Feb. 14, 2014 at 11:26 AM ET
They glide across the ice with beaming smiles and interlaced hands. When it’s going well, everything is in sync. One movement is mirrored by another. Muscle meets grace.
When it’s not? They pick each other up, brush it off and keep smiling.
Just like you and your spouse, right?
More than a few couples watching the Olympics at home are probably wishing their relationships were more like the ones they see on the ice. Some of those pairs are actually dating, some are just good friends, others are brother and sister — but all spend way more time together than most married couples. And yet when one of them falls and ruins the couple’s chance at a medal, they somehow refrain from showing the exasperation mere mortals feel when a partner loads the dishwasher wrong.
Of course, the brave faces they show to millions of fans can hide plenty of turmoil.
“It’s not always as harmonious behind the scenes as what they display on the ice,” said Dr. Mark Aoyagi, Director of Sport & Performance Psychology at the University of Denver. “I would say that they are couples and pairs just like the rest of us.”
And yet many of them stay together for years — 17 and counting for Olympic ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis. So even if you’ll never master a triple axel, there are some lessons regular couples could learn from skating partnerships.
1. Share a purpose
Skaters point to one thing that really helps them stay in sync: a common goal.
“We have always had very similar mindsets and similar work ethics and we always feel like we’re trying to reach the same goals. So anytime we disagree, it’s always because we’re trying to get to the same place, so that makes it easy to get over,” White told TODAY about his partnership with Davis. “I think we both have very agreeable personalities and a lot of respect for one another so it never escalates.”
Aoyagi, who has worked with regular couples as well as USA Track and Field and professional teams, suggests thinking of your own romantic partnership as a team.
“The biggest thing with a team is to have a goal bigger than the team itself,” he said.
For some couples, that bigger purpose might mean religion or raising a family. For others, discovering a shared dream might take more work. “To take it to an extreme level, look at Bill and Melinda Gates. Their mission is to cure the world of malaria, so that gives them a huge purpose. On a smaller scale it could be helping out your community,” he said.
Sharing a dream is what American ice dancer Maia Shibutani credits for working smoothly with her brother and partner, Alex.
“At the end of the day, having the same dream and working together is really what gets us through and only makes us stronger,” she told TODAY from Sochi.
2. Talk, talk, talk
Couples therapists love to talk about communication — and so do couples skaters.
“Having grown up together, we developed our people skills together. We naturally developed a really great level of communication from an early age,” Meryl Davis told TODAY. “Whenever we’re on a different page or have a different vision for what we want to do, we're able to sit down and talk about it efficiently.”
Performing a spin in unison or deciding whether to throw a stunt after a wobble requires a constant back-and-forth, said Angela Aldahwi, who has worked with figure skaters from around the world on their partnerships.
“Normally when they’re in a tight spin, they’re communicating — they learn to communicate without anyone knowing. They learn their body language. The male will know what the female is thinking before she even knows what she’s thinking,” Aldahwi said.
So it bears repeating: Communication is key to any partnership, romantic or otherwise.
“Communicate about as much as you can,” Aoyagi said. And to do it right, he said, know that the burden is on you to get the message across — not on your partner to hear what you meant to say.
3. Forgiveness is divine
So your Valentine’s Day gift is some dumb little thing from CVS? Take a deep breath and imagine if your partner lost you a gold medal.
Forgiveness is key to skating partnerships, where little errors in execution can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
“The tiny mistakes are what cost them the points, and it’s the same in relationships. It’s those tiny things that no one wants to forgive,” Aldahwi said. “You forgot to take out the garbage, you forgot to put the toilet seat down — it’s quite the same. It’s those really tiny things that are hard to forgive.”
She tells skaters never to leave the ice mad, and to remember that life is about moments: If you hate someone this moment, you may still love him the next.
4. Learn to trust
If falling backward into someone’s arms can cause anxiety at trust-building corporate retreats, imagine throwing a double toe-loop first.
Trust is so important to pairs skating that Aldahwi thinks many people just can’t handle it — even if they’re great skaters individually.
“If you don’t have any ability to trust yourself, you can’t trust anyone else,” she said.
Giving up control and surrendering to a partner is hard for anyone, and like anything it takes hard work. Aldahwi works with one 83-year-old couple and still struggling with trust — now complicated by ordinary fears about aging. Every time they get on the ice, she said, he now pledges he’ll come home.
All those hours on the ice have helped Alex Shibutani and his sister know they’re there for each other — even though they both have strong personalities and “butt heads,” as she put it.
“Maia and I know that we can trust each other implicitly out on the ice. It’s a stressful situation, we put a lot of hours, and work and energy into the performance, it’s definitely nerve-racking, but I’m so comfortable knowing that Maia is there going through it with me, and we have this great relationship that’s grown over the past 10 years,” Alex Shibutani said.
5. Define your roles
Men take the lead in pair skating, and even if that sounds a little retrograde for regular couples, sports psychologists say there’s something to learn: In the best partnerships, roles are clearly defined.
For a couple, that might mean that the person who really detests washing dishes can instead take responsibility for the laundry.
Aoyagi has a trick to help team members (and you) appreciate each other: Try switching roles. If he is working with a pro basketball team, for example, he’ll have the point guard play center and the center play point guard.
“On teams and in couples, we have a tendency to overvalue what we do and undervalue what the other person does,” he said.
Switching tasks for a week — trading garbage duty for cooking, for example, or bedtime routines for bathroom cleaning — can give each partner a break and help you appreciate what the other person does.
Vidya Rao and Mariecar Frias contributed to this report from Sochi.