5 relationship tips from a couples therapist

5 important relationship tips from a couples therapist

As a couples therapist, I’ve worked with all types of relationships.  Whether gay, straight, polyamorous, monogamous, or somewhere in between here are five tips that can help you start improving your relationship today.  Hopefully reading these tips can help you start having conversations that will lead to improved communication, intimacy and connection.

Tip #1- Pick A Good Partner

Picking a partner to build a life with is a big decision. In fact, many relationship problems can be avoided if we just learn to pick better partners for ourselves.  In our culture, we don’t often talk about what makes a good partner. Most of us make this decision blinded by attraction and lust.

So, how can you pick a good partner?

It starts with you

Though this may sound cliche, before you find a partner it’s crucial that you understand yourself first.  Knowing your wants, needs, shortcomings and blindspots can help you avoid picking someone who isn’t right for you.  

In the work I do with couples, I can’t tell you how often a person will pick a partner based on what feels familiar from their own relationship history.  Sure, it’s great to go with something familiar if you had healthy, secure relationship role models. But all too often we end up repeating and recreating the negative relationship patterns we saw growing up.

Your relationship role models

We learn to be in relationship with other people based on how we see relationships modeled for us growing up.  For most of us, our baseline for what a relationship should look like comes from our parents. Again, great if you’d like to have the sort of relationship your parents had. Not so great if your parents had a horrible relationship. What types of relationships did you see modeled growing up? Was there betrayal or substance misuse in your family? Those types of patterns tend to repeat if we’re not careful.

Often times I will ask couples if they want to replicate the relationships they saw modeled and much of the time the answer is an emphatic “No!” We learn by example, so it’s helpful to know what those examples have been like.

Your relationship history

If you’ve dated before, what have those relationships looked like?  Often times we’ll get out of one bad relationship and find a slightly different version of the same thing with the next partner.  We’re attracted often times to what feels familiar. The good news is that you can change the pattern.

Have you done meaningful work on yourself?  

If you’re single and thinking about dating, have you done some meaningful work on yourself first?  If you’ve explored your relationship role models, your history and what you need and want from a partner, you’ll be ahead of most.  Individual therapy, meditation, coaching or personal exploration are important tools that can help you understand your past and plan for your future.

Picking a partner

So you’ve done some work on yourself and you’re clear about what you’re bringing to the table in a relationship.  Congratulations! The next step is finding a good partner. Yes, sexual attraction is a big part of the initial draw to a new person, but often times that initial attraction will fade.  If we want to look beyond attraction when finding a long-term partner, it can be helpful to look out for shared values, interests and mutual respect for one another.

Red, orange and yellow flags

All too often in the early stages of a relationship we’ll overlook certain warning signs.  Hormones are flowing, intensity is high and it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of a new love.  But if you know yourself and what your deal breakers are, you can cut the cord sooner rather than later and spare yourself time and pain in the long run.  If you’re in tune with yourself, you should know deep down if the warning signs are deal breakers.

Internal vs. external qualities

Often times when you ask someone about their ideal mate, you’ll head about external factors like career, money and looks.  While those may be important factors to consider, it’s the internal stuff that lays the foundation for great relationships. Do you respect and admire your potential partner’s character, values and integrity?  Do you think they’re a good person? Will they be someone you can rely on in tough times? Do they make you laugh? Are they kind?

Can you be yourself with your partner?

Sometimes we are cast in certain roles in relationship with our partner.  If you notice that you hide certain parts of yourself from your partner for fear of rejection or attack, chances are that’s not the person for you.  In a healthy, secure relationship you partner will love you because of who you are. They will accept, support, encourage and advocate for you. That’s the kind of person you want to build a life with.  The longer you’re together, there will be difficult challenges that come up. And you want someone loyal and dependable by your side.

Big ticket deal breakers

There are some big ticket deal breakers that are important to explore and discuss before you commit yourself fully to a relationship.  For example, if you want kids and your partner does not, you may not be a good fit in the long run. We can hold out and hope that someone will change, but that may just be kicking the can down the road and delaying the inevitable.  

Don’t expect them to change

If you enter a relationship hoping that eventually your partner will change, that is a recipe for disappointment.  Change typically has to be self motivated for it to stick. Just like you deserve to be accepted for who you are, your partner is entitled to the same in return.  It’s not fair to be with someone with the hopes that they will be a different person for you.

Tip #2- Don’t Always Avoid Conflict   

Well, here’s my unsatisfying therapist answer, it depends.

It depends on a couple of things.  First and foremost, do you or your partner avoid conflict because it’s uncomfortable? If so, then that could be bad for your relationship in the long run. Being able to talk about conflict in a constructive way is not something that many of us are taught growing up.

Am I conflict avoidant?    

If you hate conflict, you may be conflict avoidant.   

Here’s an example of what conflict avoidance can look like.  Picture this. You arrive at a restaurant and the host sits you at a table near the bathroom.  You know you don’t want to sit there, but you won’t ask to be moved to a new table. After enduring dinner sitting at a table you hate, you wind up feeling irritated and pissed off. You leave and you’re upset but you’re not sure why.

Sound familiar?

Why do people avoid conflict?   

There are lots of reasons people avoid conflict.  It’s uncomfortable for one thing. Some people are afraid of anger.  Others had poor examples of conflict in their homes growing up. Some fall into the people pleasing category and are so concerned with taking care of others that they don’t know about their own needs and wants.

What’s wrong with avoiding conflict?

In a romantic relationship, by avoiding conflict you prevent your partner from really getting to know your wants and needs.  This can create distance over time, and that can lead to boredom.

Emotions don’t just go away.  As much as we’d like to be able to control our feelings, it’s not that simple.  If you avoid feeling frustrated or angry, those feelings will usually come up in other places.

I don’t fight with my partner, but I’m a real asshole on the road

Road rage or aggressive driving can be an indicator that you might want to take a look at how you feel about conflict.  Aggressive driving can look like tailgating, speeding to catch a light, using your horn excessively or switching lanes to weave through traffic.  

If you hold your feelings inside, they will surface in other places. If not road rage, maybe you get irrationally angry in other areas of your life.

Besides being unpleasant, road rage is dangerous! But for some of us, it’s easier to scream at a stranger in the car than bring up our differences with our romantic partners.

What are the benefits of having conflict in your relationship?

Conflict can be a place of growth and renewal in your relationship.  It doesn’t have to devolve into a screaming match every time. In fact, if talking about difference in your relationship brings up bad behavior, it can be very helpful to seek support from a couples therapist to help you work through that.  

By sharing more of yourself with your partner, they will know more about you.  By playing it safe and avoiding difficult conversations, you’re creating distance in your partnership. If you’re unsure how to have a difficult conversation with your partner, check out this post.

Do I need more conflict in my relationship?  

Before you decide whether you need more conflict in your life, let me describe a typical scenario of how conflict avoidance can cause problems in a relationship.

Here’s an example.  You and your partner are very kind to one another.  In public, you’d never bicker or disagree. But maybe your relationship has started to feel more distant lately.  You’re not having sex nearly as much as you once did. You go out to dinner and it’s hard to know what to talk about.  There are things you wouldn’t dream of bringing up with your partner for fear of rocking the boat. Sound familiar?

Conflict can be uncomfortable, yes, but differences also bring life into a relationship.  By talking about your inner most wants, needs and dreams, you’re really showing up in an intimate and vulnerable way.  And that’s exciting!

How can I increase my comfort level with conflict?  

  • In short, it’s an inside job.  You first have to spend some time exploring what makes conflict uncomfortable for you.  That will give you some ideas on how best to move forward bringing more of it into your life.
  • If things get explosive when you talk about differences, find support from an expert.  Do you avoid conflict for fear of walking on eggshells or how your partner will respond? Then find a couples therapist.  If your having trouble with the breaks in your car and you didn’t know how to fix them, you’d find a mechanic. Do yourself the same favor with your relationship.
  • Be vulnerable.  Once you know that your relationship is safe, you have to be vulnerable.  It’s the only way. Take a risk. Share something deeply personal with your partner and show up in a real way.
  • Set up a time each week to talk about difficult things.  Set up a time each week that you can have a few minutes to talk about difficult things.  And then use the time to talk about difficult things. The only way to get better at this is to practice.  You will not wake up one day and magically be more comfortable with conflict.
  • Be kind with yourself and your partner. Change is hard. By talking about conflict more, you’re going to rock the boat.  It will get uncomfortable for a time. But if you don’t, you’re missing out on the potential to have a more meaningful and connected relationship.

Tip #3- Don’t Keep Secrets, Even Small Ones  

According to relationship experts Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson, the foundation of a strong relationship is trust.  Yet all too often we hold back and keep things from our partners. Keeping a secret, or withholding, is actually just another form of lying to your partner.  If you take nothing else from the article, know that deception is a sure fire way to break down trust and cause problems in your relationship.  

Different types of lies

There’s a continuum from bad to worse on which a lie can fall. There are smaller lies like exaggerations or omissions and there are big ticket, high stakes felony lies, like affairs.  Whether small or large, any type of lie can cause a breakdown of trust in your relationship. When you threaten trust you prevent yourself from really being seen or known by your partner and vice-versa.  If lying can cause all sorts of problems in relationships, why do we do it?    

Why do we lie? 

Every lie has a purpose.  Some lies are meant to make your partner feel good, like “I love the way you dance to Lady Gaga,” when in fact your partner is a terrible dancer.  Some lies serve as protection. For example, you may lie about your wants, needs or feelings in order to manage the fear that your partner could leave you.  If we come to understand the reason for the lie, we can better heal and then prevent it from continuing in the future.   

Lying at the beginning of a relationship

Most of us want to look our best at the beginning of a relationship.  Sometimes that will involve small lies or omissions in order to look good in the eyes of our potential new partner.  For example, you may lie about how much you love showtunes because you’re worried that your new mate will think you’re a dork. (Ok, maybe that’s just me) It’s perfectly natural to want to connect and find similarities with a new partner at the beginning, however you’re in danger of creating a pattern of deception moving forward that can come back to haunt you.

Also, if you’re not showing up as your authentic self at the beginning of a relationship, what do you expect will happen over time when the facade breaks down?   

Being honest with yourself

All too often, we get in the habit of lying to others only after we’ve been lying to ourselves.  The first step to welcoming more transparency in your relationships is to be more truthful with yourself.  By coming to know more about your own wants, needs and feelings you will be better able to share those with others.  You will also be more aware of when you’re tempted to lie, omit or sugarcoat something in the future. Knowledge is, after all, power.

Is it ok to keep secrets from my partner?  

By now you’re probably aware that I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep secrets from your partner.  If you’re scared of rocking the boat, know that keeping secrets to preserve the peace will not be sustainable forever. It’s important to learn how to have difficult conversations, otherwise you can slip into a pattern of conflict avoidance.   It’s important to get into the practice of being completely honest and authentic with your partner as soon as you can. And I use the word practice because it is a practice. Much like meditation, truthfulness may not come easily for you at first.  But keep at it. It will get easier.  

I don’t want to fight 

One of the main reasons that couples will often use for keeping secrets is that they want to avoid a fight.  While fighting can be unpleasant, there are tools and methods that you can use to communicate more fairly. But if you’re not communicating at all, it will be hard to practice and learn new skills to communicate better.  The goal is not to avoid all conflict, but to learn to have more constructive, curious conversations with one another around difficult topics.  

What if I think my partner is keeping a secret?  

If you think your partner is not being fully honest with you that could be a red flag that you’re having trust issues as a couple.  You may feel able to tackle the topic on your own. If so, check in with your partner and share your concerns. Suppose you don’t feel able to manage that conversation on your own, then find a couples therapist in your area and reach out to them.  

Trust is the foundation for all strong relationships.  If you noticed a crack in the foundation of your actual house I’ll bet you’d seek out the services of a foundation expert.  Your relationship deserves the same attention if you want it to thrive.  

What if I’m keeping a secret from my partner?  

If you’re keeping a secret from your partner, first consider why you’re keeping it.  Spend some time understanding what’s going on for you and then find a way to bring up the topic with your partner.  Again, if you don’t feel able to do that on your own, get support.  

I’m ready to be honest, but I don’t know how

Congratulations!  Deciding to be honest is the first step on a long and scary road that can bring about a stronger relationship.  After you’ve spent some time understanding why you held back or lied, be vulnerable, kind and forthcoming with your partner.  They may not react well, especially depending on the severity of the lie. Give them space, offer support and be patient.

When having any type of difficult conversation it can be helpful to strive for curiosity in place of frustration.  And if you need more support, ask for it. Your relationship deserves it.  

Tip #4- Your Partner Can’t Read Your Mind, Even If They Think They Can

You may not want to hear this, but it’s not your partner’s job to read your mind.  If you expect mind reading in your relationship you will be disappointed time and time again.  

Picture this scenario, Rob and Steve have been together for years.  By now, Rob feels that Steve should know when he’s crossed the line and hurt his feelings.  In fact, when the line has been crossed and Steve seems oblivious, it makes Rob even more angry and hurt.  This is a pattern that if left to continue will bring about frustration and pain time and time again.  

The fantasy of being known

It’s a basic human need to want to be seen and understood by our partner.  If your significant other has ever surprised you with a date night or brought home your favorite chocolates without prompting you can recall how magical that feels.  You are really being seen and understood and cared for.  

Mind reading

Unfortunately, when we expect that fantasy to happen over and over again with our partners, we wind up disappointed.  It is not our partner’s job to read our mind. It is their job to listen, respond and be open when we communicate our wants and needs.

Why do I expect mind reading?  

Parents often have to read the minds of their children, especially when they don’t yet have the words to be able to express what’s happening inside.  If you didn’t have that kind of experience as a child, where someone helped you make sense of your inner world and learn how to communicate your needs, it will be hard to do that as an adult.  It doesn’t mean your parents were terrible or you had a bad childhood, but somewhere along the line you didn’t have that experience. So you expect it from your partner.

My partner should just know

Think about Rob and Steve.  Rob feels that Steve should just know that he crossed the line.  However, Rob and Steve are different people. (Despite the fact that their names are both common and one syllable.) 

When we expect our partner to be the same as us, to know what we’re thinking and feeling, we are destined to be let down.  

I shouldn’t have to ask

Rob feels that he shouldn’t have to ask for Steve to notice his feelings.  Steve should just get it after all these years. But that’s an unfair expectation.  We’re constantly changing and evolving. We don’t even always know what we’re thinking and feeling in the moment.  How can we expect that from our partners?  

Start with you

If I was talking with Rob, the advice I’d give him is simple.  Start with his own feelings. If he can become very clear about what he wants and needs, it will be much easier for him to communicate that with Steve. 

If you think about your own relationship for a moment, when you’re wanting mind reading from your partner, what is really going on? Is there something you’re needing or wanting in that moment that is hard to express?   

Common mind reading phrases

There are a number of ways to begin spotting mind reading in your relationship.  Here are some common phrases that come up in couples therapy when someone is expecting their partner to do the magic or reading minds.  

  • My partner should just know this makes me angry.   
  • Why didn’t you remember that I hate corn on my pizza?  
  • How come you don’t know that I’m sad?

Mind reading and sex

There are certain topics that can be problematic for most couples to talk openly about.  Sex and finances usually top the list of topics that bring about anxiety or stress when they surface in relationships. 

Often times the topic of sex is ripe with mind reading traps. There are misconceptions that your partner should know what you like in bed.  Or they should be able to guess when you’re in the mood for sex. This is of course unfair and again, sets the stage for a disappointing scene down the line.  

What can I do about this?  

Therapy can be a useful way to learn more about what’s happening in your internal world and how to communicate that to others.  You can also focus on meditation or mindfulness, journaling, art or a number of other activities that bring you closer in contact with your internal world.  Couples counseling can be a useful way to learn how to express these things to your partner.  

“I” statements

“I” statements can be excellent tool to help avoid that trap of expecting your partner to read your mind.  Instead of saying, how come you didn’t know I was upset? You could simply say: “I’m upset right now and I want to talk about it.” 

When you talk about your own internal state and clearly communicate what you think, feel and need you will begin to change the tone and outcome of your conversations.  You will improve your communication.

Tip #5- Sometimes It’s Ok To Leave 

As a couples therapist, I spend my days encouraging people to work on their relationships.  With support and hard work, it’s remarkable how much progress some couples can make. You can heal betrayal, improve communication and become better connected.  

However, sometimes it’s not possible or healthy to remain in a relationship.  Sometimes it’s in your best interest to leave.

Deciding to leave

Deciding to leave a relationship is one of the most difficult, scary, big, intimidating and intense decisions that you can make.  The longer you’re together, the more your lives are intertwined and the harder it is to leave. If you’re married, have kids, own property or a business together you’re not just ending a relationship, you’re uprooting your entire life in major ways.  And that’s hard.

Working on your relationship

If you’re honest with yourself about how difficult it is to end a relationship, spending some time in couples therapy may sound more appealing.  Couples counseling is hard work. You’ll move into uncomfortable territory and you will be encouraged to look at your part in the problem. You’ll have to be honest about your wants and needs.  Over time you’ll get better at listening to your partner. Your relationship will deepen and you’ll learn alot about yourself in the process.

But sometimes couples therapy is not the answer.  

When is it a bad idea to work on your relationship?

While couples therapy can be extremely helpful for some people, it doesn’t work for everyone.  There are situations when it may not be useful to work on your relationship. It may be time to end things.  It won’t be easy for the many reasons discussed above, but it may be right.

When is it time to leave?

While leaving a relationship is a highly personal and complicated decision, below are some suggestions of times when it may be a good idea to bid farewell.  Leaving will be hard, so make sure to have support from friends, relatives, and a therapist. Additional support is especially important if you don’t feel safe in your relationship or you’re worried about potential violence.  

Here are some scenarios when couples therapy may not be the right option.  Keep in mind these are just suggestions and leaving a relationship is highly personal and nuanced.  If you’re in doubt, get some professional help from a therapist you trust.

Relationship deal breakers

  • You don’t want to do the work.  Healing a relationship that is in distress takes a lot of commitment and hard work.  Be really honest with yourself. Are you ready to do the work? If not, that’s ok. But have some courage and tell your partner the truth.
  • They’re not willing to meet you halfway.  Again, working on a relationship takes a lot of time, energy and commitment.  If your partner is not willing to meet you halfway, you can’t fix it alone. It would be like rowing a boat into the current. Alone.  Eventually you’ll tire yourself out.
  • They’re not willing to take responsibility for their part in the problem.  It’s rare that the problems in a relationship fall on just one member of a couple.  If your partner is not willing to look at and address their part in the problem, they’re not ready to meet you halfway.  
  • There’s emotional or physical abuse.  There’s never room for emotional or physical abuse in a relationship.  It’s never ok for your partner to put their hands on you, or vice-versa.  It’s never ok to use hurtful or abusive language with your partner. If this is happening, get support from a professional as soon as possible and make sure that you’re safe.  It is possible to come back from physical violence, but you should certainly seek skilled professional support.
  • There’s out of control substance use that is not being addressed.  Out of control substance use or compulsive behavior, like gambling, needs to be addressed before there will be any meaningful change in your relationship.  Depending on the situation, this can happen along side couples therapy or it may need to be addressed before working on your relationship.
  • Your partner is using finances to control you.  Power and control can be destructive forces in intimate relationships.  If your partner is not willing to own this behavior and change it, it could be time to find a way out.  The last thing you want to do is open up and be vulnerable with someone who will use it against you.
  • Trust has been broken and there’s no effort to repair it.  When betrayal happens in a relationship a couple has the opportunity to work through it and become stronger.  It will be difficult work, but it is possible. However, if your partner is not willing to take responsibility for their mistakes, it will be a challenge to make much progress.  

In summary

In my experience these are five tips that may be useful and help you improve your relationship.  Take what you like, and leave the rest. These tips and tools are not meant to take the place of actual couples therapy.  If you’re struggling in your relationship or if you’d just like to improve communication, find a couples therapist near you and don’t wait.  Most couples wait five years too long and then it’s even harder to rekindle the spark. If you’re in the Bay Area, please reach out and I’m happy talk more about working together.  

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett

Tom Bruett, LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist with an office in San Francisco, CA. Tom feels passionately about helping people have better relationships. The purpose of this blog is not to provide advice or to take the place of working with a mental health professional. For more information please visit the homepage.