowing when to use them — are crucial to sustaining a partnership through the years. Here, then 10 such relationship skills all parents need to learn and practice.
Appreciation, otherwise known as validation, is a powerful tool. Used correctly, you’re showing your partner not only that you recognize how hard he or she is working, but that you express this appreciation in small, obvious ways. As often, it’s the simplest things that have the biggest results. But it’s something all couples can be better at.
One big aspect of validation is simply being there when your spouse has a problem. This calls for: Not talking. Not saying how you did it or would do it. And, and, and not giving unsolicited advice. It’s about listening and offering a well-placed, “I’m with you.” But you knew that. When you’re in a conversation, the cues are pretty obvious.
But validation doesn’t always take a recognizable form, because more than listening, it’s about recognizing. “It’s for being seen for what you’re contributing, even if it’s mundane and routine,” says Dr. Emily Upshur, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. Check that. Especially when it’s mundane and routine. Parenting is a never-ending game of Did I Just Do Anything Right? It’s easy to feel doubt, let alone any sense of confidence. As the supportive spouse, it’s your job to step in and provide, yes, validation. The words can vary but the subtext remains: I saw that and I’m not keeping it to myself.
Really, Truly Listening
Listening is a lot like parenting. It takes effort. It doesn’t offer a lot of credit. It’s not about you. “That’s why most of us aren’t very good about it,” Nichols says. But it’s worth doing. For pure practicality, your spouse has a problem. It’s going to be there regardless, and it will simmer and come out at a later, less convenient time with resentment without attention.
Leveling up your listening skills can be done by abiding to a few more rules: don’t get defensive, learn to ask for a pause if you feel yourself fading out, and don’t worry about finding the best words. Listening requires no words.
Now, that said. One of the best ways to be better almost immediately? At the beginning of a conversation, ask your spouse needs you to give advice or just listen. This gives your partner control and locks you into the right headspace. If you forget to ask at the outset, you can ask during. At a pause – and only at a pause – if you’re not sure what your partner wants, just ask, “What would help you most right now?” You’re reiterating your support and that your spouse’s agenda is all that matters. After all, listening is about support.
Whether you realize you’re a chronic-interrupter or not, interrupting all the time is not good for your image or relationships. It pisses people off and makes you seem like a boorish, insensitive, impatient partner who can’t wait a few minutes to interject with a counter-argument, funny story. Men are guilty of interrupting more than women but, chances are, both partners can up their awareness of how often they do it.
Interrupting less means listening more and empathizing with the speaker. Some pointers: Don’t think about what you’re going to say next and just listen. Pause for ten seconds after your partner stops talking to ensure that they’re actually done speaking (pregnant pauses are real). When in the midst of a heated discussion, repeat back part of the accusation or thought your partner just had so they know you were paying attention and not just waiting to speak.
“For whatever reason, when we’re married we don’t think we have to or need to do the things we did when we were dating,” Fran Greene, a couples’ counselor and author of The Flirting Bible, told Fatherly. “Somehow when the commitment is there we feel like we can say ‘Thank God, I don’t have to do that anymore.’ But it’s the opposite.” It sure is. Keep in mind: flirting is about taking the focus of yourself and onto your partner. One of the easiest ways to knock this down: Practice the posture of interest, says Francis. Maintain eye contact, smile, let your spouse talk without interrupting them, lean in, and listen to what they say. Emotional intimacy, here we come.
Setting Appropriate Boundaries
Happy marriages thrive on boundaries. “Intentionally setting boundaries around the marriage is what will keep it happy through the child-rearing years,” says Lesli Doares, a couples coach, “This means keeping kids out of the bedroom most of the time, having regular dates (even if you don’t leave the house), going on adults-only vacations and deciding to limit extra-curricular activities.” Too many parents, Doares told us, buy into the idea that children have to be involved in every activity open to them or they show interest in. This can be costly in terms of time and money. It’s okay to say ‘no’ to some things. It’s okay for your children to be disappointed sometimes. It actually prepares them for the real world.”
Equally important? Setting boundaries with in-laws, friends, and family members. While it’s certainly hard to explain to people when they can and can’t come over,
Prioritizing Your Marriage
Much like church and state, it’s crucial to think of your marriage and your kids as separate institutions — one of which comes before the other. “The most important thing parents need to do to maintain a happy marriage while raising children is to never put their children first,” says Julie Ingenohl, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in Connecticut. “Far too often, I have couples who come into my practice after twenty years of marriage with the complaints: ‘We just don’t connect. I don’t even know him anymore. It’s just not fun. We have nothing in common. The kids are almost grown up and we are about to be empty nesters. What are we going to do?’”
Basically, parents who turn all their focus toward their children end up neglecting the person they depend upon to help raise those children — and the person who’ll still be there when the kids eventually leave the nest. “Save something for yourself,” she recommends. “Maybe it’s a spin class, book club, running, or something else. But it needs to be scheduled regularly, and important to you.”
Watching Your Words During Arguments
What you say during an argument matters. When you do argue with your spouse, try and shift the focus by not casting blame and saying, “You did this” or ‘You need to fix this’ and instead use “I” statements. “When you use ‘you’ statements, they feel blamed and their ears turn off,” says Jonathan Robinson, a couple’s therapist and author of the new book More Love, Less Conflict: A Communication Playbook for Couples. “So, when you use ‘I’ statements, you avoid that. You can take responsibility by using a statement like, ‘One way I see I contributed to this upset is…’ What you’re trying to do is not have your partner become defensive and ‘I’ statement or taking some responsibility helps with that.”
Recognizing — and Steering Clear of — Invalidation
Emotional invalidation is a frequent — and sinister — force in relationships. It occurs when someone discounts their partner’s feelings, implying that, for them to be saying or doing something, they must be either crazy, stupid, or some combination of the two. It can happen in a quick, almost casual manner (“Don’t be silly…”), or it can even be done passive-aggressively, telling a partner how they should react before you even speak (“Don’t lose it, but I need to tell you something…”). In the worst-case scenarios, the invalidation can devolve into situations that can be humiliating and degrading (“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about”). Needless to say, doled out over time, invalidation can be incredibly destructive to a relationship. Marriages thrive on mutual trust, respect, and security, and if a partner doesn’t feel as though his or her feelings are being treated with respect, then the relationship will eventually corrode. Both partners need to work hard at making sure they don’t use any of these phrase.
Knowing When to Take a Time Out
Sense an argument starting to spin out of control? Learn how to hit pause. There’s nothing wrong with calling a time-out. In fact, sometimes it’s the best way to cool down a dispute and keep things from rising into the red. Stepping out for a half-hour and taking a walk or doing a calming activity can be just what you need to gather your thoughts and approach the discussion rationally. “The reason we often feel regretful after arguing is because we get caught up in the moment and say things we don’t mean,” Sullivan says. “Take a breather and recollect yourself before continuing the discussion.”
Minding Your Body Language
Body language speaks volumes. And you might be sabotaging your relationships with an unconscious shrug, arm-cross, or a tilt of the chin. For instance: crossing your arms. This makes you feel closed off or unwilling to listen to what others are saying. As Alison Henderson, a certified non-verbal behavior expert in Movement Pattern Analysis, said it can speak volumes. “The perception is the important part,” says Henderson. “They may think that a gesture is harmless because they don’t mean anything by it, but it’s how it’s perceived that becomes the issue.” Pay attention to how you present yourself to your partner is essential to keeping a relationship in tact.