When a relationship is going well, it feels magical. After 40 years as a marital therapist, though, I know that good marriages depend on more than magic. They are built on habits that capture the feelings you have for each other and make them durable. I've seen couples use these skills to transform a poor marriage into one that is wonderful. My wife and I have experienced this ourselves.
In our case, Helen was the first to see that although we were developing a new type of marriage therapy professionally, our communication had deteriorated. After months of trying to analyze our way into a better marriage, Helen decided unilaterally to change the way she communicated with me. She flooded me with praise. It was as if she put on new glasses that magnified the good in our relationship and obscured the problems.

I began to believe her propaganda and found myself acting in a more caring manner. Ironically, we had taught this process, called positive flooding, to thousands of couples but had not used it consistently ourselves. After a month she told me what she'd been doing, and I agreed to do the same. Now a year later, we've noticed that many problems have receded. We see the areas that still need work as challenges to be tackled as partners rather than as adversaries.

We were guided by two principles that can help you transform your relationship. First principle: Energy follows attention. Every time you "invest" in the negative, you are honing your ability to detect faults. Your energy amplifies the annoying and the fragile, and you create the conditions that allow your problems to grow like weeds in an unkempt field.

Second principle: Problems cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness at which they were created. We form our ideas about relationships in our connection to our parents, and when our needs aren't met, we cry, sulk, or even rebel. If we still don't get what we want, we experience what could be called a wound, and we create a defense against being wounded again, such as withdrawing emotionally or escalating our demands.

When we are ready for adult commitment, more often than not, our unconscious mind selects someone who has positive and negative traits similar to those of our parents in order to have another chance to heal ourselves. All too often, though, we end up reliving the patterns that hurt us in the first place. And as we did when we were children, we let our frustrations be known—only this time, we express the pain with criticism. We use negative transactions to try to effect positive outcomes. It never works.

Although it's not possible to be everything for your partner, knowing the role your backgrounds play in the relationship helps you move from "What's your problem?" to "How can I help?"

Following three steps: Mirroring, validating, and empathizing


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