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21-Day Relationship Challenge

21-Day Relationship Challenge:

One-Minute Tasks to Improve Your Relationship in just 21 Days!

By Dr. Greg Cason

The beginnings of relationships are easy.  Things seem effortless.  We don’t have as many expectations.  Our time with the person just flows.  But after a while, the emotional grind of a relationship begins to take its toll. And every relationship needs a little jump-start once in a while.

So that’s what this is -- your relationship jump-start – helping you get back on track with your partner so that you can start to get a little closer and be a little lighter.

This is not about fixing every problem or making things dramatically different.  But if you follow these steps for the next 21 days, you will be starting on a new path with your partner that can help you make changes in the way you and your partner act with each other.  And this is just the jolt that can get your motors running again. 

Now these techniques are based on sound research by the preeminent relationship researchers out of the University of Washington, John and Julie Gottman.  I configured them into a 21-day challenge that you can do at home to put them into practice.

Through interviewing and observing thousands of couples over several decades, the Gottmans came up with something they call The Sound Relationship House Theory.  This is a theory of seven components that will help build a strong relationship foundation and structure.

For the next 21 days I will have you engaging in activities that will help you build and strengthen your relationship house.  Of course this would be something that would be great to do with your partner.  But, fear not.  You can do all of these things on your own and still make great progress on your relationship.


Each level of the relationship house helps build and strengthen the overall house.  The seven levels are as follows:

1.  Building Love Maps:  Getting to know one another

2. Sharing Fondness and Admiration

3. Building The Emotional Bank Account (Turning Towards)

4. Taking the Positive Perspective

5. Managing Conflicts: Skills for solvable and unsolvable problems

6. Making Life Dreams Come True

7. Create Shared Meaning:  Legacy, Values, and Rituals of Connection

Sound Daunting?  Well, it really isn’t.  Just follow each day and I will guide you through as you practice skills and tasks that will underscore each of the seven components.

Here’s the secret, devote only one minute a day. Just one minute a day will be enough.  Though I will tend to give you more than one-minute’s worth of material, you just have to stay focused on your task for no more than one minute.  It may be the best minute of your relationship that day.

Some days will have a brief discussion of the lesson that will introduce a new component of the Sound Relationship House.

By the end of 21 days, you will have helped to construct your own relationship house that you can continue to add, reinforce, and even redecorate as time moves on.


DAYS 1-3:  Building Love Maps.

The foundation of the relationship house is the “Love Map.”  The Love Map is a road map to your partner’s inner psychological world.  Now I am not asking you to psychoanalyze your partner, rather I am asking you to get to know him or her so that you can develop better understanding and compassion.  The fundamental process is asking open-ended questions.  And don’t think you know everything about your partner (or your partner knows everything about you).  We are all endless wells of experience and information.  Remember the key is not to find “answers” but to find connection through knowing.  Ask, but don’t judge the answers.  Just listen and then ask a little more.

Task: Below are several tasks.  I have listed one to do each day for the next three days.  If you think you already know the answers to one, either challenge yourself (and your partner) to get a little deeper or pick one of the bonus tasks below.

Day 1: Ask your partner what his or her dreams are for now and the future.  It could be something small like having Chicago Deep Dish Pizza for the first time.  Maybe it is a little bigger like having it in Chicago.  But it could be something huge, like running for public office.  Listen and withhold any judgment.  Try to find as many as possible.  Knowing your partner’s dreams and actually one day helping him or her to fulfill the desires can be the strongest cement of any bond.  Write them down, we are going to use them later.

Day 2: Ask about your partner’s experiences growing up.  What schools did he or she attend?  Who were his or her friends?  How about enemies?  What was his or her favorite subject?  What was the worst?  Did he or she ever do anything out of the ordinary like ditch, smoke pot, bully someone, get bullied, or get falsely accused? 

Day 3: Find out what it was like when your partner first met you.  But for this one, I suggest you start with revealing your own experience first.  Prepare your partner by reminding them of when the two of you met.  Set the stage by reminding him or her of where and when it was.  Tell him or her what your first reactions were and what made you fall for him or her (even if it was not right at that moment).  Then, ask your partner about their experience. 

Bonus:  What is your partner’s most challenging experience and how did he or she overcome it?

Bonus: What was the best thing that happened that day?  What was the worst thing? 

Bonus: What is something you used to love doing but haven’t done in a long time? (Store this one away for later use!)

If you still think you need more, then just start talking with your partner about life, love, and all things Brittany Spears.  You are bound to find something you didn’t know about your partner that just might bring you a little closer.


DAYS 4-6: Sharing Fondness and Admiration:

After getting to know your partner a little better, it will be easier to look up on your partner in a more loving light.  The key of building a Fondness and Admiration system is to go from the habit of scanning the environment for your partner’s mistakes and them to scanning the environment for what your partner is doing right and building a culture of appreciation, fondness, affection, and respect.

Task: Scan for what your partner is doing right!  But it doesn’t count if it stays in your head; it’s got to come out of your mouth.  Tell your partner!

Day 4: Pick on your partner’s appearance (in a good way).  What do you like about your partner?  Call it out!  Is it the outfit he or she is wearing?  Is it his or her body?  Or Hair?  Maybe it’s a body part you are particularly fond of (lips and booties tend to get these compliments).  Maybe it is the way your partner does his or her hair or make-up (or lack thereof).  Maybe it is what he or she looks like getting in the shower.  The key is to be sincere.  If you are really having trouble, scan some more, this is your partner we are talking about…

Day 5: Call out something your partner does particularly well around the house.  Cooking?  Cleaning?  Taking care of the kids?  The Animals?  Hell, handling the remote!  Pay attention to what your partner is doing well and call it out.

Day 6: Mention something your partner does well outside of the house.  It may be his or her job or handling a particular situation at work.  Maybe he or she has good driving skills.  Or just maybe he or she is a good friend, or son, or brother or sister.  Notice your partner’s skills and care, plus and say it out loud! 


DAYS 7-9: Building The Emotional Bank Account

Building the emotional Bank Account is done though little behaviors that fulfill your partner’s desire for connection.  The first process is to become aware of what your partner’s moment-to-moment emotional desires are and deciding to “turn toward” these bids for connection (rather than turning away).

DAY 7: Scan for things your partner wants and try to fulfill it.  This is best done in an activity together like watching T.V., having dinner, or just taking a walk.  If your partner appears to be looking for the remote, join the search.  If you find it first, hand it over.  If you are having dinner with your partner, hold out their chair or get them a drink.  Remember, scan and fulfill.

DAY 8: Try the “Yes, And..” Approach.  This can be done during any conversation – not just ones that are potentially contentious – but it is especially helpful then.  When your partner is talking about some matter, listen for a point of agreement and add to it.  Even if you hold differing political views, religious affiliations, or preferences for top or bottom, there is something you can find to agree upon.  Listen for it, call it out, and add to it.

DAY 9: Accept compliments.  Think of the compliment you receive like a wrapped present your partner is giving to you.  Many people in relationships make the mistake denying compliments from their partner. 

This is the same as opening a present, examining it, and then asking for a gift receipt because they believe it doesn’t quite fit.  By doing this, you actually train your partner to stop giving you compliments. 

Why would someone want to give you a gift that you are just going to return or complain about?  Rather than doing anything, just accept the gift and say “Thank you” then put the unopened gift under your Christmas tree or gift table for opening at a later date. 

If you are the type to that is critical of compliments, then do your critical questioning and analysis when the person is not around – and don’t ask for a gift receipt! This does require your partner giving e you a compliment, but if her or she does, have this one ready to go.  If not, use the bonus task below. 

Bonus:  Express Gratitude for something your partner has done (even if it was long ago).  Maybe it is calling out how grateful you are that they painted that handrail and you were just noticing how nice it was.  Though we may not be seeking gratitude at any given moment, it is generally always welcome.


DAYS 10-12: Taking the Positive Perspective

The first 9 days help build to this next level.  The key here is to take a positive perspective  -- this is often called the Positive Sentiment Override, a phrase coined by Bob Weiss.  This represents the presence of positive feelings in problem solving discussions and repair attempts during conflict resolution.  Some couples are caught in the opposite dynamic that is a Negative Sentiment Override.  This is when neutral or even positive messages are perceived as negative and the person is on the lookout for problems.  They see their partner as an adversary, not as a friend.

Building Positive Sentiment Override is not something you can do with a simple skill, but it requires continual installation of good feelings so that you can see your partner from a more positive perspective.  To do that, I am going to have you revisit each of the previous skills and practice each again with your partner to strengthen your positive gaze.

Day 10:  Choose one task from the “Building Love Maps” group.  Get to know your partner even better.

Day 11:  Choose one task from the “Sharing Fondness and Admiration” group.  Who tires of being told something wonderful?

Day 12: Choose one task from the “Building an Emotional Bank Account” group.  There is always room for a new deposit.


DAYS 13-15: Managing Conflict

This is an advanced skill, but with 12 days of building positive connection and growing your emotional bank account, you are ready to start taking on more difficult tasks.  Basically problems break down into two basic types:  resolvable and irresolvable.  The Gottmans found that 69% of conflict in relationships is perpetual and has no resolution.  The key is to learn how to manage conflicts rather than resolve them.

There is so much to write on this area that there is no way for me to cover every issue or to provide the solutions to the 31% of the resolvable conflicts, let alone tell you what to do with the irresolvable ones.  This is going to be my longest lecture (I promise) and still it will not be enough.  But I can give you a few hints.

According to the Gottmans, there are four parts for effective problem solving: 1) Softened start-up, 2) Accepting Influence, 3) Repair and De-escalation, and 4) Compromise. 

Softened start-up requires you to gently enter into conflict rather than going 0-60 in anger in only 2.3 seconds.  This can often start with, “Honey, I have concern, do you mind if we talk about something.”  If you go ballistic in the next sentence it does not count.  The key is to enter the conflict slowly and gently with the aim at resolution.

Accepting Influence is the act of attempting to understand and take into account your partner’s perspective.  A good place to start is the “Yes, And…” exercise from day 8. 

Repair and De-escalation requires that you make repair attempts during the conflict.  If your partner starts to escalate (or you find yourself starting to go there), find ways to bring it back down.  A gentle smile and lowering of voice tone can sometimes take the conflict back into manageable territory. 

Comprise brings you together.  If you win an argument, you risk losing the relationship.  The key is to find a solution that works for both of you.

But some conflicts are irresolvable – that means there is no solution in sight.  These require a special skill of being able to talk about things to avoid getting “gridlocked.”  Though there cannot be a resolution per se, you and your partner can find a way to talk about these perpetual issues in ways that may include affection, humor, empathy, and even calm interest.

But there are some conflicts that are inherently destructive.  The Gottmans called these “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  Fortunately for you, I have outlined the most severe conflicts below.  Unfortunately for you, you will probably recognize yourself and your partner in some (or all) of them.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in relationships are:

CRITICISM: Attacking your partner's personality or character, rather than in the individual act. This is usually judging someone else as "wrong" when we are, of course, right. Lots of "all or nothing" accusations.

Examples: "You always...", "You never...”, "You're the type of person who..."

Remedy: COMPLAIN about one thing rather than criticizing the whole person. Seriously, complaining is OK (if it's about one thing).  Narrow it to a complaint and make a request.  Example, " You didn't clean the soufflé pan, would you mind doing it before we go to bed?"

DEFENSIVENESS: Seeing yourself as the victim of an attack, whether it's true or not. Nonetheless, you get your boxing gloves on to fend off any more attacks.


-- Making Excuses: "It's not my fault..." or "I slept with him because you weren't paying attention to me." "The Devil made me do it." This is when you make excuses for your behavior saying you were forced to do what ever it is you did because of someone or something else.

-- Cross Complaining: "Oh yeah, well you... blah, blah, blah." This is when you meet your partner's complaint with another complaint, criticism, or just plain ignoring what he is saying.

-- Denial: "That's not true!" usually followed by a good dose of cross-complaining, "You're the one who..."

-- Yes-But: This little gem makes one appear like they are agreeing with the complaint but then they lob a few gems back at you. "Yes, but I only did it because you are fat."

-- Broken-Record: This is repeating oneself while simultaneously appearing not to hear a single thing the other person says. Eventually you either get beaten down or you beat him up. His perfected "non-listening" techniques will only infuriate you more.

-- Whining: "It's not fair."

Remedy: The key is to find something that you can validate.  Put down your shield and really listen to your partner.  This may be tough because he may be saying all kinds of nonsense, but you just need to ignore that.  Really look for the needle in the haystack and then call that needle out and validate him for bringing that up.  And claim responsibility for your actions that contributed.  You will be amazed how quickly your partner calms down. 

CONTEMPT: This is stooping to a whole new level beyond Criticism and Defensiveness. This is when your sense of self is attacked. This is true psychological abuse.


-- Insults and name-calling: "Fag, fat, bitch, basic, stupid, ugly..."

-- Hostile humor, sarcasm, or mockery.

-- Body language: Such as sneering, rolling eyes, or curling of the upper lip.

Remedy:  Get off your damn high horse and apologize for your shitty behavior.  Yes, you.  If you stoop to contempt, it's as if you are pouring sulfuric acid on the relationship.  You need to take the walk of shame.  Sorry, no cutesy way around this one, you stepped in it, now you have to clean it up.

STONEWALLING: This one involves withdrawing from the relationship as a way of avoiding conflict. Stonewalling may be a better alternative than punching someone, but it conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection, and/or smugness.


-- Stony silence

-- Grunts, groans, and monosyllabic responses

-- Changing the subject

-- Removing yourself physically

-- Silent treatment.

Remedy: Often people get to the point of stonewalling when they run out of words.  A way through is to call it out:  "I'm sorry but I can't think of something else to say."  If you really want to work on things ask your partner, "Can we take a break and bring this up later?"  These can be among the toughest words to say during a conflict.  But a 30-minute break can do wonders for a couple as they begin to settle back into their regular functioning.  But don't stay there too long.  Focus on open truthful communication and generous listening. 

Now these aren't the only culprits that erode relationships. There are also things like belligerence and domineering, both of which also take their tolls.  These, however, are among the most destructive tactics.  All couples step into these traps; the real key is in getting out.

Oyo!  Now that you have a little primer on conflict, let’s do the challenge!

Day 13:  Accept Influence.  Even if you are not arguing, this is a good one to practice.  See out ways that you can accept influence from your partner.  Listen for their viewpoint or perspective.  Find the grain of truth in what they are saying and call it out.  If you can, find a way to show that you are accepting influence.  It may be doing something they ask or just repeating a word of advice they have given to you.  Some do this naturally, but those who are challenged by it can put their relationships in jeopardy.

Day 14: Complain about something.  You heard me right.  Practice a complaint! But make it fairly minor. That means you pick a single behavior (like not doing the dishes) and saying something to the effect of, “Honey, you didn’t do the dishes like you said you would.”  If your partner apologizes and either hops to it or makes a plan to do it, express appreciation.  If your partner gets defensive, clarify that you are only talking about this one time and that you appreciate him for his other efforts (think of some from that day).  Then ask if he would do them.

Day 15: Take Responsibility.  I know this is particularly difficult for many of you out there.  Some think that if they accept responsibility for any problem that the sky will come crashing down.  If that were true, we’d all be in trouble!  But demonstrating to your partner you know that you have a role is some problem is a great gift you can give.  Think about a past problem (the more recent, the better) and tell your partner that you see your role in the matter.  Be specific.  Vague responsibility really doesn’t mean a lot.  Demonstrate you know what you are talking about and let it go.  No further discussion is needed unless you choose to talk more.


DAYS 16-18: Making Life Dreams Come True

I am always surprised that couples that have been together for long periods of time sometimes do not know what the other wants in life or needs in a relationship.  They can often give surface details like job goals, generally human desires, and favorite foods.  But when a partner knows what really drives the other, either in career, relationship, or just in life, then he or she can take the proper steps to make those dreams come true.  And if there is one special thing one can do, it is to seek to fulfill the other’s dreams.  It is as if your partner is free to spread his or her wings and he or she knows that you will be there to provide air through which to fly. 

Day 16: Go back to Day 1 and list out those dreams that your partner told you.  It could be one thing or it could be many.  Find one that you wish to focus upon.  If it is going to Chicago to eat real Deep Dish Pizza then maybe you can talk with your partner about planning a trip.  If that type of dream fulfillment is out of the question, maybe you can schedule a dinner at a local Deep Dish Pizza place until you both are able to have the real thing.  Find a way to help your partner move one step closer to one of the dreams.

Day 17:  Either continue working on the dream from Day 16 or move on to another one.  If the dream is large, like the trip to Chicago, spend another minute working on the trip.  Talk with your partner about your excitement in realizing their life-long goal.  Even if the goal is not immediately achievable, then it is still good to spend a minute talking and fantasizing about it.

Day 18: Continue your work on dream fulfillment.  By now your partner will know that you are serious about helping him or her.  If your partner is resistant, then find small ways to let them know you are on their side.  This could be something like reading up on a topic related to their dream, spending one-minute with them while they are engaging in a special hobby related to their dream, or just listening for things your partner talks about that are in any way related.  If your partner’s dream is something less clear, like wanting to feel important, then find ways to make that happen.  There is always something that can be done to help fulfill your partner’s dreams.


DAYS 19-21: Creating Shared Meaning

We are in the home stretch!  By now you should be seeing some of the fruits of your labor.  Your partner may be responding to you more or maybe just frankly suspicious that you have been taken over by an alien.  If your partner does not notice a difference, fear not, sometimes it takes a while for people to wake up to change.

This last challenge is about Creating Shared Meaning in the couple’s life together.  As a couple moves through time together, it is important that they have ways to encapsulate their lives in the stories they tell one another, the pictures they share, their beliefs, experiences, and legacies

This can be everything from sharing the holidays together, attending funerals, sharing fun and excitement, or attending a difficult parent-teacher conference.  It is here that the formal and informal rituals of the relationship and the family emerge.  These are the symbols, the rituals, and the execution of the values that bring the relationship together. 

For these last challenges, I am going to ask you to do some small things that call attention to those systems that indicate shared meaning.  But this is something that is built over time and grows stronger with the years. 

Day 19: Find an old photograph from a happy time of the two of you together and show it to your partner.  Reminisce about the good times.

Day 20: Good Morning, Good Night, and Welcome Home.  Pay attention to how you greet your partner in the morning, before he or she goes to bed, and when he or she enters the house.  Whether it is a kiss or simple words of greeting, be sure to practice them today. 

Day 21: Break Bread. Plan a simple lunch or dinner for the two of you.  If the two of you have kids, this is a night to find a sitter.  Tonight go back to something that the two of you like to do together.  Maybe there is a special restaurant that you haven’t visited in a while.  Maybe it is a special meal that you like to make – maybe even that first one you made.  This is not about eating as much as it is about sharing time together in a way that you have in the past that recalls the specialness of your relationship.  O.K., I know this one will take more than one-minute.  But hey, make this one a reward for you as well.  You deserve a reward for your hard work and this evening spent together will be all the more special because of the efforts you have put in until now.


Congratulations!  You have completed the 21-Day Challenge!  I know that some of these challenges were difficult, some were more vague, and some may have seemed deceptively easy.  Still each one was designed to help build your Sound Relationship House.

Now that the 21-Day challenge is over, continue the work of improving your relationship by devoting just one minute a day to any of the above areas.  If you are really stuck just give thanks.  According to a study of 5000 couples by the Open University, showing appreciation, saying “thank you,” and giving compliments emerged as a few of the most important factors in keeping a relationship healthy.  That should never take longer than a minute and will help your relationship last a lifetime.


About the author:

Dr. Greg Cason is best known as “Dr. Greg” from the Bravo series LA Shrinks, the  docu-series that showed what happens in a therapist’s office and in his real life.  He appeared regularly as a psychological expert on The Nancy Grace Show and has also appeared a large variety of TV programs including The Jeff Probst Show, The Tyra Banks ShowExtraEntertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, and several news feature shows.

His expertise was also featured in documentaries such as The Butch FactorThe Adonis Factor, and The Gift. Most recently, he provided expert psychological analysis in The Secret Tapes of the O.J. Case: The Untold Story.

His writing includes an irreverent psychology column called “Off The Couch” in print and on-line versions of Frontiers magazine and his sometimes controversial views have been featured about in The Huffington Post, The Advocate, People, and several other publications. Dr. Cason currently teaches in the psychiatric residency at UCLA and is a licensed psychologist and Diplomate in the Academy of Cognitive therapy with a private practice in Los Angeles specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy & the LGBT community.  

For more information go to: www.drgregcason.com