There’s something about turning (or swiping or clicking) the calendar to a brand-new year that inspires personal and professional goal-setting. A fresh start, right? A chance to gauge your success in a new framework. An opportunity to say good-bye to the mistakes you made in the previous year and determine to avoid those mistakes in the months that lie ahead.
It’s no surprise then that setting new year’s resolutions is such a popular way to say farewell to one year and herald in the next.
The problem is, many (if not most) of those resolutions are soon broken—well before the calendar flips to month number two!
Why is this?
It’s not because people aren’t being sincere when they set those goals. It’s not because the goals don’t matter enough to them. (Think back to the last time you resolved to do something worthwhile…whether you ultimately got it done to your satisfaction or not, I’d wager you were completely sincere and invested in your progress when you made the resolution.)
Rather, it’s merely the reality of the gulf between our life when we are sitting back and assessing it versus when we are actually living it. Any individual life is a highly complex, forever shifting experience (you never step in the same river twice), comprised of things within and beyond our control. At times it can feel like life is sweeping us up in its currents, rather than being directed by us. At those times especially, it can be hard to hold onto personal-progress goals we made during a non-stressful moment.
In other words, resolutions can quickly end up feeling like a dreamy luxury, rather than a set of practical guideposts.
And even worse, we often feel like failures when we break them. Much worse than if we hadn’t made them at all! (Since that causes you to disproportionately focus on what you didn’t accomplish and causes you to overlook what you did.)
Needless to say, feeling like a failure doesn’t inspire us to continue trying and striving…
What does this have to do with your marriage/relationship?
A great deal, actually.
Your marriage/relationship is one of the most important elements of your life (if not the most important). It’s natural to take stock of what’s working and what could be better and look ahead to how improvements can be achieved. Couples who come to see me marriage or couples counseling often have goals in hand.
But, as can be the case with individual goals, trying to adhere to a complicated list might be a set-up for perceiving “failure” and miss what’s already working between you.
That’s why, this year I’m suggesting something different.
Enhance your relationship: what’s your word for the new year?
Rather than a set of relationship resolutions for the new year, how about trying out a relationship word?
That’s right…one word. For instance….
Ideally, this is a word you and your spouse/partner will gently keep in your consciousness throughout the year. (Not force undue attention on. Remember that you can kill a seedling with too much water or too much sunlight.)
The word may represent:
Something you want to: work on (“communicate” or “listen”);
Something you want to learn or explore together (“cook” or “dance” or “Italian”);
Something you value within your union and want to celebrate more frequently and make more of a joint priority (“laughter” or “intimacy” or “gratitude”);
Something you believe will impact your relationship though you don’t know how (“change” or “openness” or “spirituality”);
Something you think might be lacking in some regard and therefore you want to boost it (“empathy” or “forgiveness” or “humility”).
You get the idea.
These are just examples to get you in the mindset. When you give it some thought within the unique details of your own marriage/relationship, you’ll come up with the word that is meaningful to you. And with any relationship advice, this doesn’t have to be done at a proscribed time (like the beginning of the year), but can be done whenever you have the genuine willingness.
The “right time” is whenever you get there.
The word options are plentiful. You might each come up with your own words in isolated quiet and then meet and share them (and have a duo of words you think about throughout the year, instead of just one). Or you might have a brainstorming session as a couple and together come up with a single word that resonates for both of you.
Don’t just say it and forget it
Periodically come together to discuss the word(s) and how you two are incorporating the concept in your marriage/relationship (or how you might make more room for it). This should not become a checklist-clipboard routine or a time to point fingers and place blame. Having a relationship word of the year does not pull for a dynamic of comparisons or competitiveness or things done or left undone. Instead, it’s that rare blend of abstract and practical that can benefit you if you give it attention, but won’t “hurt” you if you don’t.
When you set a word-intention, rather than creating a daunting to-do list for your relationship, you set yourself up for success. Also, you add a new lens for your relationship…a shape that’s neither too constraining or too nebulous to provide a sense of encouragement.
And one more note before I let you get to your brainstorming fun:
Although your relationship likely means the world to you, which means you take it very seriously, you don’t need to approach how you inhabit your relationship and how you interact with your mate in a somber, serious way. Go lightly, go gently.
It’s not true that meaningful change only arises from a serious climate.
This exercise should leave you feeling lighter and inspired, not weighed-down with fresh obligation or anxiety. Heck, your word might even be “play”!
Here’s to a fulfilling year ahead for you and your partner!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Psychologist, Georgetown, Texas