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Wake up or break up: 8 crucial steps to strengthening your relationship

What would it be like if you and your partner became excellent listeners on a daily basis? For example, think back through the months or years you have known your partner and recall the times when the two of you talked like best friends who truly cared about each other. What did it feel like to have a soul mate who was 100 percent there for you? Wouldn't it be great to have that sense of deep connection again in your conversations?

The loving gift of being fully present
You may have had moments in your relationship when you both made sure to set aside time each day or each week to catch up on what was happening with each other. Do you remember what that was like, and do you know why you've stopped making your moments together a high priority?

You may have had moments when you felt completely understood and appreciated by each other, when the two of you felt like passionate co-conspirators facing the obstacles and challenges of life together. Did you fall in love because you could appreciate one another's visions and vulnerabilities better than anyone else?

I bring up these questions to help you and your partner remember how amazing it feels when you are absolutely in the current moment connecting with your loved one. Yet to be fully present with the person you love deeply is not easy to accomplish. Not only do we have busy lives and lots to deal with, but we find it risky to open up and be fully known by another human being. On a stressful day when your brain and nervous system get battered and fried, how do you show up and be there 100 percent in the current moment with a partner who might also be exhausted or agitated?

Ways to create heartfelt listening
No one sets out to be a lousy listener. I doubt that you've ever heard at a wedding or commitment ceremony the partners pro- claim in their vows, "I promise to be a mediocre listener to you. I vow to show condescending signs of impatience or say things like 'So what's your point already?' when I come home from work and you're trying to describe the ups and downs of your day." Yet even if you're highly respected as a good listener in your job, you might still need to overcome the tendency to wear your "I've got no listening left" face when you're at home with your long-term partner or your kids.

There are three things you can do to master the art of heartfelt listening, even on a stressful day: the Daily Decompression Exercise, the Twenty-Minute Daily Check-In, and Giving Each Other Three Appreciations.

The daily decompression exercise
It's going to take more than good intentions if you want to be fully present for each other after a stressful day. That's why I recommend a remarkable tool called the Daily Decompression Exercise that I've seen work for hundreds of couples. Instead of going on automatic pilot when you're at home and slipping into impatience or grumpiness, you can use this exercise to manually adjust your focus and breathing at the moment your beloved partner needs you to be fully present. Instead of getting distracted, you can become the exquisite listener that a great partnership requires.

Here's what to do:

Before you try to have a quality conversation with your loved one, take five or ten minutes to "decompress" from the day. You might want to stop a block or two before your street and take five quiet minutes to remind yourself, "I'm not at work any longer. I'm about to enter a different atmosphere where my loved ones are hoping they'll have the good listener this time instead of the cranky, impatient, burned-out basket case they've had to endure too many times."

Or go into the washroom and rinse your hands and face as you say into the mirror, "This is a crucial moment when I'm either going to be a great listener or an impatient jerk. The quality of my relationship depends on whether I show up right now with an open heart or a closed mind."

During your five- or ten-minute decompression, you may also meditate or say a prayer to reconnect with that calm place deep inside yourself. You could say something like, "Please help me open my heart even though my body is tired." Or you could imagine that you're an astronaut or a scuba diver who needs to regain normal breathing now that you're coming back to firm ground after spending time in an alien environment. If you came back suddenly to normal oxygen after a journey to outer space or the ocean floor, you would begin by breathing slowly and calmly as you said to yourself, "I'm entering a completely different world than where I've been the past several hours."

Whatever approach you utilize, make sure you take a moment to feel your body and your mind shifting out of the "get to the point already" tone that might be normal at work but disastrous at home. Breathe deeply as you envision yourself turning back into a loving partner-and a caring and patient parent if you have kids at home.

As you walk up to your front door, stop for a moment to make sure you're ready to approach your loved ones with your most compassionate self. The moment before you say "Hello" or "How are you?" to your loved ones, take a deep breath and remind yourself, "The person I'm about to talk to is more important than any client, customer, boss, colleague, or phone caller I've spoken to today. I better show up fully available for this next conversation because nothing else is as important as these precious moments together. " You might even want to put these few sentences on a note card that you keep in your wallet in case you need to read them to yourself after an especially stressful day.

Even if your partner or your kids start right in saying something you've heard before, remind yourself that you can still be a calm and patient listener. As your partner begins to speak, if you notice that your impatience, irritability, or desire to interrupt is welling up, be sure to catch yourself and say silently, "Don't be a jerk. Don't be the lousy listener who can ruin a good relationship. Right now I'm definitely tired, but I'm still capable of listening with a completely open heart. This is the moment to prove whether I'm a great partner or a cranky burden for my loved ones."

Please don't underestimate the importance of this decompression portion of your day. What you say to yourself to unhook from your stressed-out mood is up to you. I've listed here a few possibilities, but feel free to change these statements into your own words. The key is to find a way to decompress so you won't stir up a fight or disappoint those who look forward to seeing you when you come home. Because if you talk to your partner or your kids the way you talk to someone you are disciplining at work, your loved ones will be thinking to themselves, "Oh, great, here we go again. The agitated commander in chief is home again and we're all supposed to take orders. Get me outta here!"

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