“When you forbid a partner from doing something, you invite them to keep a secret.” - Ellyn Bader
Most couples feel their relationship will last forever; they love each other deeply and believe their love will sustain the challenges and obstacles they may encounter through their journey together. However, as therapists we know that if couples don’t know how to navigate the many roadblocks they will encounter together, their relationship can crash and burn.
Here are some of the most common issues I see when working with troubled couples and advice I give that may help sustain their relationship and keep it growing and thriving.
Do you lash out at your partner and blame him or her because you are upset, angry or frustrated? Maybe it’s not your partner’s fault that you feel this way, yet, you want to blame someone, so you verbally attack your partner. This is destructive and disrespectful and will fast track your way to killing a relationship if this behavior continues.
Take a moment to collect your thoughts calmly and choose your words wisely. Avoid “you” statements. Instead, start by saying, “I feel …,” or “I heard you say….,” or “I saw it this way….,” or “My experience is….” Be gentler with your words, show kindness, and don’t take it out on your partner.
I tell couples, “think of contempt as standing on a mountaintop and shouting what marriage is and is not.” This is only one version – yours. What about your partner’s?
Therapist Marty Klein once said, “couples argue over contracts they never made.” Couples enter a relationship thinking they know and understand each other only to discover many unspoken “contracts” or expectations. They have an implicit contract, not an explicit one. These unspoken expectations can create a lot of tension in the relationship until they become spoken expectations.
I tell my clients that it never is too late to come up with a plan. When they encounter unanticipated, unspoken contracts, talk about them and come up with a plan. You may realize your partner never will cook, but he is happy to do the dishes and clean up the kitchen. There’s the plan.
For most of us, defensiveness is a natural response to criticism, complaints and negative feedback. It can escalate an argument and destroy any chance of resolving it. It sends a message to your partner that their experiences or ideas are wrong, and you are right. It also prevents couples from listening and connecting with each other. If you put up a wall, even if it’s just to protect yourself from getting hurt, you are not allowing your partner to understand how you feel. A well-meaning defense quickly can turn into a battle where each side is unwilling to give in.
I encourage couples to avoid criticism and stop blaming. Create a supportive environment where you feel comfortable talking honestly, yet gently. Remember, if you tug on one side, your partner will tug on the other and you end up in conflict. Make sure you move in a positive direction so your partner can move the same way.
If you see the conversation is getting tense and going south fast, stop it and say you want to resume it later when emotions have cooled. Time outs are crucial for all relationships. Place a specific timeframe on when you will talk again and never wait more than 24 hours. The person who needs the time out should be the one to come back and initiate the dialogue again. This way your partner will know you want to resolve the problem in a healthy way.
Often, couples kill their relationship with the silent treatment instead of expressing how they feel. How many times have you heard your client say to his (or her) partner, “you’re not listening to me.”
In many cases, when one partner stonewalls another, the conversation is shut down before it even has a chance to begin.
Withdrawing from a partner can be extremely damaging to a relationship over time. While some partners tend to use stonewalling to avoid conflict, it actually causes more issues.
Regardless of the intention of the stonewaller, this behavior communicates the following: “You’re not worth responding to. Your thoughts and feelings don’t matter to me. You don’t matter to me.”
Your partner may be overwhelmed and simply needs to take some time to disengage from a tense and emotional situation. Set aside differences temporarily so when you regroup, you will be better equipped to discuss the issue more clearly. During this disengagement time, try to see your partner’s perspective. This may help the two of you work together to resolve the conflict productively and peacefully. It is even OK to ask, “what do you need?” When you inquire with empathy, you may uncover your partner’s concerns because you are focusing on the issue, not the person.
Let your vulnerability show. Sit down with your partner and explain how you feel. Instead of turning away from your partner, turn toward him or her.
Take extra time to share appreciation, for validating your partner’s point of view, and for listening and responding. This will help keep the conversation more positive and support the stonewaller from feeling the need to withdraw.
Here are a few other relationship killers I have encountered:
Fights that never end
When a relationship is starting to crumble, you may find yourself in frequent fights repeatedly over insignificant things. These fights aren’t about being right; in most cases they are about feeling hurt or misunderstood or unloved. Most of what couples fight about isn’t even the real issue. Getting to the hurt and the pain underneath the frustration is where the solution lives.
Habitual criticism can destroy the very foundation of a relationship. Before criticizing, consider the words you are using. Don’t start your sentence with statements like, “you always” or “you never.” Focus on what you want from your partner, instead of what you don’t want.Be respectful rather than accusatory. Use words like, “I feel,” or “I need.”
Ignoring attempts to connect
When you see your partner is trying to connect with you, but you aren’t in the mood or don’t have time, instead of putting on your blinders, just say, “I’m sorry, this is not a good time, but let’s pick a time. How about in one hour?” And, as noted previously, never wait more than 24 hours.
If you are trying to connect, don’t start the conversation with, “We need to talk right now.” Make an appointment to talk. Use a softer approach and you will be surprised at how effective that can be.
A great weekly exercise to practice is called brags and appreciations. A brag is stepping out of your comfort zone for your partner. An appreciation is anything your partner does that you want to reinforce and acknowledge.
As Carroll Bryant says, “Love is a two-way street constantly under construction.”