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Reach Out to Those You Love to Nurture Happy Relationships

All relationships have fights. It is natural and inevitable. However, maintaining happy relationships depends on your ability to reach out to those you care about. Many people have the instinct to withdraw during these confrontations, but that will not help nurture your relationship.

Greg and Cindy have been arguing for hours about his having too much to drink at a friend’s wedding. Both are angry and some harsh words have been exchanged. “Nag, nag, nag — that’s all you I get from you. I can’t even enjoy myself without you having something to say about it,” says Greg.

To which, Cindy responds, “Enjoy yourself? Hell, you were just plain drunk!” They’re nearing the point where Greg will predictably withdraw from the conversation and enter a world of silent brooding, while Cindy prepares to seek him out, apologize for losing her temper, and assure him that, of course, she wants him to enjoy himself.

According to Dr. Shelly E. Taylor, Director of the UCLA Social Neuroscience Laboratory, this scenario is all too common in men and women in dealing with stress and conflict. Stress triggers the fight-or-flight response in men and the tend-and-befriend response in women. Both are driven by sex-linked hormones — testosterone for males and oxytocin for females — and both are built-in response patterns that have evolved over the history of mankind.

Tending and befriending — reaching out to those you love — comes easy for most women. It’s their nature. And it goes a long way toward easing marital tensions and making for a secure and happy relationship. Most men have a natural tendency to attack or cut and run when things get too heated.

But men can learn to tend and befriend. And so can women for whom tending and befriending doesn’t come naturally.

Tending and befriending others involves five main elements of social behavior:

  • Be sympathetic or empathetic toward your partner. For example, you can say, “I know you’re scared — so am I. But we’ll get through this.”

  • Don’t be afraid to reach out and make physical contact. Giving your partner a hug, patting her on the back, holding her hand — all these things signal to your partner that you’re in her corner and she’s not alone.

  • Ask your partner, “Are you okay?” That one question helps your partner begin to feel better. And it opens the door for him to share what’s in his heart.

  • Be optimistic. People need support most when they feel helpless and hopeless. They need someone to tell them that better times are ahead. You can be that someone for your partner.

  • Focus on your partner’s needs, not your own. Make whatever you say and do about your partner. For example, don’t start out by saying, “Your getting upset only upsets me. It only makes me feel guilty, like I haven’t done something I should have.”

Most people have it backwards when it comes to intimate relationships. They see the relationship as the destination — when they’re single, they think, “If I just had a partner, everything would be okay.” So they do everything they can to find a partner as quickly as they can. After they’re in a relationship, they can relax — from that point on, they figure, things will take care of themselves, right?

Wrong! A relationship isn’t a destination — it’s a journey. For some, it’s a reasonably smooth journey that lasts a lifetime; for others, it’s an all-too-brief and rather rocky journey that ends in a breakup or divorce.

The question that couples should ask themselves over and over throughout their relationship is: “Are we enjoying the journey?” If the answer is yes, then you’re happy. If the answer is, “Um, I’m not sure,” “Well, sort of,” or “No,” then you’re not.

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