Six Valentine's Resolutions for Struggling Relationships

When we marry, we hope to remain happily married until death, yet that is not the experience that most of us have.  Yes, most of us who get married will stay married, but committed relationships generally include plenty of significant bumps and bruises.  Here are some statistics to ponder:

  • Information from the National Science Foundation suggests that in any given year about 12% of men and 7% of women say they have had sex outside of their marriage.
  • As many as one in three couples struggles because one partner has a low sex drive
  • Marriage research suggests that the first year of marriage includes a significant decrease in marital satisfaction and that in the years thereafter happiness continues to decline, though at a less steep rate
  • More than two dozen studies since the early 1980s have demonstrated that marital happiness and relationship quality fall precipitously once couples have children
  • New parents have eight times the number of arguments that non-parents have
  • The marital dysfunction rate for couples in which one partner has ADHD is almost 60%
  • Unemployment, one of the most stressful factors in a relationship, remains above 9%.

University of Texas sociologist, Norval Glenn, projects that about 24% of married couples will remain very happily married until death.  That leaves a lot of the rest of us struggling with how we might actually make things better when Valentine’s Day rolls around.  For a truly meaningful Valentine’s Day, don’t focus on a single romantic gesture.  Instead, consider making Valentine’s Day the ‘New Years’ of romance – a time for making resolutions that will create lasting change for your relationship.

The good news?  There is science behind how to do this.  Here are six resolutions that can make Valentine’s Day matter for a change:

We will teach ourselves to argue.  Significant marital research suggests that couples who argue using the right words, who are conscious of how to start and end a conversation, and who avoid accusatory, critical or harsh rhetoric in the middle can use disagreement to strengthen their marriage, rather than weaken it.  So forget about what you are fighting about and focus instead about how you disagree.  Healthy conflict puts you on a path to resolve your differences.  Unproductive conflict, or avoiding conflict all together, means that your problems don’t get solved, only aggravated.

We will eliminate ‘pursuit -retreat’ patterns in our relationship.  You know these patterns – one partner is eager to confront problems while the other dreads these conversations and retreats.  Research by Sarah Holley of Berkeley suggests that this is not gender-based behavior that might indicate that the problem is intractable, but rather an issue of who has power in the relationship.  So figure out who that is by observing who has conversational dominance, then seek ways to more evenly respect the needs and power of each member of the couple. 

We will change the proportion of positive interactions to negative ones.  University of Washington researchers, including John Gottman, have determined that healthy relationships include at least five times more positive interactions than negative ones.  So every time you create a negative reaction in your relationship, you need to self-consciously make up for it by creating five positive ones!  Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is a good start, but it’s only 1/5th of the work you need to do!

We will address ADHD in our relationship.  If you have a child with ADHD, patterns of significant inconsistency in at least one spouse, chronic nagging and anger, or egregiously disproportionate distribution of responsibilities in your relationship the ADHD may be creating serious problems for you.  Learning how ADHD impacts adult relationships will help you overcome the many challenges you currently face.

We will schedule time to connect.  In the age of connection our relationships suffer from too many distractions.  A good way to start to repair the disconnection and damage that this causes is to regularly schedule time to focus on each other.  It can be a weekly date night, spending every Saturday afternoon just banging around together, or creating a half-hour window of time to talk or be together every night at the time that the spouse who goes to bed earliest is ready to retire.  It may not sound romantic, but research suggests that creating time to connect will both improve your relationship and provide long-lasting health benefits to you both.

We vow to seek out challenging and new activities to do together.  Research by Arthur Aron of Stony Brook University suggests that the fastest way to reconnect romantically is to do things together that are both challenging and new.  Ever consider taking tango lessons?  Going on a road trip to a new place?  Learning a new sport?  All of these things could help the two of you reconnect and improve your relationship.