Be Happier: You've lost that loving feeling?

Relationships expert Suzie Hayman on how partners and families can learn to get along a whole lot better
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The Independent Online

New Year resolutions tend to focus on weight, fitness and giving up smoking. But if you really want to make a difference to your life, the best thing you could do for your waistline, your health, your happiness. and even your wallet. would be to look at your relationships.

One in three marriages end in divorce, and family and relationship conflict not only exert a toll on emotions but are expensive, to individuals and to society. This is such a waste, when concentrating just half the effort we put into making Christmas and New Year enjoyable would probably set most families back on track.

Last year, I helped five couples do just that. They were all stepfamilies, and all had agreed to take part in a BBC series exploring ways of improving their family life.

Lynn was terrified that her partner Tim was on the brink of walking out. Chris dreaded going home because of family rows, and his partner Tracey swore she'd call off their impending wedding if matters did not improve. Ian threatened to leave, and his wife Denise was sure one day he'd do it. Like so many couples, all found their relationships were under threat from lack of communication and continuing conflict.

I helped them identify the issues, understand their own and other people's feelings and look at options that might work for them. As one of the participants, Denise, later said: "Some friends of ours couldn't believe how different our family is. They saw us about two years ago and were so interested to hear how we have transformed. Both Ian and I were surprised how much they noticed, and it proved to us just how far we have come."

Transforming your family can be as simple as realising you need to make time to focus on your couple relationship. In the series, I suggested to all the adults taking part that you can't hope to weather the storms of family life and remain a couple if you can't remember why you got together in the first place. A month, two years or 20 down the line, you have to be able to recall, and revisit, the reasons why your heart went pitter-pat when your partner walked in the room. Relationships founder on complacency, so you need to go out as a couple (or stay in as one - sending the kids to relatives or friends for the night) at least once a month and preferably once a week. Make a date and diary it so you have no excuses.

And when you're together, alternate between doing something old and something new. You can rekindle the feelings you once had by going back to somewhere or doing something you did when you were first courting, as Chris and Tracey did by going out for a meal. You can kick-start your romance afresh with something you've never done - Vicky, for instance, joined partner Ade on a visit to the beach and a bike ride, things he did with their children but that she had always disliked and avoided. She said afterwards, with some surprise: "That was fun!".

Lack of communication is usually at the heart of relationship problems. We all tend to talk at our partners and our family, not with. For communication to work, it has to be as much about listening as talking. One exercise I recommend, and one that Lynn says made an astounding difference, was using an egg-timer. You each get a minute to say your piece while the other must listen without interrupting. If you manage the minute, increase it to two or even three. It's as powerful to know that you'll be heard as it is to have to listen to what is being said.

Denise found using what I call "The Mantra" useful. Discussions often founder and arguments become circular because we get bogged down in accusations and personal jibes. Train yourself, and your family, always to frame anything you need to say within the fourfold statement: "When you... I feel... because... what I would like is." By making your plaint specific, explaining your feelings, having to consider the root cause and requesting a change, you get off the roundabout of circular rows and reduce the angst.

Ian found it hard to be positive and affectionate with his stepdaughters. His own little one would throw her arms round him and he would respond, but telling his stepdaughters that he valued them, or showing it, was far more problematic. He learnt to say what he liked. If your partner or kids don't know what makes your day, why should they do it? Using thanks and praise to let them know about the things that pleased you gives them every incentive to repeat it. I asked each family to sit in a circle and tell each other: "I like it when you/we..." It wasn't the first time they'd thought it, but it often was the first time they'd said it, and the effect was dramatic.

'Stepfamilies', presented by counsellor Suzie Hayman, starts on BBC1 on Wednesday at 10.40pm

Jonathan Dimbleby, BROADCASTER

On a professional level, rumours abounded this year that the Jonathan Dimbleby programme would finish at the end of 2005, but it now has a new lease of life. My aim next year is to ensure that the political programmes on ITV rival the best anywhere. On a personal level, another of my aims for 2006 is to only have a drink on Sunday at lunchtimes, after the show has finished. And I plan this year to hold on to that useful phrase "onwards and upwards". I would also like to ensure that my annual resolution to go to the gym is kept in 2006 - but I do say that every year. The problem is that the gym is just so boring. Who can enjoy the treadmill of the gym when there is the treadmill of life?

Amy Jenkins, WRITER

2006 is going to be a very, very big year for me, as I'm having my first baby. Things are going to change radically and I'm really looking forward to meeting this new person in my life. Everyone says having a baby is a huge thing and you're not going to be able to go to the cinema ever again. But I feel I've been to the cinema enough times in my life and I'm ready for this. I was young, free and single for a long time. I see it as the beginning of the next part of my life. My work is flexible, so I'm hoping to take a three-month break from writing and then work mornings. There will be all sorts of new things to deal with in 2006 - a new car, child care. I know in many ways I will be less free, but I'm very excited about moving on.

Alexei Sayle, COMEDIAN

This year, my resolution is to wave at more people. I don't normally set myself any resolutions, but if I do, I think it's important not to set them too high, otherwise you get dispirited. Waving at people from a low base should be pretty easy. I hope to wave to people on trains, passing buses, that kind of thing. I have let my waving slip in recent years, as you do get kind of busy. It's not often I set resolutions, but one year I resolved to take more taxis. I didn't achieve that, but hopefully I'll be back on track with my waving this year.