Bridge-Building Practices That Can Actually Help In Your Relationships

Jessica Carpenter

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend and I’m ready to celebrate in the best way possible: Watching the Super Bowl. Outside of little gifts from my mom every year (shoutout to moms!), I’ve never really cared too much about celebrating the day of love. I do enjoy the chocolate, though. I will admit that. Despite all of this, Valentine’s Day is interesting to me. Not because of the flowers or the rom-coms, but because every year we see couples celebrate in different ways – some with extravagant gifts and others just hanging out like I do – and I always wonder what their relationship is like outside of this holiday.

Are they good at communicating? What do they do to resolve arguments? What happens when there is a difference in opinions or lifestyle?  For me, all of these questions come from listening to my grandparents talk about each other and seeing how my friends handle their relationships (sometimes not always in the best way). And in all my thinking, I’ve found that how I would address these things relates back to what I’ve learned through having difficult discussions with BridgeUSA.

In fact, many bridge-building practices that we use in our conversations can be applied to relationships and help form healthier bonds between partners. What? A college organization practicing empathy and discussion can teach me about my relationships? Yes! Things such as active listening and setting boundaries just scratch the surface of similarities between our personal relationships and improving political dialogue. 

Here are five bridge-building practices that can actually help in your relationships:

#1: Listening is the key to success

This one shouldn’t come as a surprise. According to Psychology Today, 96% of people believe that they are good listeners, yet people only retain about half of what others say. That means that while we think we’re listening, the opposite might be true. The reason for this is that we often become distracted during a conversation. We’re thinking about how we want to respond or what we’re having for dinner, and in return, we may not hear what our partner is saying or misunderstand their point altogether.

Just as understanding another person in a discussion is important, so is seeking to understand our significant other. And that happens through listening! By removing distractions, staying curious, not making assumptions and asking questions, we can become better listeners. This is important because listening strengthens relationships and demonstrates attentiveness, caring, and respect. So, put your phone down and pay attention!

#2: How to handle conflict

Arguably one of the most stressful parts of having a Bridge discussion is the potential for conflict to arise. Thankfully, our moderation training helps provide some guidance in that area, but many couples aren’t as fortunate to have resources on hand in similar situations. Rephrasing points, taking a moment of silence and allowing room to respond are a few ways to address conflict, but what about shutting down the conversation altogether?

If you’re anything like me, the thought of cutting someone off after a bad encounter sounds kinda nice, but one of the many tips Dr. Nura Mowzoon has for handling situations in this manner is simple: Don’t do it. 

Dr. Mowzoon is a relationship and couples coach currently teaching at Arizona State University. With 10 years of field experience under her belt, Dr. Nura provides tips that are both helpful for managing healthy relationships, but are also often applied in bridge-building conversations.

Although it may feel easy to remove yourself from the situation* or leave unresolved arguments behind us, what we’re really doing is avoiding the problem. According to Dr. Mowzoon, cutting off people who upset us sets us up for failure in our future romantic relationships. Learning to address conflict and constructively engage points of contention is something that is critical for solution-finding in both conversations and relationships.

#3: Learning to self-reflect and have humility

Self-reflection and humility are probably the two hardest things to do in both a conversation and a relationship. Taking a moment to reflect in our conversations means accepting that we are not always right, and that others have something to offer. Saying that we don’t have all the facts, we might not know too much about a topic or acknowledging that there may be flaws in our arguments inspires growth and allows room for nuance and new information in a discussion. This is also beneficial in our relationships. 

Humility generates connection, and connection is the bedrock upon which a relationship and its values can flourish, says the Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute. Humility means accepting differences and being willing to listen. Self-reflection is the second step that allows us to become more aware of our own thoughts, emotions and intentions. Acknowledging these things in a relationship is important because you are less likely to push negative behaviors onto your significant other when you become aware of them. It’s also important because you are there to support each other, and pride and the refusal to admit wrongdoings can turn people away from each other, and even end the relationship.

#4: Avoiding assumptions and speaking for someone else

In our current political environment, people often assume things about each other based on their party affiliation, their skin color, where they live and what they’re wearing. Going off of these initial assumptions is the quickest way to kill a conversation before it even starts, and can prevent us from getting to know the reality of the situation. Again, the same can be said for relationships.

A lack of communication between partners creates the opportunity to fill in the blanks about a situation based on our own perception, even if it’s inaccurate. According to Psychology Today, assumptions about your partner can create inaccurate interpretations, resentments, and undue strife in relationships. This happens through misreading facial cues and body language, believing your partner already knows how you feel, and also assuming you know what your partner wants. 

Instead of speaking for each other, allow a space for you and your partner to express how you’re both feeling. It’s also important to become aware of your own assumptions when they’re happening. Shutting down the opportunity for conversations and finding solutions because we’re relying on our own perception of a situation is the quickest way to drive a wedge in relationships, and no one is happy in the end.

#5: Being willing to go beyond your comfort zone

It’s said that the best relationships will take you out of your comfort zone and help you grow. If I were to summarize all of the tips mentioned above with just one sentence, I would say that the best bridge-building practice to help in your relationship is to be willing to step out of your comfort zone and have hard conversations where you’re willing to be vulnerable. 

The problem of staying in our comfort zones is that we’re never challenged, we’re never confronted with difficult discussions, or forced to reflect on ourselves or our relationships. Maybe we brushed over an argument with our partner without actually addressing it; maybe some excitement gets lost in the relationship because date nights are always the same. Maybe you don’t even take that first step in a relationship because you’re afraid of rejection.

Coming out of our comfort zones may completely transform relationships with significant others and create stronger bonds altogether. By inviting difficult conversations, saying what you want in a relationship, trying new things with your partner and learning to understand someone else, you begin to form a healthier and more trusting relationship with your significant other, and may feel more fulfilled in the end.

Whether you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day like me this year or going out with someone special, everyone can benefit from learning a few little relationship hacks. And in this way, it seems like bridge-building can provide a few pointers.

I’m no relationship counselor. I’m just a person who likes having discussions. But what I’ve learned through having these difficult conversations is that they also exist outside of politics, and just like in politics, many of us are slow to engage in hard and uncomfortable discussions. Especially in our relationships. If we can’t learn to build bridges with our partners, we surely can’t do it in our communities either.

*This does not speak to cutting out abusive individuals and leaving abusive situations.

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