Thoughts From Relationship Land 2

Thoughts From Relationship Land 2

by Joel Christie 

One of the first things I emphasize when working with a couple is that relationships inherently require work. The couple generally nods and indicates that they are well aware of this. So I emphasize it again: No really, relationships require hard work. Not just this one. All of them. There aren't any lasting relationships out there that just sail along without serious interpersonal problems at least sometimes. So the fact that you two are frustrated and genuinely upset with each other does not mean you're doomed. True, you guys could potentially split up, but if that's what you decide to do, you'll eventually find serious areas of frustration with your new partner. At least you two know where many of your areas of frustration are. So now, if you want to, you can start working on these areas together.

Naturally, if the couple decides to stay together, they want practical steps that will lead to positive results, so here is one practice that I think can be useful to almost every couple: Learn to communicate that you really hear what the other person is saying, and that you care about their feelings, opinions, and circumstances.

Imagine Susan says, "I feel like I don't have enough time to get everything done, and when I get home from work I'm so, so tired." Then imagine Brian responds by saying, "So basically I'm just going to have to do everything by myself: cooking dinner, getting the house clean, and never having any help from you ever again. So then we'll both die sad and alone from sheer exhaustion. Great." Then maybe Susan says, "Why do you have to be so sarcastic all the time? You are so selfish."

Her initial statement was: "I feel like I don't have enough time to get everything done, and when I get home from work I'm so, so tired." If you were guessing what Susan was hoping for when she said this, what would you say? That she was trying to provoke a fight? That she doesn't care about Brian and just wants him to have to take care of everything for her? Hopefully not, although unfortunately couples can come to believe these types of things about each other when they repeatedly fail to connect and do not find ways to demonstrate to each other that they really understand where the other person is coming from. I would guess that what Susan was hoping for was understanding. She was probably hoping Brian would say something like, "Yeah, you really have been busy. I totally get why you're tired." The entire conversation might have looked different after that. Instead, Brian struggles to get past his own frustration.

This isn't to say that we should discard Brian's frustrations here. Rather, this is about what's most important for the relationship: connection. Brian and Susan can certainly choose to remain in there separate places of frustration, unwilling to acknowledge the other person's place of hurt. But if they do, they will have to deal with their problems alone, without feeling cared for or aided by their partner, which will almost certainly lead to resentment and erosion of trust. Honestly, this isn't about Brian being a bad guy; it's about what will allow this couple to handle this stressful situation together. Very likely, both Susan and Brian have valid complaints, and indeed, if both Brian and Susan are able to express this to the other person—"Hey, I hear you. You're feeling really overwhelmed with all those extra hours at work," or, "You've been taking on tons of extra stuff around the house lately, and that's really starting to wear you out."— they'll stand a much better chance of figuring out a solution. But again, to be clear, finding solutions is really a distant secondary benefit, because there is no guarantee that just by listening to each other Susan will stop having to work so many hours, or that Brian will no longer feel overwhelmed by housework and other responsibilities. In fact, most problems couples face remain unresolved. And strangely enough, this fact remains true even with happy couples.

Okay, so what about the problem though? Does this mean my issue just get ignored? Temporarily, it might mean that. After all, if both people are trying to shove their own problem to the front of the line as the most important one, it's very unlikely that the couple will end up feeling connected, or that either issue will be satisfactorily discussed anyway. On the other hand, if over time, the couple develops the ability to safely share their issues, believing that it will be received with compassion and understanding, the likelihood that both people's problems and concerns receive the attention they need increases. Patience and trust are cultivated. The connection between the couple grows stronger. And their ability to handle difficult and stressful situations improves as well, not because they can suddenly solve every problem they encounter, but because they both have confidence that they have found someone with whom they can explore these difficult issues with, someone who cares enough to let them finish, and who makes it clear they understand and care.

How does this process start? By one or both people deciding that they will start it. By me repeatedly communicating to the other person that I care about their pain, disappointment, and frustration rather than simply responding with my own list of hardships. And by me believing that forming these connections with my partner is more important than solving a problem anyway, even if we happen to solve plenty of problems along the way.

Author's note: But what if the other person doesn't do it back?! It's a fair question. I'll take a crack at that issue in the next installment of Thoughts from Relationship Land

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