I used the downtime of the pandemic to push the boundaries of my relationship with my fiancé.
We learned how important it is to be a team and be psychologically flexible.
The therapist told us to have courageous conversations and treat each other with kindness.
When the pandemic postponed my wedding, I used the downtime to push the boundaries of my relationship with my fiancé.
Even though we've been through a lot in five years and have learned how to communicate, trust one another, and listen with empathy, I felt that we could strengthen our bond even more.
Months before our new wedding date, I asked my fiancé to see a marriage therapist with me. He was shocked and reluctant, but he agreed.
With marriage a few months away, a conversation with a professional about some of our common disagreements, communication styles, and different ways we handle stress could only be a good thing.
Here's what we learned from meeting with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, a marriage and family therapist with over 15 years of experience, the author of "Exaholics," the host of the "Love, Happiness and Success" podcast:
Psychological flexibility is extremely important
Bobby said getting good at psychological flexibility - the ability to shift gears, stay in the present, and remain aligned to your most deeply held values even under stress - is important in a solid relationship.
"This allows you to regulate your own emotions, communicate effectively, and work with your partner to find productive solutions to inevitable problems," said Bobby. "When couples can do this together, they're able to stay aligned through thick and thin."
This felt extra relevant to us, since planning a wedding during the pandemic was filled with stressful and uncertain moments. Trying to make decisions together also caused a lot of extra arguments.
To get better at this, my fiancé and I decided to meditate every day and practice solo check-ins. This helps us stay in control of how we feel and approach challenges with more clarity, individually, and then together as a couple.
Treat each other with kindness
My partner and I try to make a conscious effort to treat each other to special gifts or kind gestures, but it's easy to forget to do it.
Bobby shared with us that making an effort to be kind and generous allows a couple to reap the rewards of a loving and enduring partnership.
"How does your partner feel most loved and appreciated by you? Find out, and lavish them with it every chance you can," said Bobby.
This inspired my partner and me to take the free love-language test that can tell you how you best express and receive love (words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, receiving gifts). Knowing our love languages would allow us to be more intentional and specific with how we show affection and appreciation.
Learn how to have 'courageous conversations'
My fiancé and I speak to each other all of the time but we don't often dive into tough conversions or talk deeply about things that might be awkward or scary to bring up.
Bobby calls these "courageous conversations" and believes having more of them helps couples who grow together bravely face the tough stuff authentically and respectfully.
"During courageous conversations, couples share their true thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires with each other, and trust that they'll achieve understanding and a deeper union," said Bobby. "Couples who avoid courageous conversations will inevitably grow apart."
To implement this, we tried scheduling time each week when we could open up about anything. This block of time allowed us to feel like we can pause from our busy lives and give time to any mini-struggles or tension that we're feeling.
Create emotional safety
Bobby said that having emotional safety is a primary, foundational component of a healthy relationship.
"It needs to be OK for both partners to not be OK sometimes," said Bobby. "Emotional safety is created when both people are able to manage their reactivity, anger, judgment in order to remain compassionately present with each other's needs for a soft place to fall ... apart."
She added, "Couples who understand how to truly be there for each other, without fixing, advice-giving, avoiding, or criticism will deepen their connection - not despite the rough patches of life, but because of them."
To get better at this, my fiancé and I wrote down phrases we can say to each other when we don't feel like we're giving one another the space to open up and express.
Respecting the system
One big takeaway we had after speaking to Bobby was that being in a relationship and getting married is so much more than two separate individuals existing together.
"This means that people are not just existing independently. They are reacting and responding to each other's reactions, ad infinitum," said Bobby. "By understanding that your partner's reactions are - at least in part - influenced by what you are putting into the system, you immediately become empowered to change it."
She added, "Not by demanding change in your partner, but rather by getting extremely deliberate about what you are contributing to the system, and how that's impacting your partner."
This is something I know we struggle with, especially during difficult or stressful times. Remembering that we're a team makes it easier to view relationship development as a priority.
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