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New Year's Resolution Should Get to the Heart of the Matter

December 26, 1990|SHERRY ANGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You refuse to drive anywhere on New Year's Eve and you're so burned out on holiday cheer by then that you'd rather not invite anyone to your place, so you are settling in for a quiet evening at home.

If you're like many other New Year's Eve couch potatoes, you'll probably end up falling asleep in front of the tube long before the countdown in Times Square reaches your living room. You'll greet 1991 in the morning, just in time for the first kickoff.

But you might want to consider planning a more stimulating celebration at home that will keep you awake long enough--and put you in the right mood--to collect a midnight kiss (or two . . . ) from your mate. You might try an elegant dinner with candles, champagne and, most important, intimate conversation that sets the tone for a promising New Year.

This is the time to make some resolutions about how you and your partner can work together to improve your relationship with each other and your children--and perhaps other family members--in 1991. If your resolutions in the past have been mostly pragmatic--things like getting your 20-year-old body back, bathing your dog more often or finishing your novel--it may be difficult, at first, to come up with resolutions focusing on the deeper matter of making your loved ones happy.

Fortunately, you are about to get some help from Orange County family therapists, who were asked to identify the New Year's resolutions they would most like to see couples make. Because therapists work mostly with families in distress, they relished the opportunity to suggest ways to enrich relationships that might help prevent crises. So here goes.

Todd Creager, a Huntington Beach marriage, family and child counselor who specializes in couples therapy, stressed the importance of effective communication. He suggested that couples resolve to: "Be honest with each other. Stop holding back or hiding feelings. Remember you cannot not communicate. If you are not expressing yourself directly, you are doing it indirectly, and that is always worse. We often communicate unexpressed feelings by acting them out in such ways as withdrawing, starting arguments and being defiant."

In addition to communicating more directly, couples should show respect for each other even when they are angry, negotiate in a way that allows both to feel that their opinions and desires matter, and put aside their own agendas so that they can really listen to each other, Creager added.

He'd also like to see couples make a commitment to "focus on the best in each other."

"People change behaviors much more quickly if given strokes for their constructive behaviors, even if those behaviors are few and far between," he explained. "Ongoing criticism about negative behaviors tends to preserve the status quo."

Helen Greenblatt, a Laguna Hills psychotherapist, encourages people to "let go of old beliefs so they're free to seek new challenges" in their family relationships.

She explained: "We cling to the old patterns and habits because they're comfortable, but they're really not moving us forward."

Those old beliefs may prevent people from finding peace in difficult relationships, she said. "We stereotype our family members, especially our parents. If we could just step back and look at them objectively without any of the guilt or shame or past hurts, we might see them in a way more acceptable to us. We should be charitable with our families and give them the benefit of the doubt."

The tendency to resist change in a relationship often leads to major crises, said Gerry Owen of Owen Family Counseling in Brea.

"The way we talk tends to focus on keeping things the same," he said. "If someone goes off in one direction, we try to pull them back toward the past."

Couples can tell they're resisting change if they keep repeating a "stuck conversation" that always leaves them feeling bad but never gets resolved, Owen noted.

If couples don't face changes in each other and their relationship as they occur, they may eventually be forced to do so by a crisis such as an extramarital affair, and by then it may be too late.

"It's better to have small shakes than a major quake," Owen said.

So he urges couples to allow for change and try to resolve their difficulties as they come up rather than carry over bad feelings from one day to the next.

As couples get better at dealing with their conflicts, they need to balance those often-difficult encounters by finding more time for romance, said Owen's wife, Linda, who is also a family therapist.

Just touching each other more can make a big difference, she said.

She and her husband also offer couples this deceptively simple advice: "When touched, say 'thank you.' When angry, walk. When sad, hug. Whenever, laugh."

Lee Hachey, a marriage and family counselor in Costa Mesa, agrees that couples should be more demonstrative; without open affection, too many end up "being like roommates," he said.

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