Want a Happy Relationship? Foster Goodwill!
The other day, my wife left the refrigerator door open while she was cooking. After a few moments, I could tell that she had no intention of returning anything to the refrigerator soon, so I shut the door and questioned, “Why didn’t you shut the door?” My wife smiled and gave me one of those looks that gently asks me to reflect on whether I truly want to make an issue out of something or not.
This time, I didn’t. I really didn’t. Of all the things that my wife could do, not shutting the refrigerator door in a timely enough fashion is not truly a large concern, even though it triggers all kinds of issues for me around the environment and our electricity bill. For me, at least, arguing over the refrigerator door is not worth creating distance in my relationship with my wife.
And yet, often, relatively small issues can feel really big. They feel personal. I’ve had reactions to the refrigerator door being left open that, if I could make my feelings fully conscious, I would summarize: “If my wife really loved me, she would shut the door. Obviously, I’m not important to her.”
This is not a rational reaction, but it’s my reaction. Typically, like the other day, I catch my reaction very quickly, and I realize that whether the door is left open or not is not an indication of how much my wife cares about me. Other times, it takes me a little bit longer. But I catch myself eventually, and, if necessary, I am able to return to my wife and apologize for overreacting. I’m able to do this because, fundamentally, we work at creating positivity in our relationship. Because of this, I know – even when the refrigerator door is left open – that we are on the same team, and this is something that I value and benefit from, and I want to preserve it.
Yet, sometimes in relationships, these relatively little frustrations can feel really big. They become personal. Little conflicts become the battlegrounds of a larger issue: the couple is no longer on the same side. These relationships become adversarial, and feelings of safety in the relationship are compromised. Each partner is now more concerned with being right than with preserving the feeling of connection in the relationship.
In these relationships, goodwill has been lost.
Goodwill is the basis for resilience in your relationship. With goodwill towards one another, you are more forgiving and willing to assume the best about your partner. When you first meet and fall in love, goodwill is ever present without even trying: the things about your partner that you later see as annoying, you see as cute little foibles, if you see them at all.
Over time, as the initial ‘honeymoon’ period in a relationship passes, goodwill needs to be fostered. Oftentimes, we take the good parts of our relationships for granted. Like plants in your garden, if you ignore them and forget to water them, when you go to harvest them, you find that what is left is withered and hard to get to through the weeds. Goodwill is not only helpful for the little annoyances; it is also essential when facing larger conflicts. Having a healthy garden of goodwill increases the likelihood of compassion, a willingness to understand, and an easier time reaching compromise. Rather than being adversarial and needing to be right, you both can work to find a solution that is more beneficial to both of you.
How is goodwill created? While the answer might vary from couple to couple, here are some ideas to get started:
Appreciations: take a few minutes every day to express gratitude to one another. Appreciations can and should be simple (“I really appreciate that you took the trash out before leaving for work this morning”).
Acts of Kindness: go out of your way to do something out of the ordinary for your partner. Leave a note on her car letting her know you’re thinking about her. Give him a five-minute foot massage while watching television.
Goodbyes and Hellos: create routines around leaving for the day and greeting one another when you come home. How you say goodbye and hello to one another can impact how much you feel valued by one another. Invent routines that are mutually validating that are simple enough to do every day.
Memory Lane: Set aside time once a week to make eye contact, reflect quietly on the good times in your relationship. Then share one specific memory each and explain why you enjoy remembering. Additionally, displaying photos of good memories keeps them more present in your relationship.
These are just a few ideas and others may work better in your unique relationship.
How do you create goodwill in your relationship? Join the conversation on Facebook.
To discuss specific ways of fostering more goodwill in your relationship, don’t hesitate to contact me.
Illustrations by Samanth Land. For inquiries regarding her work, please complete the On Solid Ground Counseling Service's contact form.