Couples Therapy

The Pivotal Role of Trust in Relationships: 50 Ways to Cultivate It

Trust is the linchpin of every thriving relationship, the silent, yet powerful underpinning that shapes interactions and deepens connections. From a psychological perspective, trust plays an integral role in fostering interpersonal relationships, impacting communication, cooperation, and personal well-being. However, establishing trust is not always straightforward and takes time, effort, and patience. In this article, we will delve into why trust is so essential and suggest 50 actionable ways to build trust with your partner and the people around you.

Why is Trust So Important in Relationships?

The human psyche is wired for social interaction. We need trust to navigate these complex dynamics. Here’s why:

1. Safety and Security: Trust provides a sense of safety and predictability in a relationship. When you trust someone, you feel secure that they will act in your best interests, enabling you to be more open and vulnerable.

2. Improved Communication: High levels of trust lead to more open, honest, and effective communication. Trusting relationships encourage individuals to express their feelings, fears, and desires without fear of judgment or retribution.

3. Resilience in Times of Conflict: Trust makes relationships resilient in the face of disagreements or conflicts. The belief that your partner or friend will handle conflict fairly and respectfully can prevent minor issues from escalating.

4. Fosters Interdependence: Trust enables interdependence, the balanced exchange of support and cooperation, promoting relationship satisfaction and longevity.

5. Personal Growth: Trust provides the foundation for personal growth. In a trusting relationship, individuals feel supported and encouraged to explore, learn, and develop without fear of ridicule or rejection.

Now that we understand why trust is crucial let’s explore 50 ways to build trust in your relationships.


  1. Being Reliable: Follow through on your promises and commitments. Consistency fosters trust.
  2. Communicating Openly: Open communication is the lifeblood of trusting relationships. Be willing to discuss feelings, fears, and dreams.
  3. Being Honest: Honesty is integral to trust. Even when it’s uncomfortable, strive for honesty in all circumstances.
  4. Showing Empathy: Empathy shows understanding and acceptance. Validate the feelings and experiences of others.
  5. Practicing Active Listening: Listen attentively, show interest, and confirm understanding. This communicates respect and care.
  6. Showing Vulnerability: Allowing oneself to be vulnerable shows that you trust the other person, which can inspire them to trust you.
  7. Demonstrating Integrity: Integrity involves standing by your principles and values, even when it’s difficult.
  8. Being Transparent: Share your thoughts and feelings openly. Transparency reduces suspicion and fosters trust.
  9. Being Supportive: Be there for others in times of need. Support demonstrates reliability and commitment.
  10. Apologizing When Necessary: Apologizing shows responsibility and humility. It can restore trust after a breach.
  11. Appreciating and Complimenting: Express gratitude and compliment others. Appreciation reinforces positive actions and behaviors.
  12. Maintaining Confidentiality: Keeping secrets that were entrusted to you demonstrates trustworthiness.
  13. Spending Quality Time Together: Shared experiences can deepen connections and cultivate trust.
  14. Fostering Mutual Respect: Respect forms the foundation for trust. Respect others’ boundaries, beliefs, and individuality.
  15. Encouraging Independence: A healthy relationship balances togetherness and independence. Encourage others to pursue their interests and grow as individuals.
  16. Sharing Personal Experiences: Sharing your experiences, especially those that show your vulnerability, can foster trust.
  17. Cultivating Patience: Trust takes time to build and requires patience.
  18. Being Consistent: Consistency in behavior, attitudes, and values creates predictability and trust.
  19. Practicing Forgiveness: Forgiving others for their mistakes can restore trust and demonstrate understanding.
  20. Showing Genuine Interest: Express interest in others’ lives, feelings, and experiences.
  21. Prioritizing The Relationship: Putting the relationship first, especially in times of conflict, can build trust.
  22. Showing Humility: Recognizing and admitting your flaws shows authenticity, which fosters trust.
  23. Addressing Issues Directly: Avoiding issues can lead to mistrust. Address conflicts directly and respectfully.
  24. Setting and Respecting Boundaries: Boundaries provide security. Respect your boundaries and those of others.
  25. Practicing Kindness: Kindness can help build trust by showing that you care about the other person’s well-being.
  26. Giving Constructive Feedback: Deliver constructive criticism in a caring and respectful manner.
  27. Expressing Your Needs Clearly: Clear communication about your needs can avoid misunderstandings.
  28. Showing Flexibility: Being flexible shows that you’re willing to compromise and cooperate.
  29. Celebrating Successes: Celebrate each other’s victories. This reinforces the sense that you’re on the same team.
  30. Learning From Mistakes: View mistakes as learning opportunities rather than failures.
  31. Providing Space: Respect each other’s need for space, which can enhance trust.
  32. Maintaining Balance and Fairness: Ensure both parties’ needs are being met to prevent resentment and mistrust.
  33. Staying Positive: Maintaining a positive attitude can enhance trust by creating a happy environment.
  34. Keeping Promises: Following through on your word demonstrates reliability.
  35. Understanding Others’ Perspectives: Strive to understand the other person’s point of view, even when you disagree.
  36. Avoiding Harmful Secrets: Secrets can erode trust. Be honest and open.
  37. Offering Help: Offering assistance shows your willingness to support and care.
  38. Being Patient: Building trust requires patience. Don’t rush it.
  39. Validating Feelings: Validate the other person’s feelings, even if you don’t fully understand them.
  40. Encouraging Dreams: Support others in their aspirations. This shows that you want the best for them.
  41. Showing Dedication: Demonstrate your commitment to the relationship.
  42. Avoiding Blame Games: Take responsibility for your actions, rather than resorting to blaming.
  43. Understanding Their Love Language: Understand how the other person gives and receives love. This can help avoid miscommunication.
  44. Showing Gratitude: Show appreciation for the other person. Gratitude strengthens bonds.
  45. Seeking Mutual Growth: Foster an environment where both parties can grow and learn together.
  46. Being Proactive: Address issues before they become problems. This shows that you value the relationship.
  47. Encouraging Self-Love: Encourage others to love and care for themselves. This shows that you respect their well-being.
  48. Respecting Their Time: Recognizing and valuing the other person’s time demonstrates respect and consideration.
  49. Accepting Them As They Are: Accepting someone, flaws and all, sends a powerful message of trust.
  50. Being There In Tough Times: Support during difficult times shows reliability and commitment, which are key components of trust.

Building trust is a continuous process, involving consistent efforts and open communication. It requires patience, understanding, and mutual respect. By incorporating these strategies into your interactions, you can cultivate trust in your relationships, leading to deeper connections and overall relationship satisfaction. Trust is more than just a concept; it’s an everyday practice that turns ordinary relationships into extraordinary ones.


Couples Therapy

Making successful agreements in relationships

14237839666_0fd61552d4_zMaking great agreements is an art form. Trust is built or broken around agreements that are kept or not kept. Whether or not we keep our agreements is quietly (or sometimes noisily) noted by those around us, who view our character through the lens of Do we do what we say we’re going to do? Do we not do what we say we’re not going to do?

What I’ve determined, after some years of working with agreements between couples, is a great agreement is one where both parties get everything they want.

Making great agreements where each person gets everything she wants creates the foundation of a relationship. On the other hand, relationships end over poor agreements. As couples weave their relationships over time, from dating to living together long-term, there are thousands of agreements that each person must feel good about. From time agreements to household chores to money to sex to in-laws to child-rearing to free time to friends (and of course, the all-important agreements about the toothpaste tube and which way the toilet paper hangs), making great agreements will lead either to fulfillment and flow or resentment, power struggle, and deadlock.

Splendid agreements are the result of both (or all) people believing that their desires, as well as fears and sadnesses, have been heard and attended to.

On the other hand, broken agreements generally occur for a host of reasons. Here are some of those reasons:»One or both people were half-hearted while making the agreement.

»One was placating the other to avoid a fight or to go do something more fun than sitting around processing.
»There are hidden resentments.
»There are power dynamics coming forward (i.e., the one experiencing low-power isn’t saying what he wants, or the person in the high-power position is demanding she gets what she wants).
»Wheedling, cajoling, criticizing, browbeating, eye-rolling got the other person to give up what he really want?

Do you want an amazing relationship that neither one of you would ever want to leave? Here’s how to do that: make sure you both get want you want. Do you want a relationship where one or both of you gets sick of the whole thing? Here’s how you do that: rely on short-term strategies to keep the peace without taking the time to sort through how to ensure each person gets what he or she wants.

Have I convinced you to try a new way of making agreements? Then, here we go.

The process of coming to a successful agreement can be one of the most co-creative of a relationship, as the big, interesting question is,


How can we both get everything we want?

25453446826_874a3f169e_zDoes that sound wacky? I expect it does based on the pretty consistent reactions I have gotten in the past when I proposed this idea. People are just not used to a co-creative mode of relating, where we get to be equal partners in creating new ideas and solutions. Welcome to this new world!

Let me walk you through some important ideas about making really great agreements, the kind that will support both of you to express your full selves and thrive together.


Delete the Word Compromise from Your Brain

OK, I know it isn’t quite that easy. But this persistent relationship ideal of compromise gives people the message that they should give up half of what they want and be happy about it. That’s a short-term strategy that leads to long-term resentment and a life that is half lived. As you learn the process below, you’ll see that if you put the tools you’re learning to use, it really is possible for everyone to get everything they want. And that leads to terrific, fulfilling relationships.

Take a moment and really try out the following idea in your body. It might sound strange, especially if you’ve ever had the experience of having to fight for what you want. Here it is:


So long as you got everything you want, would it be OK with you if your partner got everything she or he wants?

Another way of putting this might be: as long as my fears and worries were taken fully into account, and I was helped by my partner to deal better with, or more creatively with these, I would be happy if they got what they wanted.

Read that through again. Talk to your body about it. Feel the relaxation that can come with the idea of you getting everything you want, of all your fears and worries connected with whatever issue you’re dealing with, being heard and fully taken on board. Breathe into the spaciousness of realizing you don’t have to compete or compromise or give up or give in. Instead, your task is to stay in the expansiveness of Creative Brain until you find the new idea, the one that you each like so well that it’s easy to agree to and implement.


Making Agreements Is a Team Sport

14945156677_5725994b93_zEach person is 100 percent responsible for making a great agreement. That means that strategies people have traditionally relied on to get our way (whining, cajoling, demanding, wheedling, pressuring, withdrawing, stonewalling, “forgetting,” going dumb, resisting, manipulating, bargaining, arguing, giving up) aren’t actually useful here. In this new world of great and successful agreements, finding what works for both people is the team goal. That requires each person to show up, be clear, be unarguable, and follow through with what she or he agrees to.

So let’s get to the nuts and bolts of making a great and successful agreement.

There are two ways to doing this, both of which we can work with in our sessions. For some agreements, particularly those where the background to the situation is quite complex and has a “history” behind it of hurt and worry, it is often best to do some Self-led Dialogues around the hurt and worry before coming to the agreement itself.

(More about Self-Led Dialogue here:

For less knotty problems, first, notice the signs that an agreement is necessary. These might include resentment, frustration, confusion about expectations, and an overall sense of spinning your wheels.

Then, when preparing to make an agreement, take a moment to ground yourself. Breathe. Be in your body. Move around, flap your arms, wiggle your hips. Ground yourself in Creative Brain, generating a sense of expansiveness and possibility in your body. Remind yourself that the goal is not for one person to win and the other to lose, but to co-create a wonderful new way of being that reflects both of you and the best of your relationship.

The first step in making a good agreement is for both people to state the bottom-line quality of exactly what they want

»not what each thinks the other wants or does not want,
»not what each thinks the “right way” is or should be, and
»not what someone else wants.

but the bottom-line quality.

13930297671_720644b16f_zGetting to the bottom line is the key step. It can take some time to get to what this is. For example, “I want to paint the house green” might shift to “I want to look at our house and feel soothing inside.”

“I want you to help around the house” might become “I want to be your equal and teammate in our relationship.” “I don’t want to do any stupid chores during my free time” could be “I want to feel free to make my own choices about how I spend my time.”

The next step is for each person to speak the unarguable truth about the issue. This is not about justifying a want. (“Because I want it” is really the best reason there is.) It is about trying to be clear about what is going on, so the other person can understand.

The unarguable truth (sensations, emotions, wants) around agreements might sound like this: “When I look around the house, my body feels tight. I feel scared that I’m alone in making sure it is orderly. Oh, even more, I’m afraid of other people’s judgments when they come inside. What I really want is to be your equal and to know that we’re on the same team. And I want to feel peaceful and calm.”

The other person’s view might be: “As we’re talking about this, my stomach feels tight and my jaw is clenched. I feel scared about having a fight with you about this. And I’m afraid of giving up what I really want. And I feel angry about how I’ve been doing that in my life in general. What I want is to decide how I want to spend my time. And I want to feel connected with you.”

Do you see how dropping into the unarguable truth starts moving you both onto the same team?

Once it is clear to both what each wants, the fun part is brainstorming a list of creative solutions, which is the next step. When you come up with a solution that is big enough for both of you to get most of what you want, you’ll know it, because:

»you’ll be able to breathe,

»it will feel like the solution is part of the flow, and

»your body will be relaxed and open.

When you come up with a possible agreement, check: Can you both hold yourselves fully accountable to following through with it? If so, agree to it. Appreciate yourselves for your creativity. Throw in a high-five!

Here’s an example of this process at work (though it’s almost never this linear):

Peter: “When I look around the house, my body feels tight. I feel scared that I’m alone in making sure it is orderly. Oh, even more, I’m afraid of other people’s judgments if they came inside. What I really want is to be your equal and to know that we’re on the same team. And I want to feel peaceful and calm.”

Chris: “As we’re talking about this, my stomach feels tight and my jaw is clenched. I feel scared about having a fight with you about this. And I’m afraid of giving up what I really want. And I feel angry about how I’ve been doing that in my life in general. What I want is to decide how I want to spend my time. And I want to feel connected with you.”

Peter: “I want that, too.”

Chris: “Yeah, I want to be equals and teammates, too. And I like the peaceful and calm thing.”

(Note that when you get to the bottom line, both people almost always want the same thing.)

Peter: “So, how can we both get what we want?”

Chris: “Now that we’ve talked about it, I feel a lot better. I think that I was just avoiding thinking about housework so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. And, now that I think about it, I want to have more fun with you. I have the story that our lives are full of ‘shoulds’ and not so much about being creative.”

Peter: “Yeah, I notice that I’m more relaxed just talking about it. Maybe what I really wanted was just to connect with you, to know we’re in this together.”

Chris: “OK, so what I really want is to have more fun and see what happens with the housework.”

Peter: “I appreciate how you bring up the fun thing. I want to have fun with you. And I plan to just do what I want and stop policing what you do. And I want to be more creative in my life in general.”

Chris: “OK, good. How about our agreement is that we plan some fun this week, and see what happens with the housework?”

Peter: “Yes! Let’s play around with creating that backyard art we’ve been talking about.”

Chris: “Yes! I’m there.”

What I find is that this process is necessary to just determine what the real problem is. For Peyton and Chris, it actually had nothing to do with the housework; it was an issue of fun and creativity. When I work with couples, I avoid even talking about solutions until they’ve used the unarguable truth to get to what is the real issue to be solved.


But What about Really Big Agreements?

24802579596_5229ba72b7_zHaving a baby. Moving for one person’s job . . . again. Having family move in. Selling everything to live on a sailboat. How does this process work for the really big decisions?

The process itself is the same. Each person takes time and space to get down to the bottom-line truth about how she feels and what she really wants, and then using Self-Led Dialogue, we slow down the process of sending and receiving so that both parties can really get a handle on what is being felt, as opposed to being said.

The difference for really big decisions is that it might take longer to get there: more wandering into old patterns that are apt to be clouding up the conversation; more time to feel to the very core; and more space to remember that you are allies on the same team. Give yourselves space to seesaw back and forth, letting each person try on the other side of the coin. Build in a whole lot of breathing, moving, and wondering, until your body tells you the whole truth and you’re able to openheartedly hear your partner’s.



Practice going from what you think you want to the bottom-line quality of what you want. Start small; as you get better at this, you can go bigger and bigger and find out what you really want.


I Think I Want Bottom-Line Quality
A sandwich for lunch. Something I feel satisfied by; something that I can chew.
A vacation to Hawaii. To feel warm and spacious, expanded and relaxed.
An open relationship. Do what I want to do when I want to do it.

Now you try it. Get out your journal and make two columns and fill them in.

-I Think I Want

-Bottom-Line Quality

To end where we began: great agreements are an art form, one that you might never even have seen before. Give yourself and your relationship team time and space — to become impeccable with your agreements, to use this process, to fail, and then try again. These skills build over time. Eventually, you’ll find the confidence that comes from knowing that you can trust yourself and each other. That will be wonderful, solid ground that you can stand on. Together.


11296631613_f988134438_zThis tool contains everything I’ve been walking you through, so give yourselves plenty of practice with it. Take it slowly. And when you can get all the way through the steps, please celebrate — you’ve just crossed the bridge to a radically alive relationship!

1.Take a moment to breathe and remind yourselves that the goal is to come up with a really creative solution that reflects the best of both of you and in which you can both get everything you want.

2.Person 1 states the bottom-line quality of what he wants and the unarguable truth about the issue. Then Person 2 does the same thing. Make a list of all of these qualities.

Stop the process if either of you goes into Reactive Brain (i.e. you find yourself blaming, getting angry, jumping into the Boxing Ring of the power struggle). Use Emotional Shift tool (Steve will work with you on this if not covered already) to get back to Creative Brain/Self. Do this as often as is necessary.

Take your time in getting to the bottom line. It will be worth it.

3.Brainstorm a list of creative solutions that incorporate the qualities of what you each want. Push yourselves to come up with some that might seem crazy or off-the-wall so you can really stretch out into the wide expanse of Creative Brain. Have some fun with this.

4.Decide which solution is big enough for both of you to get what you want. Can you both breathe? Do your bodies feel expansive? Does this agreement seem to be easy to carry out?

5.Check this solution: Can you both hold yourselves fully accountable to following through with it? If so, bravo! You’ve made a great agreement.

6.Writing your agreement down can be very helpful, especially for the stickier issues. (You may want to have a Relationship Agreement Journal to track what you’ve come up with.)

Once you’ve tried out the agreement, it may need to be modified. Like an engine that is designed in the lab but then needs to be taken on a test drive, adjustments and tweaks are inevitable. It is the responsibility of each person to ask the other to renegotiate the agreement if it needs to be adjusted (which could be ongoing, as even the most carefully constructed agreements can run aground when put into practice). To keep the power of agreements alive in a relationship, both people must agree to any change (versus what people are tempted to do, which is to simply say to themselves, “I never liked that agreement anyway, so I’m just not going to follow it”).

(Bottom-line agreements adapted from, Chapter 14)

Couples Therapy

Re-establishing Self-led, caring behaviour in your relationship (AKA Reromanticizing)


18886973229_588f9416bb_hONCE A COUPLE has made a commitment to stay together and work on their relationship, the next logical step is to help them become allies, not enemies. It’s fruitless to take two people who are angry with each other and try to lead them along a path of spiritual and psychological growth—they would spend too much time trying to knock each other off the road. In order to make the surest and fastest progress toward their relationship vision, they need to become friends and helpmates.

But how is this going to happen? How can couples put an end to their power struggle when they haven’t had the opportunity to resolve their fundamental differences? Love and compassion are supposed to come at the end of the therapeutic process, not at the beginning. In the next few weeks, we will be working on resolving these fundamental differences and “dances of disconnection”, but in the meantime, it really can’t hurt to give your relationship a booster with the exercise suggested below, that doesn’t actually require you to be feeling romantic, even though the action and end-result is often one that mirrors this.

We do this by artificially reconstructing the conditions of romantic love. When two people treat each other the way they did in happier times, they begin to identify each other as a source of pleasure once again, and this makes them more willing to take part in intensive therapy.


17118817566_5f15979268_hYEARS AGO Harville Hendrix, the originator of this exercise, was resistant to the idea of such a direct approach to changing his clients’ behaviour. Coming from a psychoanalytic tradition, he was taught that the goal of a therapist was to help clients remove their emotional blocks. Once they had correctly linked feelings they had about their partners with needs and desires left over from childhood, they were automatically supposed to evolve a more rational, adult style of relating.

This assumption was based on the medical model that, once a physician cures a disease, the patient automatically returns to full health. Since most forms of psychotherapy come from psychoanalysis, which, in turn, has its roots in nineteenth-century medicine, the fact that they rest on a common biological assumption is not surprising. But years of experience with couples convinced him that a medical model is not a useful one for relationship therapy. When a physician cures a disease, the body recovers spontaneously because it relies on genetic programming. Each cell of the body, unless it is damaged or diseased, contains all the information it needs to function normally. But there is no genetic code that governs relationships. Long-term love relationships are a cultural creation imposed on biology. Because people lack a built-in set of social instructions, they can be trapped in unhappy relationships after months or even years of productive therapy. Their emotional blocks may be removed, and they may have insight into the cause of their difficulties, but they have a tendency to still cling to habituated behaviours.

Like many couples therapists, he came to the conclusion that he would have to play an active role in helping couples redesign their relationships. Insight into childhood wounds is a critical element in therapy, but it isn’t enough. People also need to learn how to let go of counterproductive behaviours and replace them with more effective ones. And that’s what we’re going to start doing this week if you’re up for it.


10286385884_a57f9f8376_kA BEHAVIORAL APPROACH proved especially useful in restoring a couple’s sense of love and goodwill. In his book, Helping Couples Change: A Social Learning Approach to Marital Therapy, psychologist Richard Stuart presents an exercise for couples that helps them feel more loving toward each other simply by engaging in more loving behaviours.

Called “Caring Days,” the exercise instructs husbands and wives to write down a list of positive, specific ways their partners can please them. For example, a man might write down: “I would like you to massage my shoulders for fifteen minutes while we watch television.” Or “I would like you to bring me breakfast in bed on Sunday morning.” The partners are to grant each other a certain number of these caring behaviours a day, no matter how they feel about each other. Stuart discovered that the exercise generated “significant changes in the details of the couple’s daily interaction during the first seven days of therapy, a very firm foundation upon which to build subsequent suggestions for change.”

To see whether or not this behavioural approach actually worked, Harville decided to try it out on Harriet and Dennis Johnson. He chose the Johnsons because they were as unhappy with each other as any couple in his practice. One of Harriet’s main anxieties was that Dennis was going to leave her. In a desperate effort to hold his interest, she flirted conspicuously with other men. To her dismay, Dennis responded to her flirtatious behaviour the same way he responded to just about everything else she did—with stoic reserve. During one session, he mentioned that he was even trying to adjust to the fact that Harriet might one day have an affair. His quiet heroics exasperated his wife, who was trying everything within her power to penetrate his defenses and get him to be more interested in her. Those rare times when she managed to get him riled up, he would behave in typical isolater fashion and flee the house. Most of their fights ended with Dennis’s zooming off to safety in his Audi sedan.

To lay the groundwork for the exercise, Harville asked Dennis and Harriet to tell me how they had treated each other when they were first in love. As he listened to them, he had the strange feeling that they were talking about two different people. He couldn’t imagine Dennis and Harriet going on long Sunday bike rides together, leaving work to meet each other at the movies, and calling each other on the phone two or three times a day.

“What would happen,” he asked them when he recovered from his amazement, “if you were to go home today and start doing all those things again? What if you were to treat each other the same way you did when you were courting?” They looked at him with puzzled expressions.

“I think I would feel very uncomfortable,” Dennis said after a moment’s reflection. “I don’t like the idea of acting differently from the way I feel. I would feel … dishonest. I don’t have the same feelings toward Harriet that I used to, so why should I treat her as if I did?”
Harriet agreed. “It would feel like we were playacting,” she said. “We may not be happy, but at least we try to be honest with each other.”

When Harville explained that taking part in the experiment might help them over their impasse, they agreed to give it a try, despite their initial objections. He carefully explained the exercise to them. They were to go home, make their lists, and volunteer to give each other three to five of those behaviours a day. The behaviours were to be gifts. They were to view them as an opportunity to pleasure each other, not as a bartering tool. And, most important of all, they weren’t to keep score. They were to focus only on the giving end of the equation. They left the office promising to give the exercise an honest effort.
At the beginning of their next appointment, Dennis reported on the results of the experiment. “I think you’re really on to something, Harville,” he said. “We did what you asked us to do, and today I feel a lot more hopeful about our relationship.”

Harville asked him to say more.

18705980776_89db41f66e_h“Well, the day after our appointment, I found myself driving around town in a black mood,” Dennis volunteered. “I can’t even remember what made me feel so down. Anyway, I decided that it was as good a time as any to do what you asked, so I stopped off at a variety store and bought Harriet some flowers. That was one of the requests on her list. So I gritted my teeth and picked out some daisies, because I remembered she always liked daisies. The shop assistant asked me if I wanted a note card and I said, ‘Why not?’ I remember saying to myself, ‘We’re paying Dr. Hendrix a lot of money to make things better, so I’d better do this all the way.’ When I came home, I signed the card ‘I love you.’” He paused for a moment. “The thing that surprised me, Harville, was that, as I handed Harriet the flowers, I really did care for her.”

“And when I read the card,” Harriet added, “tears came to my eyes. It’s been so long since he’s told me he loved me.” They went on to describe all the other things that they had done to please each other. She had cooked him a roast with all the trimmings, his favourite meal. He had agreed to curl up together in bed as they fell asleep instead of turning his back to her. She had gotten out her yarn and needles and started knitting him a sweater. As they were recounting these events, there seemed to be remarkably little tension between them. When they left the office, Hendrix noticed that as Dennis helped Harriet on with her coat she smiled and said, “Thank you, honey.” It was a little thing, but it was the kind of pleasurable give-and-take that had been so absent in their relationship.

He asked Dennis and Harriet to continue to give each other caring behaviours, and at each session they reported a gradual improvement in their relationship. They not only were treating each other more kindly, but were also more willing to explore the issues that underlay their discontent. They spent less of their time in his office complaining about each other and more time exploring the childhood issues that were the reasons for their unhappiness in the first place.

Because Stuart’s exercise proved so helpful for Dennis and Harriet, Harville used it as a model for an expanded exercise that he labeled “Reromanticizing” because it effectively restored the conflict-free interactions of romantic love.

I too have introduced the Reromanticizing exercise to my clients, and, almost without exception I have noticed that when couples began artificially to increase the number of times a day that they acted lovingly toward each other, they began to feel safer and more loving. This intensifies the emotional bond between them, and as a result they make more rapid progress in their therapy.

I will explain the details of the Reromanticizing exercise below. The exercise is not designed to resolve your deep-seated conflicts (your dance of disconnection), we will be doing more work on that in our sessions together, but it will re-establish feelings of safety and pleasure and set the stage for increased intimacy.


145394991_93749edff8_bWHY IS THIS simple exercise so effective? The obvious reason is that, through daily repetitions of positive behaviours, your old brain begins to perceive your partner as “someone who nurtures me.”

Painful memories are overlaid with positive transactions, and your partner is no longer categorized as a bringer of pain and discomfort but as a wellspring of pleasure. This opens the way for intimacy, which is only possible in a context of pleasure and safety.

But there are other, subtler reasons the exercise works so well. One is that it helps people erode the infantile belief that their partners can read their minds. During romantic love, people operate out of the erroneous belief that their partners know exactly what it is that they want. When their partners fail to satisfy their secret desires, they assume that they are deliberately depriving them of pleasure. This makes them want to deprive their partners of pleasure. The Reromanticizing exercise prevents this downward spiral by requiring couples to tell each other exactly what pleases them, decreasing their reliance on mental telepathy.

Another consequence of the exercise is that it defeats the tit-for-tat mentality of the Dance of Disconnection power struggle.

When couples take part in the Reromanticizing exercise, they are instructed to pleasure each other on an independent schedule; they mete out a prescribed number of caring behaviours a day, regardless of the behaviour of their partners.

This replaces the natural tendency to hand out favours on a quid pro quo basis: You do this nice thing for me, and I’ll do that nice thing for you.

20912563329_92d7431fab_hMost relationships are run like a commodities market, with loving behaviours the coin in trade. But this kind of “love” does not sit well with our old repitilian brains (the part of us that can feel very scared, unsafe, and so responds in a fight-flight-freeze way). If John rubs Maya’s shoulders in the hope that she will let him spend the day going fishing, a built-in sensor in Maya’s head goes: “Look out! Price tag attached. There is no reason to feel good about this gift, because I’ll have to pay for it later.” Unconsciously she rejects John’s attentions, because she knows that they were designed for his benefit, not hers. The only kind of love that her old brain will accept is the kind with no strings attached: “I will rub your shoulders because I know that you would like it.” The back rub has to come as a “gift.”

This need to be “gifted” comes straight out of our childhood. When we were infants, love came without price tags. At least for the first few months of our lives, we didn’t have to reciprocate when we were patted or rocked or held or fed. And now, in adulthood, a time-locked part of us still craves this form of love. We want to be loved and cared for without having to do anything in return. When our partners grant us caring behaviours independent of our actions, our need for unconditional love appears to be satisfied.

A third benefit of the exercise is that it helps people see that what pleases them is the product of their unique makeup and life experience and can be very different from what pleases their partners. This reinforces the fact that they are separate people. Often, partners in a relationship cater to their own needs and preferences, not to each other’s. For example, a woman I once worked with went to a great deal of trouble to give her husband a surprise fortieth-birthday party. She invited all his friends, cooked his favorite foods, borrowed a stack of his favourite 1970s records (yes, actual LPs!), and organized lively party games. During the party, her husband acted as if he were enjoying himself, but a few weeks later, in the middle of a counseling session, he got up the courage to tell his wife that he had been secretly miserable. “I’ve never liked having a fuss made about my birthday,” he told her. “You know that. And especially not my fortieth birthday. What I really wanted to do was spend a quiet evening at home with you and the kids. Maybe have a homemade cake and a few presents. You’re the one who likes big noisy parties!”

His wife had taken the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” a little too literally. She had unwittingly given her husband a party that suited her tastes, not his. The Reromanticizing exercise circumvents this problem by training couples to “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” This turns their random caring behaviours into “target” behaviours, behaviours that are designed to satisfy their partners’ unique desires.

When couples regularly give each other these target behaviours, they not only improve the superficial climate of their relationship, they also begin to heal old wounds.

So if this makes sense to you, here’s how to do it…


15224191417_ce6eb00c6d_hTime: Approximately 60 minutes.

Purpose: By sharing specific information about what pleases you and agreeing to pleasure your partner on a regular, consistent basis, you can turn your relationship into a zone of safety.

Comments: You can do steps 1–3 separately if you wish. Do the remaining steps together.


1. The first step in this process is to identify what your partner is already doing that pleases you. Get out separate sheets of paper and complete this sentence in as many ways as possible, being specific and positive and focusing on items that happen with some regularity:

I feel loved and cared about when you …


send me text messages out of the blue sharing something about the day, or checking in with me.
tell me you love me (especially face-to-face, but also in text or phone calls).
butter my toast, with just the right amount of butter you know I like.
kiss me before you leave the house.
tell me important things that happen to you.
sit close to me when we’re watching TV.
listen to me when I’m upset.
check with me first before making plans.
want to make love to me.
compliment me on the way I look.
tell me you think I’m a good at […]
recognise/remember that I’m negatively triggered by certain comments/topics.
make sympathetic and validating comments when I’m complaining about my family.

2. Now recall the romantic stage of your relationship. Are there any caring behaviours that you used to do for each other that you are no longer doing? Once again, take out separate sheets of paper and complete this sentence:

I used to feel loved and cared about when you …


wrote me love letters.
brought me flowers.
held my hand as we walked.
whispered sexy things into my ear.
called me up on the phone to say how much you loved me.
cooked me special dinners.
stayed up late talking and making love.
made love more than once a day.
kissed me when you went out the door and hugged me when you came home.

3. Now think about some caring and loving behaviours that you have always wanted but never asked for. These may come from your vision of a perfect mate or from prior experience. (They should not, however, refer to activities that are a present source of conflict.) These may be very private fantasies. Whenever possible, quantify your request.

Complete this sentence: I would like you to …


massage me for thirty minutes without stopping.
take a shower with me.
buy me some silver jewelry as a surprise.
go backpacking with me three times each summer.
sleep in the nude.
go out to brunch with me once a month.
read to me.
eat dinner in the summer house.

4. Now combine all three lists and indicate how important each caring behaviour is to you by writing a number from 1 to 5 beside each one. A “1” indicates “very important”; a “5” indicates “not so important.”

5. Exchange lists. Examine your partner’s lists and put an “X” by any items that you are not willing to do at this time. (Make sure that you are willing to do all the ones you have not checked.) Starting tomorrow, do at least two of the caring behaviours each day for the next two months, starting with the ones that are easiest for you to do. Add more items to your list as they occur to you. When your partner does a caring behaviour for you, acknowledge it with an appreciative comment. As you will recall from the introduction above caring behaviours are gifts, not obligations. Do them regardless of how you feel about your partner, and regardless of the number of caring behaviours your partner gives you.

6. If either you or your partner experiences some resistance to this exercise, make a note of the thoughts and feelings behind the resistance, and bring this to therapy to discuss with Steve, but keep on doing the caring behaviours regardless. (See below for some explanations of your resistance.)


8631575690_2be5e8318c_bA certain degree of resistance is to be expected. When a husband and wife have been treating each other like enemies for a while, it’s going to feel strange to start writing love notes again. The exercise is going to feel artificial and contrived (which, of course, it is), and to the old threat-perceiving brain anything that is not routine and habituated feels unnatural. The only way to lessen this automatic resistance is to repeat a new behaviour often enough so that it begins to feel familiar and therefore safe.

Another form of resistance can come from protective or managerial (trying to keep scary/painful stuff under control) parts of us. If we have developed for example an Angry/Blaming Part, or a Detached Part in response to a feeling of deep hurt or pain or deprivation in our relationships, these parts will reveal themselves at this time in terms of not wanting to “play ball” with regard to this whole “reromanticizing” thing. “Why should I do something nice for someone who has hurt me so much in the past, or is maybe still hurting me now?” they might complain.

At this point, a bit like brushing our teeth, or going to the gym even when we don’t feel like it, the importance of gently asking that resistant part to step aside, just for the 5 minutes it takes to do the behaviour is worth the initial discomfort (it’s quite alright if it reasserts itself after we’ve committed to doing the thing it would rather not do).

The key benefit in doing this, is that we carry out a loving Self-led behaviour, even if we don’t actually feel like it, and curiously, this can actually impart some very real feel-good Self-energy to us as well as feeling good for our partner.

The idea of “faking it till you make it” is often derided, but a lot of good psychological research has shown that even if we’re only 2% committed to something that’s good for us, or someone else, just by doing the action a positive energy is generated which starts to transform the 98% of us that’s resistant into something more at peace with the actions we’re carrying out. Love begets love in other words, both in the doer, and the receiver, even if the loving action is only half-heartedly carried out.

If you don’t believe me, give it a go for the next week and let’s talk more next time we meet.