How To Be Proactive In Your Relationship, According To A Therapist

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Mar. 12 2024, Published 8:00 a.m. ET

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Working on your relationship isn’t something you do only when you’ve come to the end of your rope. Instead, it should be an ever-evolving investment that you and your partner make in yourselves. For some couples, dedicating themselves to this type of work will mean sessions with a couples therapist. However, folks who want to be proactive can start building the relationship they desire without ever sitting down on the therapy couch.

But where does one begin?

To find out, I spoke to Dr. Karen Stewart, a Los Angeles-based licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in sex and couples therapy. 

“Couples seeking my help are often in a very challenging spot,” she said. “My favorite couples to work with are the ones that come in with the motivation and agenda for change.”

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Change Starts Small

In her decade-plus years of work, Stewart has witnessed her share of patterns among couples, one of the foremost being that, over time, couples let life become more important than their relationship. Commitments to work, kids, community, and family creep in and take priority. Conversations spent learning about each other get replaced with tag-teaming logistics. Distance grows. 

However, this slide toward disengagement is not inevitable– and it can be reversed once you notice it. 

“Offering words of admiration, positive support, and gratitude to your partner can greatly help build the bond that is there but might be challenged presently,” Stewart said. 

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This can be as simple as making a point to show gratitude more often or resolving to give your partner a genuine compliment every day. When we turn our focus to what we appreciate, this appreciation gains momentum and grows. 

Stewart also offered an exercise that couples can do together at home: take ten minutes every day and hold your own “therapy session” together. 

“When couples are in the therapy room, nobody is on their phone,” she explains. “They reserve the time for each other. So, I ask couples to sit down, completely technology-free, put a timer on, and delegate a few minutes per person to discuss what has happened throughout the day.”

She emphasizes that, in these check-ins, it’s essential that couples “make sure they have time to discuss each other’s needs” as well.  

Giving each other your undivided attention and expressing genuine interest in supporting one another — even if it’s just for ten minutes a day — strengthens the foundation of your connection. It also equips you to know how to listen and support each other when times do get tough.

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Prioritize Connection

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Whether you commit to expressing more appreciation, schedule your daily check-ins, or find yourself in couples therapy, Stewart identifies one skill that couples need to engage in this work and build the strong relationship that they desire. 

“[It’s] being comfortable asking the tough questions,” she says. “This isn’t first, second,  third date stuff. I’m talking like, sitting down and really getting to the root and talking about those intimate experiences.” 

This could range from asking about your partner’s experiences with their parents to what dating was like for them, to their first taste of heartbreak. The point, says Stewart, is getting to understand who your partner is and what shaped them into being. 

“Oftentimes, couples are missing the simple things of life,” Stewart shared. “Like little Post-it notes, surprising each other with small gifts, dressing up for each other, planning simple dates, these can all be things to help with reconnection.” 

It’s in these small gestures that love is expressed and a shared life is created. If building up your relationship has felt like a big project in the past, you can let out a breath. You can grab a Post-it note. You can start simple. You can just write, “Thankyou.

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By: Natalli Marie Amato

Natalli Amato is a journalist and poet based in Saratoga Springs, New York. She covers wellness, relationships, and culture for Her Agenda, Spirituality & Health Magazine, Saratoga Living, and others. Natalli has authored four poetry collections, the most recent being 2023's 'North Wind.' Natalli is currently earning her master's degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.

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