The Top 5 Winning Relationship Strategies (in The New Rules of Marriage)

Winning Marriage Techniques

Expert relationship strategies to have a healthy, happy, long-lasting marriage

When couples bravely enter my office, they are hurting. They want the conflict and/or disconnection to end, and the harmony and love to return. They wish to be heard, understood, (ideally their partner to change with my recommendation that s/he do so) and many ask (even if reluctantly) for “THE TOOLS” in creating a great relationship.

Yet, even my most motivated couples have to work through conscious and unconscious obstacles in the process, including not having parents who modeled 21st century relationship skills and often lacked a 21st century mindset about relationships- both unfortunately get passed down to my couple clients.

This is where Terrence Real’s 2007 brilliant and practical book The New Rules of Marriage; What You Need to Know to Make Love Work comes in. It is the guidebook we’ve been waiting for on 21st century relationship skills!!! His book includes the “Top 5 Losing Relationship Strategies” (needing to be right, controlling your partner, unbridled self-expression, retaliation, and withdrawal), which my other blog covers, and the Top 5 Winning Relationship Strategies, which I describe below.

The first two winning strategies help you GET what you want in your relationship

1.) Shifting from complaint to request– Don’t criticize. Ask! (& make sure your non-verbal body language also positively communicates your request).

Why is the shift from complaint to request so important?

It’s the only way you will ever get your needs met.” (Real, 2007)

  • Make your requests specific, behavioral, and reasonable.
  • Move from a negative past to a positive future focus (Ex. “You never want to cuddle!” to “I would love for you to hold me right now” or “You never express appreciation for the things I do” to “It would mean a lot to hear you say that you appreciate the things I do for you, our relationship, our family, etc.”)
  • Be open to the possibility that you might need to teach your partner how to meet your intimacy needs because s/he may have not learned emotional intelligence from his/her family of origin.
  • The truth is we ALL need to be taught by our partner what makes him/her feel uniquely safe, secure, loved, and vibrant. The expectation to become an expert on your partner is a component of a “secure functioning relationship” that is the goal of the PACT model by Stan Tatkin. You can learn more here.

Barriers to requesting what you want~

  •   In traditional patriarchal relationships, men were taught to be invulnerable and therefore not have emotional needs or wants and women were taught to be of selfless service to others and not have emotional needs or wants. Isn’t it time to break out of these depression inducing and spirit crushing outdated expectations?
  •  Risking disappointment or rocking the boat

2. Speaking out with love and savvy (when you’re angry and hurt)

a. Ask your partner if s/he is willing to listen. (Contract with your partner to engage in the “repair process”. A repair helps couples get back on track by coming together to fix what’s wrong. Ex. apology, action step to fix a concrete problem, consideration/reflection of how to change a chronic problem, listen, etc.)

b. Before you open your mouth, take a minute to breathe and remember that the person you are about to speak to is someone you love or at least someone you have to live with!

– Also, remember your goal (Is it one of the winning or losing relationship strategies? “Is what I’m about to say going to lead me closer to or further away from my goal?)

c. Use the four steps of the *Feedback Wheel (1-2 sentences max. ideally per step), which help individuals speak effectively in difficult moments. (created by Janet Hurly, Pia Mellody’s sponsor)

Step 1. “What I saw or heard…” (This needs to be something a video camera could record.)

Step 2. “What I made up about it…” (You take responsibility for your interpretation)

Step 3. “How I feel about it…” (use a single word & you can use more than one emotion, ex. joy, pain, anger, fear, shame, guilt, love) Try leading with an unfamiliar emotion, ex. sadness if you normally lead with anger, to change your interaction.

Step 4. “What I’d like now…” or “What would make me feel better is for you to…

Invite healing by giving up the negative/past focus and moving beyond to a positive/future mode. Requests can begin with changes in attitude, but then must translate into clear, actionable behaviors.

Ex. “I’d like you to reassure me that you understand ______, you care, you too see this as a problem, and you will follow through this time.” (focus on attitude more)

Ex. “…Get help for your anger and get it out of our home.” (focus is on behavior more)

d. Let go of the outcome. (All you can control is yourself.)

Here’s an example from my own life: (I was the speaker)

Step 1: “I came home late after work to a sink full of dishes.”

Step 2: “I told myself that you think your time, sleep, and workout are more important than mine because you expected me to clean up the dishes.”

Step 3: “I felt upset and unimportant.” (my “go to” feelings) “I also felt angry.”

*Step 4: “What I would like you to do in the future is do the dishes before you go to bed or leave me a note and either ask for my help or let me know you plan to do them the next morning.”

*Initially, my only request was that my husband do the dishes. However, after my husband used the third winning strategy- responding with generosity (see below) and I listened to what a hard night my husband had and how he had no expectation that I do the dishes, I was able to broaden my request.


The second two strategies help you GIVE everything that you can to your partner and to your relationship.

3. Responding with generosity (when your partner is in distress)

John Gottman, another well-respected couple therapist, has a wonderful saying,

Baby, when you’re in pain, the world stops! And I listen.”

The hard part of course is if your partner is upset with you! The good news though is that Real’s strategies below will help you sharpen your skills in responding to your distressed partner in such a masterful way that you can greatly decrease the chance of your conflict escalating and the conflict may even bring you and your partner CLOSER together.

a. Listen to understand.

Rule: “In the repair process, the listener has only one goal. To help the speaker move back into harmony, to help him or her feel better. The listener’s attitude is: I am at your service. How can I help? Anything else will be perceived as at best extraneous and at worst infuriating.”

Why is it crucial that the listener NOT defend him or herself and not correct the speaker’s inaccuracies?

You can be right or you can be married!

You’ll create a situation in which you have 2 speakers and 0 listeners!

If you want to be heard, understood, respected, cared for, etc. first MODEL it!

Do’s & Don’t’s of Listening:


  • not take any responsibility (you’re in a relationship, which makes you responsible for your partner’s feelings or you’ll pay a price)

  • pretend to listen/care, but really be forming a rebuttal in your head or argue outright

  • worry about “the truth” (this rarely resolves a partner’s distress)

  • discount your partner’s concerns or replace your partner’s concerns with your own

  • turn the tables and try to convince your partner all of the problems were caused by her/him


  • put your version of the story aside in order to truly understand what your partner has experienced and even feel his/her emotions & convey this deep level of understanding

  • realize that your job as a listener is done when you can say to your partner, “I think I have it. What you’re saying is…” and your partner replies, “Yes. You have it. That’s right.” [Learn & practice mirroring, validation, & empathy~ Imago Dialogue skills/Harville Hendrix]

  • ALL of the listening behaviors you want your partner to do when you have a grievance

  • put your ego aside & have some humility

  • remember love (listen with a generous heart) and that your goal is repair

Why is UNDERSTANDING so important?

Rule: Understanding builds empathy, empathy builds compassion, and compassion ends combat.

b. Acknowledge whatever you can

Ex. phrases- “You’re right…” (this brilliantly deescalates conflict), “I can understand…”, “That makes sense…”, “I’m so sorry…”, “I acknowledge…”, “I can see how you…”

Rule: When your partner confronts you about some behavior or character flaw, do a 180 on defensiveness. Rather than deny whatever you can, admit whatever you can!

To transform argument into acknowledgment~

Acknowledging whatever you can is generally so reassuring– and not acknowledging your contribution is generally so alarming- that I routinely advise listeners to scour their souls for something in what their partner has shared to admit to.” (Real)

c. Give whatever you can.

– Grant as many of your partner’s requests (from Step 4 of the Feedback Wheel) as feasible.

– Frontload your response with all of the terrific things you are willing to give rather than all the things that you’re not.

Couples therapist Stan Tatkin explains, “To get what you want, you have to ensure that your partner gets what he or she wants. Top negotiators understand this. They study their opposition well to know their fears, hopes, and desires. And they often lead with this knowledge so as to relax the other party… You have to think in terms of mutuality, collaboration, and concern for your partner’s interests.” (2016, p. 169)

4. Empowering each other. This winning strategy is based:

The Golden Rule of Relationship Empowerment is:

What can I give you to help you give me what I want?”

It is now time for the speaking partner to be of service to the listener.

a. Acknowledge the gifts the responder has offered.

b. Ask what you might do to help the responder deliver.

– The tables turn and the listener now speaks up about what s/he needs to help him/her make good on his/her intentions. (Ex. “teach me how to comfort you”, or “express appreciation soon after I _____ to positively reinforce my behavior)

c. Acknowledge whatever you can and give whatever you can.


The last winning strategy helps you grow, sustain, and honor all that you have and Real considers it the MOST effective winning strategy at your disposal!

5.) Cherishing = “holding something dear and nurturing it” (Webster)

Virtually all of the couples I meet, both in clinical work and in workshops and seminars, are appreciation deficient and become appreciation proficient. Partners seldom let each other know how much they appreciate the effort or the good qualities they enjoy in each other; they often don’t even let themselves feel how much they treasure the many wonderful aspects of their partners, or the richness of their lives- until through age, illness, or some other life circumstance, they face the possibility of their loss. I don’t want you to wait for an impending crisis in order to cherish your life’s abundance” (Real).

a. Remember abundance!

Rule: Failure to take pleasure in the good things in your life dishonors the gifts or accomplishments that deserve appreciation. It also dishonors your right to be happy.

Why don’t partners cherish each other more? Real attributes laziness to appreciation deficiency! I agree, yet believe even more so, the problem is that partners don’t know how important cherishing is to their marriage. Ironically, most parents would never think that cherishing their children is optional. The problem is a misconception in our culture that as adults we no longer need cherishing (or other emotional needs to be fulfilled). This is a recipe for anger, depression or divorce!

When partners ask Real, “Why is it necessary that I tell her/him I love her/him? “After all, they know that I do.” Real underscores the importance of cherishing by pointing to a plant in the corner of his office and asks, “How do you think that plant would fare if you were to tell it, I don’t really need to actually water you. After all, we both understand that I want nothing more for you than to be nourished and well.

b. Acknowledge and cherish your partner’s efforts to reinforce them.

– Also, demonstrate through your actions an increased desire to be pleasing in return.

c. Nourish yourself and your relationship with time and energy.

– This sounds great, but is RARELY practiced in our American culture in spite of the sweet Facebook pictures. Real asks us:

Out of the 168 hours in a week, “how many of those do you give directly, specifically, and purposefully to your relationship?” Real’s answer is, “If you’re like most of the couples I know, nurturing your own relationship comes about dead last when it comes to allocating your time. After work, the kids, family and friends, a dash of hurried self-care at the gym or a yoga class,

what you mostly are by the end of the day is beat.”

If you’re parents and already feeling stretched thin, here are a few ideas (from one of my favorite blogs) for how “Busy Parents Can Cultivate a Stronger Bond”. It might also be worth considering if you’re allocating your money, time, and energy to your children, yourselves, AND your marriage. For example, if you haven’t taken a date in over a month because you don’t feel you can afford it or you would feel guilty not being there for your children, perhaps remember that cultivating a healthy, happy marriage is the BEST gift (next to unconditional love) that you can give your children.

Rule: You cannot sustain the intimacy you enjoyed in the early stage of your relationship unless you are willing to cherish each other in some of the ways that you did at that time. You will not feel like lovers unless you are willing to behave like lovers.

Final thoughts

Family, friends, and the media dispense a lot of well-meaning advice on what makes marriage work. Unfortunately, most of this information is not based on research or experience helping couples change on a daily basis. It also often does NOT reflect Terry Real’s research or experience as a distinguished therapist who is known for saving marriages.

Real’s book, The New Rules of Marriage helps us discern between 20th and 21st century relationships (read more at “21st Century Relationship Skills”) and how to work through the unconscious and dysfunctional generational patterns that sabotage our marriage. It also provides us with helpful, practical guidelines of what to avoid~ the “Top 5 Losing Relationship Strategies” and 21st century relationship skills to cultivate~ the Top 5 Winning Relationship Strategies, in order to create healthy, happy, long lasting marriages!

If you need support in learning and practicing the Top 5 Winning Relationship Strategies, contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III, Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy at 720.432.5262, [email protected], or to make an appointment today.