How to Improve Your Relationship When You Feel Negatively About Each Other

February 14, 2011

Staff Therapist Dr. Michele Marsh‘s specialty areas include trauma, sexuality throughout the life cycle, sexual abuse, affairs, depression, and anxiety; parenting issues, and loss and grief. 


I confess, I love Bruce Springsteen. He’s the Boss, my favorite rocker who seems to nail the mysteries of life and the realities of love in many a note and phrase. Although some of Springsteen’s many fans are aging, the Boss’s wisdom seems ageless when it comes to love and commitment and the rough road we often ride to keep them together for many years. Consider both the dark and light in this verse:

“The road is dark, and it’s a thin, thin line;
but I want you to know I’ll walk it for you any time.
If you’re rough and ready for love,
Honey, I’m tougher than the rest.”
(“Tougher than the Rest” from Tunnel of Love)

Nowhere are these tough issues more present than in couples’ therapy, when two people are hoping to improve their relationship and rediscover their happiness together. I love working with couples, especially when both people are truly seeking to solve their problems and become more healthy and whole individuals as well. One of the things my couples want to know, especially when mired in conflict, is, “How do you improve this when you’re so used to feeling negative about each other?” In practical terms, “How can I make this better more quickly?” or “How can I show, day to day, that I’m committed?”

What I hear in this question from frustrated people is a deep need to change the mood in the relationship, to create some positive feelings instead of focusing on the negative feelings that have prevailed for so long. So, if you would like to show your partner that you are trying to change, that you are willing to feel better, and that you are trying to look ahead to better times with him/her, here are some tips:

  1. First, remember that the big changes take time. No one changes easily. So try to start small changes that will get her/his attention, create hope between the two of you, and set a positive tone. These small changes give you some ways to do the hard work one moment at a time, one phrase at a time, one day at a time.
  2. Do things your partner likes, show your support for things they like or need. Small kindnesses such as making coffee, putting away the dishes, ordering the movie tickets or picking up the take-out may seem like tiny gestures. What is important is that they show your caring and your willingness for your partner to enjoy their small pleasures. Not only is there no harm in meeting your partner’s needs, you can actually make a big statement without even a word!
  3. Share your thoughts with care. When the mood has been raw or tense, watch your timing and choose your words. Although it may seem formal, asking, “Is this a time when we can talk?” or “Could we talk sometime today?” shows respect for your partner. It says you are sensitive to his/her needs and are willing to wait for what you want. And listen for your partner’s answer. If it is truly NOT a good time, you will accomplish little if you push ahead with your agenda.
  4. Show openness and flexibility. When trying to create a healthy process, start out with “I am curious .” or “I was wondering.” or “What do you think about.?” These are relatively non-threatening ways to start a conversation. If there has been suspicion or lack of trust regarding your motives, try to be clear about what you are requesting and stick to it. Do you need to be listened to, or are you looking for an opinion or feedback, or a quick decision?
  5. Put your best foot forward. Nothing impresses like a genuine effort. Even when your feelings have been hurt, it is pretty safe to assume your partner’s have been hurt too. The positive gesture, even a kind word or look, carries with it a message of hope and good intentions.
  6. Acknowledge your failures. If you have been extra tired or impatient, said harsh words, or just felt grumpy lately, it helps to say so. Especially if your partner feels “blamed for everything” or may be discouraged about your ability to own your own part, this acknowledgement goes a long way. And it does not mean you are always wrong, or a bad person, or that you agree with your partner on anything else. Taking responsibility for your own mood is one of the most grown-up things you can do.
  7. Save the date. When things have been rough, it is all the more important to spend time together. Although it may be wise to postpone the long, romantic dinner until the mood improves, going out for coffee or the movies or even a long walk can be reassuring. It is important to remember that you still have activities or interests in common. And during fun times, put your big problems aside and enjoy the small commonalities you once shared with pleasure.
  8. Get professional help together. Even if one person appears to need individual therapy for depression or alcoholism or anxiety, both people in a distressed relationship need help to address the issues fully. Therapy together can create more understanding more quickly. A good couples’ therapist can help you sort out the bigger issues and address them in ways that preserve the good and create a better future for both of you.

Again, Bruce is helpful here; in this verse, he shows the good will and hope and patience that we all need from our know we can make it through the long haul:

“We said we’d walk together baby come what may
That come the twilight should we lose our way
If as we’re walkin a hand should slip free
I’ll wait for you
And should I fall behind
Wait for me.”
(“If I Should Fall Behind” from Lucky Town)


Staff Therapist Dr. Michele Marsh‘s specialty areas include trauma, sexuality throughout the life cycle, sexual abuse, affairs, depression, and anxiety; parenting issues, and loss and grief. Interested in therapy with Michele? Request an appointment today.