With the New Year dawning upon us, many of my friends and patients are thinking about what they want to do differently in the following months. The intentions I’ve heard are quite varied, but they seem to mainly fall into three categories: get their bodies in shape, stay more connected to those they treasure, and re-prioritize their distribution of resources.
From my forty-year perspective of counseling couples, I would add an important New Year’s intention for the partners in a committed relationship. I’d like them to commit to love one another in deeper and in more meaningful ways. Many feel motivated to do that during the special mid-night kiss that heralds in the new year, but too often and too easily, ease up on their good intentions as life returns to business as usual.
As the months go by, they tell me that their desires to fulfill their resolutions were genuine and they fully intended to carry them out. But, as so many other committed partners realize, their life experiences just had a way of burying their well-intentioned promises. They are too often defeated by the demands for daily maintenance and unpredictable crises.
Throughout my career helping couples create quality relationships, I’ve been asked by many of my patients how they can both identify the ways they want to love each other more meaningfully while also maintaining those promises over time. They want to know what they can do differently so that their commitments to each other stay prominent in both of their minds and hearts.
I’ve developed a process that many tell me has worked for them, and, beginning a new year is a great time for couples to learn and practice it. Embracing it can become the most important New Year’s resolution intimate partners can make to each other.
There are five exercises. Some couples prefer to do them all on the same day, and others take a little longer. But every couple who has completed the process tells me it has changed the way they value their commitment to each other, and says with them throughout the coming year.
Exercise Number One - Evaluating the Past Year’s Interactions
This is the part of the resolution process, where you’ll both ask honest questions and give authentic answers as to how you’ve been to each other over the past year. As a beginning, promise one another that you will not judge or invalidate either of your questions or responses.
What experiences have been especially significant for either one of you during this time? Where have both of you either met or exceeded your partner’s needs and expectations, and where have you let each other down, regardless of whether you meant to or not.
First start by telling each other what thoughts, feelings, and behaviors have made you feel treasured, supported, and beloved. Give examples and why those behaviors meant so much to either one of you. Thank one another for those moments that were so important.
Then, tell each other of any promises you’ve broken or desires you’ve not responded to. Open up, even if it is embarrassing, to any ways you may have avoided important issues or chosen other priorities when you partner needed you. Admit when you’ve made excuses, apologies, and promises for change, but did not do anything differently. This exploration may seem painful at first but it is necessary to see where your good intentions did not manifest, no matter what your reasons were.
When difficult or challenging expressions emerge, don’t excuse, defend, or justify. Doing so is not necessary or helpful in this part of your new commitment process. Just be as honest as you can, both with yourself and with your partner. Please don’t rush this process. It is so important that both of you have all the time you need to make certain all of your feelings and thoughts have time to emerge.
When you give each other examples, try not to use them as subversive opportunities for attacks, complaints, or “rehashing.” Instead, describe them as “debriefings.” Like a great athletic team, you are simply replaying the “game,” intent on what you could have done differently and how that will shape what you do in the future.
When you share your examples, tell your partner what you’d wished he or she had done instead if you could have had any response you wanted. They can be as simple as not cleaning out a garage, losing weight, prioritizing finances, or giving up-front data when plans change. Or, they can be about truly significant experiences, like feeling abandoned during a time of personal crisis or missing an important and significant event. This is not about rebuke or punishment, only to talk about what you might not have known.
Each of you might want to write things down as your partner shares. The goal here is to weave these disappointments into new promises that will hold the next time around.
Exercise Number Two - What Those Explorations Have Revealed
What did you learn in your exploration about yourself and your partner? Sit back and take some time to think deeply and allow your feelings to emerge. This part of the new commitment process may take a while and neither of you should feel pressured to go through it quickly.
What you are most looking for here is to express what you knew about yourself but somehow forgotten, what you might have not seen before if your partner had not pointed it out, and what you wished you had done rather than what you did.
These honest explorations will always be both positive and negative. It cannot be any other way in a true search for personal truth. You will hopefully remember some of your behaviors that felt justified, self-respecting, and healthy. You’ll want to share those with your partner and maintain those in the future. Of course, you will also see, through both of your eyes, where you could have been more response, caring, and attentive.
Exercise Number Three – Resolving Inner Conflicts
There are many reasons why either of you might have not shown that you cared or avoided expected behaviors at times. You may have acted without compassion at times when your partner needed you to support him or her. Unresolved internal conflicts are often the saboteurs behind those behavior patterns. If you are not aware of them or pushed them aside, they will have driven the conscious or unconscious choices that stopped you from doing what you had promised.
So many times, intimate partners unknowingly project on to the other what they are most uncomfortable with in themselves. For example, you might have had doubts about whether or not you could come through with what you promised but were not willing or able to pay attention to them at the time you committed to them. Now you must ask yourself why you prioritized your own needs over those of your partner, why you could not be more honest with yourself about those needs.
Rebelling against the parts of you that let you and your partner down often comes from your own internal, unresolved internal conflicts. If you understand those better, you will be far less likely to make a promise that you are unlikely to keep. These searches for truth may take you into early life experiences that formed your decision-making policies, and should be thoroughly explored.
When you understand what those saboteurs are, tell your partner what you’ve discovered in your search for them. Be honest about why and how you ended up projecting your internal, unresolved conflicts on to your partner and making the relationship the battlefield instead of your own challenge.
Exercise Number Four - Recommitment
In this case, I’m defining the term “recommitment” as the conscious intention to choose a new and more loving path with your partner in the coming year. You are about to enter into a transformative process where both partners want to be better than they’ve been before in every way they can. In a relationship, it means more than recovery; you’re looking for a re-awakening of the love you once shared when your relationship was young, complete with new discovery and new promises that will hold.
After completing these first four exercises, you will feel ready to make successful New Year’s resolutions to your partner. You’ve gone through the journey of exploration, thoroughly explored your thoughts and behaviors towards your partner, searched for any internal, unresolved conflicts that you’ve inadvertently projected on to the relationship, and committed fully to the rebirth of your love for one another. It’s time to put those new learnings into action in the new year.
Exercise Number Five - The Resolution Love Letter
The last part of this process is to write a love letter to each other that has four parts:
-This is where I have loved you from the bottom of my heart whether I’ve shown it or not.
-This is where I’ve let you down by not hearing what you’ve asked me for or acted on what I knew you wanted.
-This is what I intend to do in the future.
-This is what I need from you to help me remember.
After bravely reading your love letters out loud to each other, make a solemn pact to go over these statements and what they contain once every week for the first three months of the new year. As you go along, you may find that will have to re-negotiate some of the promises you thought would be easier to keep, and to redesign them so that they will work better.
It’s not a sin to promise something in the moment you truly believe you can deliver, only to find out that you can’t do that exactly as you planned, but can offer something else.
It is absolutely a relationship transgression to not only let your partner down, but also not to recognize that you are doing so, to avoid dealing with it, to excuse the fact that you didn’t do it, or to flake and withdraw.
If you find that you are keeping your promises to each other, you can try dropping the frequency of your self-evaluations to once a month, but be ready to go back to once a week if either of you feel you may be slipping.
Caveat: Never blame your partner if you are the one who is not delivering on your own commitments, or to keep score if your partner isn’t doing the same. The commitment to the changes you promised to make are each of your own responsibility to execute. You also both have the right to re-negotiate your promise list at any time.
When this new year ends, you’ll be doing exactly the same process as you are doing now as the next year beckons. The joy is, if you have done this process well, you will find that you have kept more promises and left less disappointments behind when you begin the exercises again. There will be many more “how we’ve loved each other well” comments and fewer “How we disappointed each other” ones. You’ll find that your love continues to renew with each coming year as you trust each other more deeply, and do what you have promised you would.