Improving Relationships

"Skill and Determination" Dan Jansen by Mimi Stuart ©

Fixed mindset

If you have a fight with your husband and think “this relationship is never going to work”, then it probably won’t. If your boredom and lack of desire cause you to wonder “are we growing apart?” you’re missing an opportunity to rekindle your passion. Moreover, you may probably repeat this pattern in your next relationship.

People with a fixed mindset about relationships tend to become either entrenched and combative, or to simply give up when the going gets rough. Often they hide their feelings to maintain harmony, but this ultimately leads to resentment and disillusionment.

Change-is-possible mindset

When we view emotional intelligence as a set of skills that can be improved throughout life, we can improve our relationships.

Those who ask themselves “What do I need to learn to improve my relationships?” (as a partner, parent or friend) have relationships that tend to improve and deepen over time. The mere belief that relationship skills can be learned increases the likelihood that your relationships will improve.

How do we figure out what skills we could learn?

Pinpoint how and why a certain problem occurs. Then ask yourself the following questions:

1. “How am I participating in the problem?”

This is not to blame oneself, but rather to solve the problem. It’s easy to see what the other person is doing. But we have no control over another person; we can only change our own attitude and reactions.

2. “How am I triggering the other person?”

“Is it my tone of voice?” “Do I sound like I’m whining, complaining, or being controlling?” The easiest way to find out is to ask the other person directly. If he or she can’t articulate it, ask friends, family, or a therapist. If you are honest with yourself, you can probably figure it out yourself.

3. “How do I allow him/her to trigger me?”

Take a look at what tends to trigger you. When you become aware of your triggers, you have an opportunity to change your reactions.

For example, if someone’s controlling tone of voice triggers the rebel in you, which makes the other person even angrier, you can choose not to rebel. It’s amazing how an ingrained pattern simply vanishes if one party sincerely changes his or her reactions. Instead of sneering: “Don’t you trust me!?” you might respond more neutrally: “You sound really worried, and I want to assure you that ….”

4. Focus on what works. Don’t label the relationship good or bad.


“Our discussions are more productive when I bring up problems after she’s eaten.”

“When I state the problem once, I get a better response than when I repeat myself and go on and on.”

“When I listen to her without interrupting, she listens to me.”

“When I tell him I love him and am not angry at him, but am overwhelmed by work, he doesn’t get defensive.”

“When I tell him that I’ll feel better by telling him my work situation, but that he doesn’t need to fix the problem, he seems relieved.”

Looking at problems as opportunities to learn new skills.

Start by asking yourself the right questions.


Does your spouse feels criticized?
How can I express my desires and needs without sounding critical?

Do you argue about how to spend money?
How can we each discuss our fears and desires about money and security, and develop a mutual plan, taking into account each person’s underlying fears and desires?

Has your relationship run dry of desire?
Maybe there is another underlying problem, feelings of disrespect, contempt, or being controlled, for example. What can I do to develop and sustain an atmosphere of desire, appreciation and sensuality?

Has the relationship become pedestrian and ordinary?
What can I do to make the relationship feel special or even sacred? What actions and attitude would help?

Do you find yourself yelling or complaining a lot?
How can I express my own desires and needs without sounding controlling or critical? This can be learned. (Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s book “Nonviolent Communication” is excellent.)

Is one person always late and the other always punctual?
How can we deal with that problem structurally (by using two cars, for example), so the punctual person doesn’t end up resenting the late person, and the late person doesn’t feel pushed?


Those who view a successful relationship as a result of skills to be developed are more likely to improve their relationship or marriage. Such a growth mind-set leads to a desire to learn and to embrace challenges, to persist in the face of setbacks, and to see effort as the path to mastery. Learn from feedback rather than becoming defensive, and be inspired by the success of others. The reward is an increasingly fulfilling,loving and happy relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “Living together Part I: Manners and Boundaries — ‘What’s the matter with you? Look at this mess you made!’”

Read “Giving Advice: ‘She never listens to me.’”

Read “Respect each other: ‘He’s always talking down to me.’”

6 thoughts on “Improving Relationships

  1. Anonymous

    I’d really love some advice, I’m in a long distance relationship that’s been going on and off for about 5 years now. We’ve had our ups and downs. Broken up a couple of times during which we have both been involved with other people. We recently decided to make the effort and have been committed to each other only, we’ve spoken about marriage and starting a family together but recently he’s been acting strange, he’s less attentive less car,ing and we’ve just been arguing quite often. Because of our long distance I can’t help but think perhaps is best we call it quits. Especially as I’ve never been in the same place with him for a long period of time, I am worried these are his true colours and I dont know if I can handle it. I know I’ve been nagging more but it’s because he’s not doing things that would stop me nagging. He’s not being compassionate or even just empathetic and I’ve tried showing him what I’d want through example. What can I do?

    1. Alison Post author

      Hello. I can’t advise you as to whether you should break up again or not. It would help if I knew what you are arguing about. It is possible that he is acting strange because you have been talking about marriage and starting a family and he has second thoughts perhaps because he fears being trapped or controlled.

      Rather than simply breaking up, it might be helpful to have an open, non-threatening conversation, where you say in a compassionate voice, “it feels as though you are pulling back. What’s going on?” No matter what he says, it’s important not to become defensive or angry. Otherwise, he’ll avoid sharing his honest feelings with you in the future. If you’re taken aback by what he says, just say, “Thanks for being candid with me. I need to think about this.”

      I can also say that you have to stop nagging. If you have a complaint, consider whether it’s legitimate, and if so, find a way to express yourself in a positive way. If you give me a couple of examples, I can give you some ideas of how to do that.

      If he feels frequently criticized and that he is disappointing you, that in itself can cause him to back away and become less attentive. It would be very hard for him to be compassionate and empathetic if he feels defensive. Whether you stay together or not, this is a good time to practice expressing yourself in a way that will be heard and accepted. In fact, a break-up does not have to be hostile or full of regrets and resentment. It can be done in a kind and honest way.

      All the best.


      1. Anonymous

        Thanks for the advice Alison. It’s very helpful. I do understand that i shouldn’t nag but it’s only because he’s recently not showing me as much attention, he used to be extremely attentive sending me messages all the time, calling me. But now he’s stopped. I tried explaining to him that I really enjoy hearing from him so I’d be happy if he continued so he did for a little while and then stopped. So I then decided to do the same to him to see if he’d notice, he did and he didn’t like it. But even after giving him a taste of his own medicine he’s still not understanding. When I try to explain to him that I’m upset about something he gets defensive
        Which causes another argument as I feel like he’s not being objective or seeing it from my point of view. I have often voiced my concerns as far as to even say I’d like to call it quits but he always stops me and says we should fight for our relationship. I just think it’s not right if I’m constantly nagging and we’re having arguments every other day, about things like him not showing compassion, being caring or attentive. I know some people find it difficult to talk about their feelings and he’s one of them. So it makes it hard to know what’s wrong with him or why he’s not acting like before. I’m just extremely lost.

        1. Alison Post author

          A relationship should not be this difficult, especially when it is still long-distance!! Usually not seeing someone everyday makes it easier to keep the romance alive. Believe me, moving in together and having children only adds challenge to a relationship. Having children, in particular, makes getting the connection you seek more difficult because infants are very needy, and a person’s parental persona is anathema to romance.

          It is very strange that he does not want to break up but is not at all attentive. And you’re sure you are not being overly the “pursuer”? A reasonable amount of desire for connection is healthy, but you’re not pushing him away, right? There is always the possibility that he has another romance going on, but doesn’t want to lose you. Even if he is being faithful, it seems as though you are not his priority. Or, perhaps there is something else going on–difficulty at work, for instance, and he doesn’t want to bother you with his stresses.

          There is bound to be some backing off of his initial pursuit of you when you fell in love. This is normal. And it’s also part of the reason I suggest going slowly. Some people, however, only get excited when there is a pursuit. Generally such people are not the best long-term partners.

          Of course I don’t know all the circumstances, but if it were me in this kind of situation, I would probably say to him in a kind, rational discussion (with absolutely no nagging or blame) that I wish him the best, but that I want to have a relationship in which both people are more excited to communicate and connect. Although I don’t want to be totally fused, I don’t want to nag or feel frequent disappointment. Perhaps no one is at fault, but there seems to be a mismatch of expectations.

          All the best. Let me know what you decide.


  2. Anonymous

    Dear Alison,

    For the past two and a half months, my life has been completely marred by a conspiracy of haters… They mercilessly attempt to blight my livelihood on a daily basis and I am getting so fed up with them that I’m not even going to play their stale game anymore. I have done everything in my power to make peace with them but to no avail. Why are some people so implacable?

    It truly saddens me to know that these people were once my friends and now they are adamantly plotting against me… They don’t even realize that their severely out-of-hand actions have immensely frazzled my nerves. Please advise me on how to deal with this ordeal. Thank you very much for your time and support.



    1. Alison Post author

      Dear Anonymous,

      Your situation sounds pretty extreme, and I would suggest finding someone who can help give you suggestions in person to find out more in detail what is going on. Sorry not to more more helpful.

      I wish you the best,



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