Strengthen Your Relationship With This Simple Checklist

“The gifts of caring, attention, affection, appreciation, and love are some of the most precious gifts you can give, and they don’t cost you anything.” ~ Deepak Chopra

We often think we need to go to great lengths in order to please our significant other. It is not, however, necessary to bring home a bouquet of roses every night, or spend hours perfecting our physical appearance. The truth is that both women and men respond well to small, consistent acts of love that we can literally do every day, and for zero dollars. I give you…the “Triple A Checklist.”

The Triple A Checklist consists of three actions to focus on in a relationship: attention, affection, appreciation. We all need attention, affection, and the feeling of being appreciated. As human beings, we crave meaningful connection with others; it is hard-wired into our DNA. So if we can fulfill those needs for our partners, the end result will inevitably be increased relationship satisfaction for both parties…and who doesn’t want that?!  Let’s look at each “A” in greater detail:

Attention

We all have millions of distractions vying for our time and attention. Giving attention means deep listening, being totally present, having empathy, and trying to see from our partner’s perspective. It means we are not in a hurry to give advice and react; not in a hurry to interrupt; not in a hurry to get back to the Bachelor or our text messages. This means putting the phone down, making eye contact with our partner, and really, really interacting with him/her. Our body language shows we are deeply listening. For those whose love language is quality time, having their partner’s full attention is incredibly meaningful and fulfilling. Giving attention in this manner can do wonders for any and all relationships!

Affection

The literal definition of affection is a gentle feeling of fondness or liking. Affection is deep caring and commitment. There are a myriad of ways to express affection–from a sincere compliment, to quality time spent together, to physical touch, and everything in between. Studies have found that the amount of affection we express to our partners best predicts our commitment; and, conversely, the amount of affection we receive from our partners best predicts our satisfaction. Just give a few more kisses throughout the day, offer a back rub or head scratch, hold hands, cuddle during a movie, or hold on to that embrace a moment longer than normal. Affection is powerful. And it can be so easy to give!

Appreciation

In the beginning of a relationship we appreciate everything about the other person. They seem perfect in our eyes and even those crazy things they do are somehow endearing. But after a few years of leaving the cap off the toothpaste (even after repeated requests to change this behavior), this “cute” behavior suddenly becomes deliberate disrespect. Appreciation means focusing on what they do well or what wonderful attributes they have, instead of the little things we dislike about them. Abraham Lincoln once said, “If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will.” Appreciating the good in our partners will overshadow whatever quirks they have that we dislike. This type of appreciation is necessary to ensure relationship longevity.

Giving attention, affection, and our appreciation to our partners can do wonders to a relationship. I have seen it firsthand; these small steps can be repeated daily to communicate love and commitment to our partners. I encourage you to resolve today to do the “Triple A Checklist each day. If we give our significant other the attention he/she needs, the affection he/she longs for and the appreciation he/she deserves, the end result will undoubtedly be happiness!

(As always, should you find your relationship needs a little more work or attention, my door is wide open. Start by scheduling a session today!)

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Keeping the Peace This Holiday Season

Keeping the Peace This Holiday Season - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville Therapist“Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No. No. We’re all in this together.” -Clark Griswold, Christmas Vacation

The holiday season is truly magical. The snow, the lights, the presents, the carolers, the sightings of Santa Claus himself, and the amount of stress that accompanies such a wonderful time of year!  With the holidays come family meals and gatherings, and–for some–this is not all fun and games. Many families have one (or more) individual(s) who consistently manages to say something rude, spark controversy, offend others, arrive late, act inappropriately, etc. While most people are looking forward to decorating gingerbread houses, others are dreading getting around the difficult family member. If you can relate to this struggle with family, read on.

Regardless of how much you love your family, you are bound to run into an uncomfortable, annoying, or tense situation with a family member at some point during the holidays when so many personalities are congregated around the table. Here are four suggestions to keep the peace this holiday season:

Have realistic expectations. While it is good to hope for the best in people, you need to be realistic. If certain individuals have behaved a certain way for years, do not expect them to be any different this Christmas Eve dinner. When your Aunt Bethany makes her usual comment about your outfit or beard, be prepared to brush it off…because you expected it. Having realistic expectations of others will enable you to maintain your cool when they say something unnecessary or offensive. Because you expected it, you can choose to not let it ruin your evening.

Set boundaries.  This one has several parts:

  1. Conversations: Plan to keep conversation conflict-free by avoiding potentially sensitive topics. Politics and religion are go-to topics for immediate controversy, but each family has specific triggers that can (and should) be avoided at happy holiday gatherings. Get everyone to agree that there are topics that simply will not be discussed because they only bring out the worst in everyone. Setting boundaries like this will hopefully keep the conversation from veering into a minefield of divisive issues. I also highly recommend having a pre-rehearsed line or two that you are confident saying if someone is going against set boundaries. Something like, “This is something I would prefer not to discuss right now, it is too heavy and we should be enjoying the party!” or, “I totally understand you feel that way; even though I have a different opinion, I still respect yours.”
  2. Timing: Be firm with what time you are starting and start at that time. Let everyone know if they are late, dinner and/or the activity will still start on time. There are some people who may consistently late in order to make dramatic entrances, be the focus of attention, and to demonstrate dominance or control. Do not give them that opportunity!
  3. Activities: If a certain game or activity sparks contention, rule it out. I have friends who have decided they simply cannot play basketball on opposing teams because it inevitably gets too competitive and contention ensues. Or maybe for your family it is UNO. Just be sure to avoid activities that do not unite or uplift your family. Also, be sure to avoid excessive alcohol consumption during the festivities; it does not bring out the best in anyone!

Use humor. Everyone has a button that can be pushed to the point of irritation. Whether it is political views, a rough patch at work, a nonexistent dating life, or a slew of other possibilities, no one knows said buttons better than family members. The best way to deflect intentional jabs is with a witty comment. If you take everything seriously or personally, you likely will not even be able to make it through the appetizers and drinks before the holiday dinner is ruined!

Control yourself. At the end of the day, you cannot control your sister, your mother, or your Cousin Eddie. The only thing you can control is yourself. Accept that. You are in control of your reaction, your mood, and your responses. If you have tried all of the above suggestion AND people show up late, engage in controversial topics, or be outright rude, remember that you are in control of YOU. Monitor yourself; if you find you are getting worked up or irritated, physically remove yourself from a conversation, room, or group of people. Take deep breaths. Get active and play a game; it is difficult to be drawn into an argument when engrossed in an activity that requires concentration, physical activity or laughter. Be grateful; think about what you are grateful for to minimize frustrations. Practice tolerance; remember that even you have offended someone in the past. Lastly, forgive your family for not being perfect and for detracting from the festivities and move on.

The holidays come but once a year. Soak these last weeks of 2018 in and do not let any social toxicity get in the way of the holiday cheer. I can assure you that, as you go into your family gatherings having prepared yourself with realistic expectations and set boundaries, you will be able to to control yourself by using humor and monitoring yourself. These are simple, yet powerful suggestions that will equip you with the tools you need to enjoy any family gathering this holiday season. Should you have questions or find you need additional guidance or assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me or schedule a session.

Wishing you and yours the happiest of holidays!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Love Languages: Showing Love Through the gift of Service

Love Languages Through Service - Cluff Counseling - Carrollton TherapistThe old adage of ‘actions speaking louder than words’ is most certainly true–especially for those whose primary love language is Acts of Service. This Love Language requires you to show your partner you love him/her through meaningful service. Read on for specific ideas you can incorporate into your relationship today!

For the first six months of 2018 I have chosen to focus on love languages. Last month I posted about Words of Affirmation and how–by simply tweaking what you say and how you say it–you can communicate how much you love and appreciate your partner. For April I have chosen to focus on Acts of Service as a follow-up to our last month’s love language. Acts of Service is a lot like what we focused on in February–the love language of gifts. The biggest difference between gift giving and serving is that Acts of Service is generally an action instead of something tangible. Through Acts of Service you can express deep love to your partner.

Showing love through Acts of Service is essentially doing something for someone that they would like. Those who receive love through acts of service will really appreciate your unsolicited kind actions–you cooking a meal, washing the dishes, taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, changing the baby’s diaper, painting the bedroom, etc. All of these actions require thought, planning, time, effort and energy. If done with a positive spirit, they can be meaningful expressions of love.

Dr. Gary Chapman tells a story about a couple he worked with who had been married for 15 years, Maxine and David. In one of their sessions, Maxine told Dr. Chapman that she was frustrated with her marriage because her husband always said he loves her, but he never showed her he loved her. He quoted her saying, “If David loved me, he would do something to show me.” Although David was telling Maxine he loved her, her love language was Acts of Service and not Words of Affirmation. Dr. Chapman taught David about the love languages (particularly Acts of Service), and sent them on their way. A month later, Maxine said their marriage was better than ever!

There truly is power in understanding how your partner receives love. If you are an Acts of Service person, give your partner guidance about ways you receive love through acts of service. Tell him or her, “It would really mean a lot to me if sometimes you would empty the dishwasher or change the baby’s diaper without me asking…” Offer general suggestions but do not make demands. Remember this: The mind frame of, “If you loved me, you would do ____ for me” (something specific) is manipulation. Be sure your suggestions are pure and unassuming. True acts of service are to be given voluntarily–that is part of what makes them so meaningful!

It can be tricky thinking of ways you can serve your significant other. Although I firmly believe that specific actions will vary from person to person, I would like to share some general ideas that most humans would appreciate as an Act of Service:

Examples of Acts of Service:

  • Take the car and wash / vacuum it thoroughly
  • Help with the dishes / laundry / yard work / chores / homework / cleaning / yard work / lawn mowing / dog-poop clean up / grocery shopping / meal planning
  • Prepare a special meal (particularly meaningful if you are not the one to normally cook)
  • Wash the dishes
  • Create a coupon/IOU book filled with acts of service you will do
  • Take the trash out
  • Iron the shirt that has been crumpled in a heap next to the iron for months
  • Offer a back scratch / foot rub / massage
  • Stock up on his/her favorite treats
  • Do the stuff he/she hates! Like killing spiders, filling the car up with gas, weeding, or scrubbing the shower

The Acts of Service Love Language is a lot like going the extra mile. You know the things your partner may not love doing (like folding laundry for instance) or might only rarely indulge in (like a backrub or a special meal). One of my good friends hates stopping to get gas with a car full of children; any time her husband notices that the car is low on gas, he will just take care of it. And it means the world to her! Small and simple actions like these are the things you can do for your partner that will speak volumes. That old adage of ‘actions speaking louder than words’ is certainly true for those whose love language is acts of service !

Every relationship has areas that work well and areas that could use improvement. Feeling more loved and appreciated is something all of us would like! If you do not know your partner’s (or your own) love language, I highly recommend taking the quiz from the 5 Love Languages website. Understanding love languages will enable you to directly and efficiently communicate how much you care about your significant other.  If your partner is learning to communicate in your love language, offer gentle guidance and point out progress. If you are trying to speak your partner’s love language, be patient–it takes time to learn how to speak a new language. Learning to express love through acts of service can be fun because there are so many different ways to go about doing so…get creative! Pay attention to things your partner says he/she likes or would like, and deliver! Small actions can deliver a powerful message for those whose love language is Acts of Service. Should you ever need additional assistance implementing love languages and working towards a more fulfilling relationship, you know my office door is always open!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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#RelationshipGoals

Relationship Goals - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville TherapistDid you know that people who set goals are ten times more likely to succeed than those who do not? I know you want your relationship to make it, so let’s talk about goals you can set as a couple that will improve your relationship in 2018!

While the new year can be a great time to kick-start personal resolutions and habits, embarking on resolutions with a partner can also be a wise move.  Two weeks ago, I posted on my blog about New Year’s Resolutions and the power behind mindfully setting well-rounded goals to help you improve in all aspects of your life. This week I want to focus on applying that logic exclusively to relationships.

Do you and your partner set resolutions or goals for your relationship? This might include things you both need to improve, leave behind, or want to learn–like arguing less, listening more, or learning your salmon grilling techniques. Many of my clients only set individual goals, and not couple goals for things they would like to achieve as a unit. The following are nine simple suggestions that you can personalize and include in your 2018 couple resolutions:

  • Do stuff together. Yes, this sounds obvious, but often couples slip into monotony that leads to lack of connection. So my advice is to do things together–it can be simple things like paying the bills, cleaning your house, or running errands…just do it together. I also recommend doing meaningful things together–like worshipping, learning a new skill, participating in service, or visiting travel destinations. And do not forget to have fun together–be goofy, joke around, and remember that laughing together does wonders for a relationship.
  • Be present with each other. I understand that between school, work, kids, etc, your schedules appear full and you do not have much time to spare. Make whatever time you do have together COUNT. Make a goal to stop scrolling so much in your partner’s presence; put your phones down, and focus on each other! Take technology breaks and spend undistracted time with each other. When you and your partner are together, make sure ALL of you is there.
  • Do not turn a molehill into a mountain. This year resolve to not let little upsets grow into big ones. Remember that every conflict in your relationship is not personal.
  • Be respectful, even when you are upset. Although it can be easy to flare up in the face of contention and say angry things to your partner, it is harder to come back and apologize. Instead, try the Time Out technique and say, “I love you and because I love you, I don’t want to say or do anything that would hurt you or our relationship and so I need some time to calm down before I can continue this conversation.” Imagine what a difference this could make!
  • Speak up about what you want! Your partner is not a mindreader. He or she cannot magically know what you want or need. Use your words and tell him or her what you want–whether it is where you want to eat out, what is going on in bed, or how you communicate throughout the day. Set your partner up for success by telling him or her what you want so it can be delivered.
  • Speak your partner’s love language. Many of you are familiar with love languages (if not, click here to read more). To boil it down, each of us has a primary love language: acts of service, words of affirmation, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. Both you and your partner receive love through one of those primary love languages. It is your job to know what is most meaningful to your partner. The majority of my clients often feel disconnected and butt heads because each partner is speaking with his or her own preferred love language, rather than how what his/her partner receives love.
  • Ask your partner how (not if) you can help. Ana Aluisy, a couples therapist from Florida, says that simply being direct and asking your partner how you can help improves your connection and intimacy immensely. Aluisy says, “Many times we place immense amounts of efforts into being supportive towards our partner, but they may not notice. Knowing specifically how they need us to be there for them is key.”
  • Catch your partner doing good. More often than not, we overlook what our partner does well and only see that he/she loaded the dishwasher wrong. We must intentionally look for the good and express it often to cultivate a loving attitude within the relationship. Here is a simple exercise that I recommend to my couples: over the next seven days, catch your partner doing good and tell them what you see. At the end of the week, reflect on how you feel about your partner. You will be surprised how such a simple thing can make a big difference in your view of your partner.
  • Have regularly scheduled check-ins. Jeffrey Sumber, Psychotherapist and Author says. “I encourage couples to check in with each other on a regular basis, typically weekly. It’s not only an opportunity to see whether things are going amazingly or if someone’s struggling, but it’s also an opportunity to offer appreciation for one another on a regular basis and express what you each need.” Whether you have a nightly, weekly, or monthly “check-in,” it is important to have a time you both plan on discussing your relationship.

Making relationship resolutions in and of itself shows you are prioritizing the relationship. Couples benefit from constantly reevaluating their relationships and finding ways to strengthen them. Setting couple New Year’s resolutions can be a great way to increase your connection, strengthen your relationship, and improve your overall relationship satisfaction.

The above resolutions are just a few examples of goals you can choose for your relationship. I encourage you to pick 2 or 3, from the list or on your own, that you would like to focus on this year and discuss with your partner how you two will implement them in your relationship. If you feel like you need some assistance creating measurable or implementable couple goals, please feel free to contact me or schedule a session. Let 2018 be the best year so far in your relationship!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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7 Practical Steps to Cool Down in the Face of Conflict

7 Practical Steps to Cool Down in the Face of Conflict-Cluff Counseling, Marriage & Family TherapyWe have all had conversations where we started to talk calmly about something inconsequential with our partner, but find ourselves in a boxing match where the viability of our relationship seems threatened.  To aid you in staying out of the boxing ring, try these seven ideas to diffuse conflict.

In last month’s post on relationship health, I posted about how to stay connected during conflict. Conflict between two people is unavoidable. We are bound to disagree when we are in a relationship simply because we have opinions and preferences. The problem arises when disagreements define the communication in the relationship. The solution is not to avoid all topics that could cause an argument (because that is impossible), but rather to change how you react in the face of conflict.

When we do not feel connected, it is much easier to lose our patience and to assume our partner is trying to push our buttons and offend us on purpose. A lack of connection can cause escalation–where a simple misunderstanding explodes into a full-blown argument.  Escalation means a rapid increase in the intensity or seriousness of something. In relationships, this looks like a conversation beginning over something simple but instead of calmly conversing about our preferences, we make accusations and blanket statements, and suddenly the argument is about our unsatisfied sex life or unmet emotional needs. And it all began over which way we squeeze the tube of toothpaste!

How and why do we escalate conflict? The underlying reason is because our expectations are not being met. Maybe our partner does not know or realize that we are feeling a lack of emotional or physical connection; thus the deeper need manifests itself through something small and inconsequential.  Escalation is often a sign that there are unmet needs in your relationship. I will have a future blog post dedicated to voicing needs and expectations.

Aside from the true underlying reason  we escalate conflict (unmet needs) there exists a secondary reason for why we escalate: because we are not practicing self-awareness or effective communication in the fact of conflict. There are specific, practical, and actionable things we can try to do, say, and think today that help keep those massive arguments over toilet paper and toothpaste at bay. It will take time and effort to not overreact during arguments, but I can assure you it is possible to do if we make a few tweaks to our verbal and nonverbal communication. I would like to suggest the following 7 practical steps to cool down, become more self-aware, and communicate effectively in the face of conflict:

  1. First, Use the “Three A’s to Get Past Anger” Acknowledge your partner–this can even be with a nod if you are afraid of opening your mouth. Then ask for more information; this helps your partner feel heard and more understood. Finally, add your opinion.
  2. Relax. Take deep breaths. Shake the shoulders. Roll the neck. A calm mind will follow a calm body. Wait out the chemical reaction that may be taking place.
  3. Find a distraction. Choose to think about something else, snuggle a pet, inhale aromatherapy, take a walk, write your feelings, turn on soothing music.
  4. Use humor.There is nothing like some Jerry Seinfeld to diffuse an argument!
  5. See the good.Speak to each other’s positive intent; point out the good in your partner even though you disagree with him/her. For example, “I appreciate that you want to save toothpaste by squeezing from the end of the tube. I admire your economic attitude.” And then work from there to…
  6. Encourage solutions.It is so easy to point fingers during an argument, but this gets us nowhere. Ask your partner, “What would make this situation better?” or “How can we fix this situation in a way you believe will work for us both?” Be proactive instead of perpetuating the all-too-easy cycle of the blame game.
  7. START OVER.Catch yourself in the beginning of a disagreement. Research has shown that the first three to five minutes of a conversation lays the foundation for what is likely to follow. Say, “This is going in a bad direction. Let’s start over.”

Step one is a powerful and important place to start; if you only ever try step one, you are sure to make leaps and bounds of progress in conflict resolution! Those three A’s are absolutely fundamental to avoiding escalation. Even if your blood is boiling and your fists are clenched, acknowledge that you heard your partner so he or she does not think you are ignoring him or her. If you need a moment to gear up for options 2-7, try a shortened version of the “Time Out” that I wrote about in a previous post. To review, begin by clearly telling your partner you need a Time Out; take a few moments to soothe before identifying your primary emotions; and then rejoin the conversation. When you make your way back to your partner, acknowledge him/her, ask questions about his/her perspective, and then add your thoughts. Step one in and of itself is an incredible tool for practicing effective communication…2-7 are just bonus options!

It is always so much easier said than done. Conflict resolution is difficult, yet so necessary in literally every single relationship in our lives. Prepare yourself with the self-awareness and communication skills listed above. I can assure you that these positive habits will impact every relationship you have in your life. If you are in a relationship that is defined by arguing, contact me or set up a session today for more individualized, one-on-one guidance. Together we can redefine your relationship to include a little more effective communication and a great deal less arguing. I am always here and happy to help!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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