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Great, you’re engaged! Now how can you strengthen your relationship?

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Valentine’s Day is coming — and so are all the engagement photos.

But while a proposal might look like a ‘happily ever after,’ saying yes to a life-long commitment doesn’t mean the relationship is done growing, says one couple.

Andrew Latham and Charley Maurer got engaged about a year ago. “We have a really good relationship, but we don’t always argue in the best way,” said Maurer, a law school student at the University of Florida.

“It was taking a toll on our relationship, and we weren’t communicating effectively. We needed tips on how to improve,” she said.

So last summer, when a close friend invited the couple to a free relationship course held in Gainesville, Maurer and Latham signed up.

The course instructor was Victor Harris, an associate professor of family, youth and community sciences in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Harris leads the UF/IFAS Extension SMART Couples program, which provides relationship classes to residents in five Florida counties.

Disagreements are a normal part of any relationship, but couples can learn to resolve them in a healthy way, Harris said.

“There is a myth that couples should never go to bed angry. This is the idea that you shouldn’t stop the discussion until you’ve sorted everything out. But taking time out to cool down can prevent escalation and help a couple come back to the issue with greater calm and understanding,” Harris said.

To help couples practice taking these time outs, in one class activity, Harris has participants create bottles filled with glitter.

“You can shake the bottle when you’re getting angry to signify you need a break, so the argument doesn’t devolve into mudslinging,” said Maurer. “When we calm down, we’ll come back and talk about what’s actually bothering us, because a lot of our arguments have an underlying cause,” she said.

In addition to knowing when to take a break, Latham and Maurer learned how to talk constructively about their feelings.

“Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of communication in my house,” said Latham, a doctoral student in the UF mathematics department. “As Dr. Harris would call it, there was a lot of stonewalling, where no one would talk about their problems. Once you get to stonewalling, nothing gets accomplished. I’ve learned a lot about how to be more open with my feelings,” he said.

Good communication comes down to practicing empathy and respect, the couple said.

“One of the most important things we learned was that we need to validate each other’s feelings,” Latham said.

Even after a long day of classes, the two of them now make time to check in with each other. “We use ‘how was your day?’ a lot more now,” Maurer said.

Any couple can benefit from SMART Couples classes, no matter what challenges they face, Latham said.

“I would recommend the program to another couple because every couple has something they can work on. We went in with a very specific goal of communicating better. Others might be looking for how they can budget time and money better. You’re going to find something that will improve your relationship,” Latham said.

To learn more about the SMART Couples program and find classes near you, go to smartcouples.org.

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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