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Beyond Communication and Compromise: Eight Surprising Ways to Improve Your Relationship

Avoid these toxic traps that kill harmony and happiness, from one of the hosts of Married at First Sight

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Bob Thomas/Getty ,

by Janice Holly Booth

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If you’re a fan of Married at First Sight on the FYI network, then you know Dr. Pepper Schwartz, one of North America’s leading authorities on sexuality and relationship advice. On the popular reality show, a panel of experts uses science to match strangers who agree to marry after meeting for the first time … with varying results. The ensuing relationship problems become the crux of the show. “We try to nurture their relationships, and people learn a lot from watching, both in terms of what to do and what not to do,” says Schwartz. Life Reimagined caught up with Schwartz to learn her best relationship tips.

Don’t be defensive.

This is Schwartz’s pet peeve. A continuing tit for tat shuts down communication and kills any chance for compromise or growth. “If your ego is so offended by a comment like ‘you’re late for dinner’ that you have to respond with ‘what does it matter, you’re always late with the food,’ then you can’t think ‘hmm, maybe she’s right. Let me ask some questions to see what’s going on here.’” Defensiveness results in an endless loop of negativity. “Stop it! Just listen!” says Schwartz. “Try to see what the other person’s seeing. Even if it’s the wrong perception.”

Don’t project your fears.

Emphasizing your partner’s negatives can simply entrench those negatives. An example: “You say to your partner, ‘You’re a playboy, you just don’t want to settle down, you weren’t serious about this marriage,’” says Schwartz. “Yet you desperately want your partner to be serious, and to be in love with you, but you’re so frightened that you accuse them of these things, some of which the person denies. You keep pressing it until you’re teaching the other person to think about themselves that way.” Schwartz warns that you teach people who they are as well as discover who they are. “I just see people teaching the wrong stuff,” she says.

Don’t be stingy with the sugar.

“You can’t give too much affection,” says Schwartz. But many couples dole it out like it’s a scarce commodity. “Maybe they’re afraid they’re going to be rebuffed, or they don’t realize how much reassurance the other person needs,” she says. The antidote is straightforward: “Kiss hello, hug goodbye, tell [your partner] they look good. Tell them that they picked out just the right color for the pillow they just bought. You’ll be amazed at the results. You say to someone, ‘You look really cute this morning,’ or ‘Thanks so much for bringing out the milk for the cereal.’ That may not seem like a big thing, and if it’s real—you really did like their joke, they remembered to pick up the oranges you asked for—all of that is approval, and we all desperately need approval.” The remarks must be sincere and shouldn’t be manipulative, says Schwartz. No matter how busy, tired or overwhelmed you feel, “There’s plenty of time for little remarks, affectionate remarks, approval remarks … and these can change the environment.”

“Kiss hello, hug goodbye, tell [your partner] they look good. Tell them that they picked out just the right color for the pillow they just bought. You’ll be amazed at the results.”

Don’t fear public displays of affection.

“We don’t touch each other enough,” says Schwartz. It doesn’t have to be over-the-top. “A little tap on the shoulder or holding hands during dinner, giving a quick embrace when we see somebody. It’s hard to be angry or feel bad about a relationship when there’s a reassuring hand on you or an affectionate hold while you’re talking.”

Don’t forget to listen.

There’s a difference between conversation and communication, and many couples fail to recognize this. “Instead of listening to the person and asking questions, they’re racing ahead in their head with their retort,” says Schwartz. Couples can change this combative landscape if they pause, think and ask each other questions. Schwartz gives an example. “‘Did you just say that my joke was awful? Is that what you meant?’ ‘No I didn’t say that. I don’t know anything about golf so golf jokes are lost on me.’ That’s different than, ‘He just made fun of my jokes, he always makes fun of my jokes.’ I’m now building a case as opposed to asking whether I do have a case. You can almost not ask too many questions because if you make assumptions you’ll be wrong a lot of the time.”

See also: The Importance of Sleep on Our Relationships

On the other hand, don’t talk it to death.

“Give each other a break!” laughs Schwartz. “This is particularly true for women. Don’t talk about the relationship all the time. The guy eventually won’t want to talk at all because it’s going to be about the relationship. Talk about politics, the weather, a trip, the most fun thing you ever did. Not every relationship conversation should start with a sigh,” she says. “How about ‘Hey, do you have a few minutes? I want to ask you a couple of things. Are we going away and if we are, do you want to talk about what might be fun for you?’ That’s talking about the relationship but it’s not talking about the relationship.”

Don’t be afraid to share your feelings.

“As long as you’re not weepy 24/7, then you can say how you’re feeling, and that’s much more effective than focusing on the relationship,” says Schwartz. “Maybe you say: ‘I don’t know how you meant that, but it hurt my feelings.’ The other person had absolutely no idea that they just tread on your face. They don’t have the same sensitivities. What you’re asking of your partner, if you don’t tell him how you’re feeling, is to be not only a mind reader but a good psychologist, which is hard enough for us who do it professionally. So if you don’t tell him that your feelings were hurt and why, and in a way that’s not defensive, then he’s never going to understand.” For example, says Schwartz, if he talked about your weight in front of other people, you may feel like shouting, “‘You insensitive rat, how could you do that?’ A better approach is ‘You know, I’m sensitive about my weight, and the last place I want to hear about it is in front of other people. And yes, maybe I should work harder to lose weight, but can any conversation about my weight be just between us?’ Usually you get a pretty good result. But if you blame somebody it goes nowhere. They need to know the parameters and they need to know how to approach it the next time.”

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Don‘t act like a third-grader.

Schwartz sees a lot of name-calling, which is particularly toxic to a relationship. “Everyone has a right to be offended if they’re called a name,” she says. “You’ve just given someone a status—this is you, now and forever. You’re not giving them any way to grow.” Another retort Schwartz finds infuriating is the phrase, that’s just the way I am. “What you’re saying is that we’re in a dead relationship and there’s nothing we can do. I’m not telling people to suppress their feelings, but people who behave this way never had a model for how to problem solve in a positive way. So when you say ‘You left your towel on the floor again,’ you’re calling me a name. But if you give me a specific, which is ‘Your towel’s on the floor again. You know I’m a neat freak, so how can we solve this?’ that gives us somewhere to go.” Name-calling, says Schwartz, “doesn’t solve anything or create a good partnership. It’s immature.”

“There’s a wonderful quote by Lillian Hellman,” says Schwartz. “‘People change and they forget to tell one another.’ That’s particularly true in long-term relationships.” Healthy relationships don’t happen by accident. Experience is a great teacher, she says, but so is common sense and mutual respect.