How To Enhance Your Listening Skills & Improve Your Relationship

How To Enhance Your Listening Skills & Improve Your Relationship

How To Enhance Your Listening Skills & Improve Your Relationship

Are You A Good Listener?

Listening with intent and genuine interest is a skill that, unfortunately, most of us are not born with. This skill is what ultimately builds connection and develops a reassurance in our relationships (romantic, platonic, and professional!). Did you know that most toxic relationship issues (no matter what the topic) come from a disconnect in communication? It’s true! As a Couples Counselor, I have worked with many couples who are going through these exact same disconnects in their relationship, and I want to offer you practical listening skills that you can practice to become a better, more effective listener.

The wonderful thing about diversity is that we all come from unique backgrounds. These different backgrounds make up different cultures, values, and ideals we hold as individuals. However, when you bring two (often very different) people together, there sometimes is a sort of tug-of-war into whose values are more authentic and which ideals the relationship will hold. Since we all have distinct and very personal views of “right and wrong”, this makes hearing other opinions often challenging.

Listening to your partner without judgment is essential to building connection, rebuilding trust, and fostering an environment where a relationship can grow and thrive! We all want to be heard, and when we aren’t we feel as though our emotions and needs are often overlooked. Not listening to your partner can result in power struggles, negative behaviors, resentment, and ultimately…separation.

You don’t want to wait for things to “just get better” in your relationship, because they won’t without intentionally taking the steps for improvement (both personally and as a couple). The good news is, you can start today! Here are six practical and mindful ways that you can improve your listening skills while making yourself a more responsive and connected partner.


Your values are no better or worse than your partner’s values. An active listener will work hard not to judge his or her partner’s emotions.

Needs and emotions are never “correct” or “incorrect” they simply just are. Discussions that lead to black and white thinking, right or wrong, are usually about asserting control. Control then leads to blame, anger, and resentment, not connection. A partner who feels judged or is “wrong” in an argument will feel invalidated and unheard. A listener’s job is to listen, not judge. If a listener intends to hear and not control, then the result is better connection.


Our culture has taught us the fallacy that a healthy couple never disagrees or gets into arguments. In reality, many healthy couples disagree about important topics regarding their relationship, and no couple will ever agree entirely about everything.

Authentic listening comes from hearing and validating ideas you don’t agree with, as this shows respect for your partner. The goal is to listen and accept, and not necessarily agree, which can lead to the compromise that’s needed for couples to navigate difficult times and topics together.


For most of us, this means putting the cell phone down, turning off the TV, or walking away from the computer screen. Non-verbal cues are incredibly important as a listener. If you are distracted and disengaged, then clearly you cannot validate your partner (who may feel they’re talking to a figurative wall).

To get even more real with your partner, use non-verbal cues such as touch, eye contact, and body language(as well as the verbal cue of vocal tone). These cues are what babies learn in their early development to feel safe. These same cues will calm an adult’s limbic system – allowing more safety in sharing emotions and needs. Your non-verbal cues of acceptance and security are not just a crucial listening skill, but also a critical skill for building any relationship.


Empathy is being able to understand another person’s experience, and it’s the opposite of judgment. Your partner’s emotions and needs are real and often come from painful, deep experiences. Just as you have your own needs and emotions based off of your experiences, so does your partner.

Try putting yourself in your partner’s shoes to feel and understand their pain, or access your pain and examine how you’ve dealt with it. Everyone at some point will experience a difficult situation or circumstance, your partner included, and showing empathy and understanding will allow for more in-depth conversations and connection between the two of you.


Few behaviors invalidate more quickly than interrupting. Interrupting usually involves fear or a lack of emotional safety on the listener’s part. This behavior, however, will cause your partner to believe that you feel your opinion has more validity than theirs. Try not to rehearse a response in your head while your partner is sharing, as that disengages you from empathy and feeling what your partner is trying to share with you. Let the conversation happen organically and without distraction or interruption of preplanned responses (that could ultimately cause more pain than healing).


Many of my clients in couple’s counseling have revealed to me that feeling unheard is one of their biggest triggers to pain and anger.  So how do you show your partner that you genuinely have heard their emotions and needs?

One way that has been proven to be effective is to repeat (in your own words) what you think you heard your partner say to you, and to ask if you heard them correctly. Be careful not to infer your interpretations into what your partner said, as those may be incorrect and invalidating – simply repeat what you heard. If you don’t get everything, that’s okay! You can ask your partner to repeat what you may have missed. This is even more effective when using your non-verbal cues for safety.


Listening can be a difficult skill to learn, and you won’t perfect this skill in just one conversation. If you continue to practice these six steps to improve your listening skills you will see improvement overtime (and it will get easier and more natural too!).

Self-care and general happiness are also tied to helping with the development of listening skills, as well as therapeutic techniques such as thought stopping and grounding activities. However, those who have suffered from trauma may have difficulty accessing these skills, and individual therapy to process and heal from the trauma may be needed to listen safely and with compassion. It’s true, listening can be difficult, but the rewards of being able to do so are numerous: clarity, understanding, emotional honesty, and better connection. You have the power to make changes with your listening skills and to show your partner that you can take that next step and truly hear them with empathy and understanding!

All the best,
Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC is a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach who helps people create deeper relationships, heal from difficult life experiences, and increase their confidence. His warm, non-judgmental approach makes it safe to discover new things about yourself, and take positive action to change your life.

Let’s  Talk

Read More By Seth Below!

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Are Negative Perceptions Harming Your Relationship?

Are Negative Perceptions Harming Your Relationship?

Are Negative Perceptions Harming Your Relationship?

Seth Bender is a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach who helps people create deeper relationships, heal from difficult life experiences, and increase their confidence. His warm, non-judgmental approach makes it safe to discover new things about yourself, and take positive action to change your life.

Stop Jumping to Conclusions

As a marriage counselor, couples therapist, and married guy, I know that this happens to anybody who is in a relationship – you get into an argument with your partner, and your mind starts racing with thoughts that seem to automatically pop into your brain. In the therapy world, we often call these thoughts “perceptions.” Perceptions are mental images which are triggered by emotions, which then influence how we act towards our partner.

Negative Perceptions = Negative Reactions

If these perceptions of ourselves and our partners are negative, then they might manifest in behaviors that can be destructive to a relationship, especially if they get repeated. But how does this process happen, and more to the point, how can you help manage and control these perceptions in your own relationship?

What’s Your Inner Dialogue?

To understand what perceptions feel like, imagine the initial thoughts that run through your head when find yourself in a heated argument with your partner. For example, do you assume your partner is always losing control? Do you think nothing you do will ever be good enough? Do you assume your partner is running away or abandoning you emotionally? Do you think you have to fix the situation any way you can?

These are all examples of negative perceptions that can then influence how you then behave and communicate with your partner. If your thoughts are negative in that moment, then you will likely behave accordingly in a way that will push your partner away, not connect them to you.

Our Thoughts Create Our Feelings, Which Lead to Reactions

Another important point to remember is that perceptions serve as the bridge between emotion and responding to that emotion. In other words, perceptions are most often caused by anger or frustration — secondary emotions that are fueled by fear and pain. From there, perceptions seem almost automatic. If perceptions are fueled by negative emotions, then they will often turn into negative behaviors. [For more information on the Thought > Feeling > Action response cycle, check out the “Happy Mind” unit of The Happiness Class.)

When your thoughts about yourself or your partner are negative in the moment, then you may feel emotionally insecure and unsafe, and any negative behavior that arises from that is the body’s natural response to feeling emotionally threatened.

But there’s something very interesting to think about in terms on negative perceptions – they’re most often not true!

Challenge Your Automatic Thoughts

For example, remind yourself that your partner is responding to their own fears and is likely not trying to run away from you, you don’t have to fix every problem in a relationship, and you ARE good enough, even if your negative perceptions feel true in the moment, especially when triggered by anger or hurt. Even though the thoughts are in our head, they feel very real and we respond to them in kind.

Fortunately, there are ways to be able to break the cycle and fight these negative thoughts.

Fight Negative Perceptions With Empathy

The antidote to negative perceptions lies with empathy and empathic communication, meaning being able to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and try to understand why they may be acting the way they are.

Empathy can be built in a number of different ways – listening to and validating your partner, sharing softer, deeper emotions with one another, and understanding that your partner’s behavior may be caused by unmet emotional needs and a lack of emotional safety that might have little to do with you are all examples of empathy — and all ways of breaking negative perceptions proactively and in the moment.

Know that a partner’s reactions may seem irrational to you, but emotion is often not rational, and in those moments, try to take a step back. If you can validate and understand your partner’s true pain, those negative perceptions will become less intense and you’ll be able to access kindness to your partner in the moment. Your positive thoughts will connect you to your partner, not push you away.

Remember, you can feel empathy for yourself too! Perfection is never attainable – you are human and you will make mistakes, as your positive and negative experiences help build how you respond to stress and perceived threats. People respond to negative perceptions in attachment styles that feel safest, and you are no different. You have permission to not be perfect!

You’re Not Alone

All that being said, negative perceptions can become overwhelming. If you’d like support in learning how to manage your thoughts and find more helpful responses in moments of stress, a good therapist or coach can help you access your strengths to work on resolving underlying pain and controlling your thoughts. As those thoughts are connected to what has already happened, then healing and coming to terms with the past may be key in helping you move forward.

The brain controls emotions, but the brain can also play tricks on you! Know that even though negative thoughts in the moment feel real and overwhelming, they are often not true. You have the power to manage and change those thoughts, and to change your relationship to one that you always return to for comfort and safety.

All the best,

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC

Constantly Arguing in a Relationship? Here’s How to Stop.

Constantly Arguing in a Relationship? Here’s How to Stop.

Constantly Arguing in a Relationship? Here’s How to Stop.

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC is a marriage counselor, therapist, and life coach with Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. He helps people create deeper relationships, heal from difficult life experiences and increase their self-confidence. His warm, non-judgmental approach makes it safe to discover new things about yourself, and take positive action to change your life.

How to Break a Negative Relationship Cycle, and Fix Your Marriage

Do you find yourself stuck in the same types of relationship arguments over and over again with your partner? Or like there is constant arguing in your relationship? Do you feel like you’re always making up after a fight? Does it feel like no matter what you do or say, your disagreements with your significant other never get resolved?

If you answered yes to any these questions, don’t worry, you’re not the only one! As a marriage counselor and couples therapist (as well as a married dad) I know that all couples have interactional cycles that get triggered by what partners say and do, and all couples have disagreements from time to time. But when you’re focusing on the wrong things, arguments are never resolved so they keep coming up over and over again. If that’s happening in your relationship, it’s likely that you’re stuck in a negative relationship cycle. Learning how to identify and communicate about primary emotions can help you break free.

Why Couples Get Stuck in Conflict

What usually happens when couples try to work through things after a fight is that discussions around disagreements usually only
center on the topic of the disagreement, or the behavior and anger surrounding it. That is the only the tip of the iceberg, though — the true emotions and needs often lie beneath the surface and rarely get discussed, and that’s why the negative cycles are so hard to break out of! One of the most well-researched, evidence-based approaches in couples counseling is called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (the type of marriage counseling that I specialize in). This form of marriage counseling centers around helping couples be able to communicate the deeper issues and primary emotions so that they break negative cycles and build better connection and safety.

What is a Primary Emotion?

Here’s a hint; a primary emotion is not anger or frustration! Those two emotions, while very real, are
often secondary emotions, which are reflections, or by-products, of a deeper emotion beneath the surface.

Primary emotions, on the other hand, usually center around softer feelings – fear, vulnerability, pain, love, and other,
deeper needs. These softer emotions often are based on our needs for emotional safety, connection, and wanting to feel loved and respected by our partners. But when these needs go unmet in our relationships it can lead to anger and negative behaviors that push couples away from each other and destroy trust.

Often in arguments, however, usually anger and frustration are the only emotions that are communicated and talked about afterward, and primary feelings are not recognized or addressed. This leaves the true core issue unresolved, and ripe for another conflict. This dynamic leads to repetitive arguing, and makes couples wonder why they keep having the same fights over and over again. To change the cycle, couples need to learn to access and communicate primary emotions safely. [More information about practicing emotionally “safe” communication here: How to Communicate With Someone Who Shuts Down]

Tapping in to Primary Emotions

Notice How You’re Feeling: One way to start accessing the softer primary emotions is to pay attention to what you’re feeling  – where is the emotion showing up in your body? Emotion always manifests itself somehow in our body, whether through muscle tension, quickened heartbeat, stomach discomfort, or any other bodily reaction you might think of.

Secondary emotions are easier to access – anger in the body can often be accessed before or after is triggered, but primary emotions such as fear or pain will likely manifest some other way. Try to become more aware of your body when you become emotional and begin to match different bodily reactions to different emotions – you’ll notice the difference faster than you think.

Practice Naming Your Feelings: Some people have an easier time accessing primary emotions in the body, but have a more difficult time assigning a name to the primary emotion. This can be especially true for men (but many women can struggle with this too). [For more on this topic check out my “Understnding Men” podcast.] An emotion wheel, or “feelings wheel” (available readily online,) can help put a name to an emotion than a general “fear” or “pain” that may not accurately describe what you are feeling in that moment.

Remember, if you can access and name your primary emotions, then you are taking the first step in communicating those emotions that can help break a negative cycle. [Learn more about how being in touch with your feelings can help you improve your communication in, “Empathy: The Key to Communication and Connection”]

Communicating Your Real Feelings

Get Support: Learning how to communicate primary emotions safely usually should be done with the support of a couples counselor or relationship coach, as many people can find this surprisingly challenging, especially in the beginning. A marriage counselor who is trained in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy will have the most skill and experience in helping couples get in touch with their feelings, and communicate them in a productive way to their partner.

Create Safety: Communicating primary emotions in a way that is safe for the sharer and listener can feel challenging, especially in cases where couples have had bad experiences when expressing their authentic feelings. However, this type of couples counseling can lead to more effective, longer lasting relationship repair than types of marriage counseling that feel like more of a “band-aid” than a healing process.

Avoid Blame: Someone with a history of not feeling safe expressing emotion will need assurance and trust that they will not be hurt doing so, and that can be difficult to find. Sharing primary emotions in a safe way requires the sharer to own their emotions and share them in a way that is not blaming to the listener.

Focus on Listening: Accepting primary emotions requires the listener to not judge or try to “fix” the pain that sharer is revealing, only to listen, accept the emotion for what it is, and validate the sharer. It sounds easy to do, but it is not, which is why couples counseling or coaching is highly recommended to learn how to and practice communication in a way that provides safety for both the sharer and listener.

Why Change The Way You Communicate in Your Relationship?

Yes, learning how to communicate differently can be challenging but the benefits of safely communicating primary emotions and needs can be relationship-changing. All people need connection and attachment, and couples often feel more connected and trusting after communicating fear and hurt rather than anger. Feeling safer with communication will often also reduce triggering behaviors such as withdrawing/stonewalling, criticism, defensiveness, and trying to “fix” problems, and reducing the frequency of those will also being a couple closer together!

More to the point, learning to communicate softer primary emotions will help break negative interactional cycles – you’re no longer just communicating anger and going around in circles; you’re getting to the root of your anger and frustration, and trusting your partner to hear your authentic feelings. What could bring a couple closer than knowing they can talk about their deepest feelings, and knowing that they will be validated and accepted?

Those deep feelings and primary emotions are already part of all of your arguments, whether or not you’re currently aware of them or talking about them. When you learn how to communicate them directly, you’ll see your relationship change in ways you might not imagine, replacing resentment and anger with understanding, trust, and connection.

I hope this relationship advice helps you stop fighting, start understanding, and find your way back together again.

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC

Do Long Distance Relationships Work?

Do Long Distance Relationships Work?

The Challenges of Long Distance Relationships… And How to Make Them Work

Imagine missing your partner to the point where you feel your heart about to explode.  You need to connect to the person you love, to feel their physical presence, and experience their love and affection.  Now imagine that your partner that you miss so much does not live in the same city as you do.  Maybe your partner is states, countries, or even continents away.  How do you maintain your love for your partner when you cannot physically see them nearly as often as you’d love to?  

I love marriage counseling and relationship coaching, but it wasn’t until I started doing online couples counseling that I was led to working with a new, interesting demographic – the long-distance relationship.  Sometimes our globalized world requires a partner to move away from a loved one to keep a job, or a loved one who is a member of the military may be deployed for months or even years at a time.  These types of relationships can be very difficult to navigate for both partners, but understanding some of the unique challenges of long-distance relationships can give couples a better chance to weather the storms and come through the separation strong and connected.

The most obvious and painful part of long-distance relationships is the most obvious – you do not get to physically see or be with your partner on a regular basis, if at all.  Physical connection and time spent with each other is a crucial part of any relationship.  With the best case scenario, couples in this situation would work to see each other physically as much as they can.  But what if these couples can’t see each other, be it for financial or logistical reasons?  That sort of separation can cause loneliness and emotional turmoil for a couple that can turn toxic very quickly, leading to possible breakups and affairs.  Couples in long-distance relationships always have to be on the lookout for how they feel in the moment, as that lack of physical connection can make the temptation to stray even more intense.

What can a long-distance couple do to keep their connection alive and vibrant?

  1. Open Communication: Making it a commitment to see each other physically when possible can work, but the key truly lies with honest emotional communication.  Learning how to communicate emotions honestly, without criticism or defensiveness, can help bridge the gap that lies between these couples.  
  2. Listening, With All Your Heart: That being said, it’s not just about sharing how you feel to your partner –  you need to be able to listen to each other without trying to “fix” how the other feels.  Attachment literature and research has shown that feeling heard when you share, without being judged or disregarded, can help build attachment bonds.  In other words, knowing that your partner is truly listening to your emotions and pain without judgment will bring you closer to that partner, building the connection and closeness that all healthy relationships have.  
  3. Practicing Empathy and Validation: Imagine how you’ll feel when you share your pain with your partner, and the person you love validates that pain and holds you close, even if you’re a continent away.  There’s nothing like it, and through practicing attachment-style communication (sharing and listening without judgment) you won’t just learn to hear your partner.  You’ll learn to empathize with your partner, to feel your partner’s emotion as your own.  The connection that can be built at that point can be extraordinary!

Your partner is thousands of miles away, and you miss them so much.  But the avenues of communication must be open to building connection during this separation.  If you can’t see each other physically, make sure you’re either talking or communicating with your partner as much as you can.  When you do talk to each other, be emotionally honest and listen to each other without judgment.  The conversations may be painful at times, but they will be true, and that’s an experience that couples who even live together often don’t have.  

When you know your partner loves you, can share with you, and can listen to you, your connection and bond will be that much stronger when the both of you are finally physically together again.  

Seth Bender, M.A., LMFTC

How to Manage Relationship Stress During Pregnancy

How to Manage Relationship Stress During Pregnancy

Growing Together: Nurture Your Relationship During Pregnancy

As a marriage counselor, couples therapist and premarital counselor, (and a guy who’s had a pregnant wife), I know that perhaps no event is more life-changing for a couple than having a child. Babies bring joy and meaning to our lives, but there is no doubt that having a child, and caring for that child, will drastically change a couple’s relationship.

However, did you know that those changes to your relationship do not begin after a child is born, but long before? Those drastic changes often begin in the first trimester of a mother’s gestational period, sometimes even shortly after conception. In my experience, relationships can even change immediately after pregnancy is discovered. Rather than seeing those changes as obstacles, viewing them as opportunities to learn together, grow as a couple, and strengthen your relationship as you prepare for a baby’s arrival is a great way to begin this new chapter in life.

Pregnancy: An Opportunity to Increase Compassion and Empathy in Your Relationship

To begin with, the first trimester is often an emotionally turbulent time in a mother’s life. Many pregnancies do not carry past twelve weeks, so the emotional burden on couples playing that waiting game can be excruciating for a relationship. This is a time for a partner to listen and understand a pregnant partner’s uncertainty. Know that an expectant mother in the first trimester already has hormones spiraling inside of her, which can inflame an already uncertain situation. A partner that listens and feels their pregnant partner’s fears can build much more connection than a partner who judges or wishes their expectant companion would “handle things better”, especially with difficult, high-risk pregnancies. It might help to remind yourself that pregnant mothers in the first trimester are handling their emotions the best they can!

Deepen The Trust and Emotional Support in Your Relationship During Pregnancy

A couple expecting a child can also count on physical obstacles in the first trimester that can tear at a relationship if not understood. Most of us know about morning sickness and food cravings, but gestational diabetes (which onsets during pregnancy) is also often diagnosed during this time. So, not only does a couple have to emotionally contend with the possibility of a baby not carrying past the first trimester, but an expectant mother may have to drastically change eating habits or even begin taking insulin too. Again, this can be heartbreakingly difficult for a mother to cope with on her own – she needs the support of her relationship to help carry her through.

My advice to partners of pregnant moms: Be pregnant too. Go on that diet with her, go to all of the ultrasounds that you can, and support her to show her that she can count on you. Especially in the difficult times, your efforts to build trust and connection does wonders for a relationship, both during and after pregnancy.

Negotiate Major Changes to Your Relationship, As a Strong Couple

Many couples believe that having a baby changes a couple’s social and love life, but that process of change often begins much earlier. A couple will often find that an expectant mother in the first trimester will likely not feel up to seeing friends or socializing much at all. Even a formerly extremely social couple may find themselves staying and not going out from the first days of pregnancy, not just after a baby is born. With that sudden, drastic change comes a period of grief that a social couple will undoubtedly feel, and couples that are less social will still feel obvious, immediate changes to their lives. Also, a formerly sexually active couple will see changes in their love lives, as the hormonal changes in many early-term pregnant mothers often reduces sex drive. During this period, emotions may flair and couples may say things to one another they may regret in the heat of the moment.

The key to getting through this period with more trust, and not less, is to understand one another and to honestly express emotions without judgment. Change creates emotional confusion, and both members of a couple will experience that emotional change in their own ways. The thing to remember is that you, as a couple, are in this together, not separately, and being able to share and listen to each other doubts and fears, as well as hopes and dreams, is crucial to building connection throughout a pregnancy.

Prepare Your Relationship For The Adventure of Parenthood

And guess what? All that emotional uncertainty will not go away immediately after a little one is sleeping in a crib next to you! What better way to prepare for all the changes of new parenthood, than to practice changing and growing together during your pregnancy? Enjoying the good times and understanding the not-so-good times of pregnancy will bring couples closer together, not tear them apart. Practicing your patience, compassion, flexibility, and acceptance of each other now will make you an even better team for the baby that will be here before you know it.

Knowing that your life changes immediately after pregnancy, and not when the baby is born, can help you make positive change in your relationship, and your love, that will strengthen your bonds and create a more joyful family experience.