All relationships go through hard seasons. Especially if you and your partner have been together a long time, you have probably felt the cyclical nature of these “seasons”: there have been some storms, hard chills and times of foggy uncertainty, along with times of sun and cool breezes.
There’s no doubt that it’s easy to get caught up in worrying about how long the hard seasons will last, and when the more blissful times will return. But rather than panic, become defensive or start to think about leaving, it can help to remember there four truths about our connections with people we love:
1. Relationships are an inside job.
All change begins within you and is maintained by you. Once you shift your focus from your partner to yourself, you gain enormous power to affect both your relationship and your own well-being.
Too often, we blame issues in our relationships on our partners. But the truth is that the change begins with you and you alone. You can always change the way you react to what the other person says and does, even if your partner doesn’t do anything differently. That is where the dynamic shift begins.
During tough conversations, I have said to myself If I were a loving person, what would I do now? which helps me respond mindfully and intentionally, rather than react defensively.
2. Communication isn’t an issue when things are going well.
I’ve been a couples therapist for more than 30 years, so I’ve worked with a lot of couples. One of the most common things I hear from couples during their first session is the following complaint: “We don’t communicate well.” You may have even said this yourself.
When I hear this complaint, I realize that I’m sitting with two people who are doing a great job of articulating how they’re not articulate. When things are going well in a relationship (or even going along as usual), communication is never the problem. Of course, things get a little more complicated when we’re under stress, or feel angry, sad or afraid.
When we are in the midst of a tough situation with our partner, we tend to react in one of three ways: we fight, freeze, or flee. In one of these reactive modes, we will of course look very different to our partner than when we’re breezing along, relaxed and open. That’s why we need to be mindful of our triggers, and notice when they are being set off. From there, we can set an intention to slow down, and respond to a conflict rather than react.
3. Most troubles in relationship happen because of fear — the fear of lost connection.
I sat in my office with Jeff and Cindy on the verge of a breakup. It wasn’t the complaints about each other that startled me. It was the moment that Cindy put her head in her hands and sobbed, “I’m losing my best friend.” Suddenly it became clear: the depth of her agony arose from the threat she felt her grievances posed to their existence as a couple.
We’re wired in our brains and hearts to be connected with others. Numerous studies show that touching, hugging, and being a part of loving relationships help us to live longer, healthier, and happier lives. So how can we manage the anger and conflict that are part of all relationships, and avoid the loss of life-enhancing connection?
The secret to keeping our relationship strong under duress is to manage our love account just as we manage our bank account: by keeping the deposits higher than the withdrawals. Listen, support, touch, apologize, appreciate, and surprise. We need to practice these behaviors often enough to amass the goodwill to cover those times when the relationship is “overdrawn.”
We can be angry, hurt, outraged. It doesn’t mean we cut off connection. It doesn’t mean we fail to see the merit of our partner’s main strengths. Although it may feel like the last thing we want to do, if we keep the bridge open between us, we’ll find the way forward in the most difficult times.
4. Just about any two people can get along, if they really want to.
I’ve sat with people that were similar in most ways with very few complaints between them, and yet they didn’t have the willingness to reach out to one another in ways that would’ve deepened their love and connection and they parted.
I’ve sat with people who couldn’t be more different, who were recovering from the biggest messes you could imagine: multiple betrayals, misunderstandings, years of hurt and anger. Yet they felt a compelling connection and commitment to one another, which they didn’t want to lose. Diligently they adopted new rules and practices to regain connection. They managed to forgive each other and to do the inner work to stop whatever behavior had caused the trouble.
If two people are willing to do the work, make the changes, and learn the skills, they can have a relationship better than anything they ever imagined.