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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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Conscious Coupledom: Things that happy couples do, that you may not be...

Conscious Coupledom: Things that happy couples do, that you may not be...

By Alexis Honeycutt

Here are five of my favorites:

1. Bungee Jump
OK, so maybe not bungee jumping specifically. Any activity that is new or exhilarating would qualify for this category. Studies have shown that couples who participate in novel and arousing activities with one another, are happier. There are a number of factors that contribute to this, but the most prominent is that novel activities aren't boring, and boredom is the mortal enemy of romance and a relationship killer.

It's easy to fall into familiar patterns of dating. I had some friends who lived their entire life within a three mile radius of their house, and who dated like planets in orbit around the same seafood restaurant. While they probably saved a fortune in gas, they probably didn't do their romantic life any favors.

2. Fight constructively
Conflict, miscommunication, and even arguments can (and do) happen within healthy relationships. However, without a clear set of rules, arguments can lead absolutely nowhere or worse, they can do long term damage to the relationship. Here are two ways to avoid the most common argument fouls.

A. Ask for clarification
During an argument it's easy to assume what the other person is thinking, and then to react to what you think they actually meant (we call this mindreading). In the heat of an argument it is very easy to assign, often mistakenly, malicious intent to something a partner is saying. Instead, practice listening to your partner and paraphrasing what he or she actually said instead of what you think they meant. Again, if you aren't sure, ask for clarification.

B. Specify the offense
Your partner forgot to take out the garbage (again). You yell "The garbage from Tuesday is still in the kitchen because you never take it out. You don't care! You're so selfish!"

Instead, pinpoint a specific behavior (taking out the garbage), and the way it made you feel using an "I" statement. Say "When you forgot to take the garbage out on Tuesday, I felt uncared for." Now instead of insults, the partner is presented with the way in which their actions caused distress, along with the specific action that caused the distress. It is much easier to work with a concrete concept such as "remember to take out the garbage" than it is to change an abstract notion like "so selfish" or "don't care".
By using these two rules couples can drastically improve the outcome of what could otherwise turn out to be a nasty (unproductive) fight.

3. Share their dreams with one another
Couples who share their wishes, hopes, and dreams, extend a symbolic invitation to their partner to support them in their endeavors. Couples who know each other's life dreams, who support one another in their realization, and who have mutual life dreams, stay together more often than those who do not.

Try this exercise developed by family therapist Virginia Satir: Sit across from one another, knee to knee. Hold hands and take turns sharing 1 statement on each of these topics:

A) Appreciations –

Name something you appreciate about your partner. Do you love the way his eyes sparkle when he is telling a joke? Is she a good Mother? Say so!

B) New news –

What's new in your life? This can be as simple as "I bought a new dress for the company party".

C) Puzzles –

What are you wondering about that is connected to someone significant in your life?

D) Complaints with request for change –

This could get tricky. Limit the complaint to one specific behavior and be sure to ask for change at the end. For example "You left the door unlocked when you left for work the other day, would you mind making sure it's locked when you leave from now on?"

E) Wishes, hopes, and dreams –

Here you have the opportunity to inform and enlist your partner in the fulfillment of your dreams, whether it be a vacation you'd like to take, a meal you would like to have next week, or the fact that you'd like to have another baby. This exercise is intended to create a safe space for the sharing of such ideas.

4. Develop a sense of autonomy
Couples also need time (without the other) to pursue their goals, and to maintain a sense of personal identity. After all, it's difficult to cultivate a sense of desire for someone who is attached to you all the time. So, if you are an aspiring chef who has been meaning to sign up for that cooking class, go for it. Partner not into it? Do it anyway. By doing so, you honor your unique self, give yourself space to develop your talents, and allow your partner room to do the same.

5. Have realistic expectations
Recent research suggests that when it comes to happiness, the key is not necessarily whether things are going well, but rather that things are going better than expected; and the lower the expectation, the higher the likelihood that the outcome will exceed the expectation.

So, communicate to your partner that you expect a card and flowers on Valentine's Day, but don't be heart broken when they fail to deliver a personalized, sky- written love poem, complete with fireworks. After all, they need to feel like they can be human, and still be accepted by you.

Bungee jumping anyone?

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Thoughts from Relationship Land:

Thoughts from Relationship Land:

by Joel Christie MA, IMH #10972

Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern

                You know that lovely Hollywood idea of “your soul mate,” or “the one?” Not just Hollywood of course, but romance novels, magazine checklists, and perhaps that cozy place in your own imagination. It’s the belief that there is a single special someone out there waiting for you, someone designated by God or the universe with whom you are destined to be with, that person who is the absolute perfect match for you and with whom you would share a romance so smolderingly wonderful as to make all other romances seem drab and maybe a little embarrassing by comparison. What a nice idea, right?

Here’s what I’m proposing: ditch the idea of “the one.” Hold on, hold on. I’m not saying lasting romance is unrealistic or childish, and I’m not putting down monogamy or relational stability. I promise. No, I’m saying this because I actually think the cosmic concept of “the one” is a huge detriment to stability within relationships. I work with couples for a living, and I want them to have long, happy, healthy relationships. Seriously, I do. So let me explain why I think it’s worth ditching the idea that there is a single special someone out there in the world waiting just for you.

Generally, when I hear people start daydreaming about “the one” it’s when things in their current relationship or single life are not very satisfying. Something like, “She can be so annoying sometimes, and she doesn’t like action movies any more: maybe she’s not ‘the one’ after all.” Or, “He’s really messy. I just feel like there’s no way my soul mate is supposed to be this messy. And arrogant for that matter! He can’t really be ‘the one.’” So, “the one” becomes a whimsical escape hatch for all the frustrations a person is currently facing in his or her relationship, replacing these problems with notions of a loving, caring person who always understands me and accepts me for who I am. And puts away the dishes, of course. And has great abs, etc, etc…  There’s nothing wrong with wanting those things to be part of your relationship, by the way. But here’s what I rarely hear—scratch that; here is what I virtually never hear when people talk about “the one”: any mention of working through problems, dealing with conflict, or what to do when the cosmic angel you’ve found at last still somehow manages to piss you off occasionally because, well, you are a human being after all.

The objection to this is certainly natural: “But I don’t even know him/her yet, so how could I possibly know what kind of problems we might have?”

                “Ah-ha!” replies the cruel, romance-hating therapist. “So you agree that you and your undiscovered soul mate will have problems together? Now we’re making some progress!” Or perhaps, “Ah-ha!” cries the devious, mean-spirited therapist, “So the universe has given you clear access to the wonderful positive qualities of this as-of-yet-unnamed soul mate, yet given you no insight to prepare you for his/her flaws?”

I get it. Why invite Negative Nora into the otherwise delightful daydreams of my soul mate? It’s no fun to talk about the possibility of hardships, and it seems impractical to imagine such things, because, well, how would I possibly know that yet? On the other hand, we have no problem allowing our minds to wander off and imagine all the positive qualities this person will surely have. An alarm bell should be going off that this is a good indicator we may not be dealing with reality.

This may come as a surprise given what I just said, but I’m not against must-have lists. I actually think being aware of what we’re looking for in a mate is extremely useful. But here’s the problem with linking your list to “the one”: put to the test, your list would likely match you up with thousands or even millions of people on this earth. Unless the list you have concocted is one of those: “He will be between 6’1” and 6’2,” have deep brown eyes that remind me of my grandmother’s gingerbread cookies on Christmas morning, a radiant smile that makes flowers bloom early in spring, with cute dimples,” and 143 other very specific qualities that actually eliminate every human being on earth by the time you’re finished.

Again, I’m not saying having some non-negotiables is bad. I’m saying we will always have the ability to conjure up a new list of perfect qualities when things get challenging no matter who we’re with. It will probably be very comforting to imagine someone better out there right after a huge argument about finances with my partner. Unless I know that I would certainty have other problems in a different relationship because problems and challenges are an inescapable part of all relationships. If I really know that, it pops the happy “soul mate” bubble pretty quickly, replacing it with the understanding that struggles are part of the price of admission into Relationship Land. Some relationships have the potential to last a lifetime­—with lots of work, while other relationships may be pretty toxic from the start. But we will always have the ability to imagine we would be happier with someone else if we open that avenue of our minds. And so long as this perfect soul mate remains safely inside my imagination, I may even be able to entertain the idea that if I could just find him or her, “This kind of thing wouldn’t happen!” He would do the dishes. She would ask me about my day more often. She would come to my softball games. He would be better with money. And the truth is, you might find someone who indeed fixes these flaws your current partner has. But they will have their own flaws. And then you’ll be stuck pining for your true, true soul mate all over again.

Unless… unless I stop allowing my mind to crave the easiness of being with the “the one.” Unless I don’t need the concept of “the one” any longer. Unless I accept the fact that all relationships take work. Hard work. Unless I remember that relationships have seasons of growth and excitement, and periods of doubt and disappointment. Unless I believe all people need to continue to discover better ways to be with one another, and that the challenges I face within my relationship are not necessarily proof that we are doomed, or that I am with the wrong person, but rather that these challenges are places where growth and change are needed, and hopefully are real possibilities. If those things are true, then my relationship—and indeed the nature of relationships in general—is vastly different. Relationships can still be wonderful, romantic, life-giving, fun, sexy, and amazing, but with the knowledge that they will all have challenges imbedded into them as well. Because? Because when you put two people together things eventually get messy, and that is simply part of the price of admission into Relationship Land, even if I’m with my soul mate.



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