By Annie Wright, LMFT
18 min read
“For one human being to love another, that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” — Rilke
Relationships are hard.
Relationships are never, ever perfect and require huge investments of time, energy, a willingness to compromise, and a willingness to be influenced by the other regularly. Combine this with whatever unique triggers, differences, trauma, preferences, needs and wants that any two people will inevitably experience over time together, and then throw in the stressors of life such as commutes, work, finances, loss, illness and more, relationships can hold the potential for maddening frustration, disappointment, grief, and soul-trying challenge.
However, I also believe that, as human beings, we’re hard-wired for connection, biologically and psychologically driven to form relationships for our very survival. And, while I don’t believe that relationships complete us per se, they do indeed help us to grow, heal, and become more fully who we were meant to be. Relationships give immense meaning and anchoring to our fragile human lives.
Quite a paradox isn’t it?
Relationships can be our source of greatest frustration, pain, and challenge, but also our greatest source of growth, joy, and healing. And, while no two relationships will ever look the same — the universe constellated between two people will always have a unique topography, a wholly original landscape, language, spoken and unspoken contract between the pairing — I do believe there are some fundamental principles and tools which can support most people in navigating the paradox of pain and joy in relationships.
So in today’s blog post, I want to offer these principles and tools up for you in the form of a veritable Care Package for your relationship. And while I frame this article from the lens of romantic relationships, I believe the principles can apply to any kind of relationship: friend, sibling, parent, coworker, etc. So read on…
Rupture is inevitable; It’s the repair that counts.
Have you ever noticed that when you have incredibly high expectations you’re inevitably disappointed? I certainly have. That’s why I think it’s critical for anyone in a relationship to have reasonable expectations and deeply understand that no matter how much you love each other, no matter how long you’ve been together, no matter how skillfully you try to communicate, rupture in relationship is inevitable; it’s the repair that counts.
Rupture — or, in other words, conflict, disagreement or misses — is absolutely bound to happen in a relationship. Most likely every day. By understanding this, we can possibly have more realistic expectations about the challenges of being in a relationship and avoid making up stories like “we’re not meant to be together!” when conflict occurs. It’s going to happen. Period.
And while I do have some recommendations about how to fight well when rupture occurs (see next bullet point) it’s the repair — the coming back together after the conflict that really counts (see the third bullet point). So, in order to recalibrate your expectations, let me repeat: In a relationship, rupture is inevitable; it’s the repair that counts.
Given that conflict in a relationship is inevitable, I believe it’s helpful (if not critical) for partners in a relationship to learn the skill of how to fight well with each other. Fighting well can look like those Classroom Rules posters you might have seen in elementary school:
Respect each other.
Use “I” statements.
Share how you feel.
All of this sounds wonderful and ideal, but what happens when you or your partner are emotionally flooding or your fight/flight/or freeze impulse is triggered to the point where the above feels impossible?
Try this – Take structured time-outs.
When one or both of you are flooding, initiating a structured time-out can be an excellent way to help your nervous system calm down. A structured time-out can be initiated by one or both partners, and there is a clear agreement around the duration of the time-out as well as who will initiate the end of the timeout/continuation of the discussion. Explore alternative ways to move through a fight. I’ve had couples in my therapy practice who cannot discuss challenging topics face-to-face/eye-to-eye with one another. For many reasons, it’s just too triggering.
For these couples, I recommend alternative forms of communicating such as texting, or walking side by side and talking versus looking right at each other, or talking on the phone but in separate rooms. Get creative about how you can create greater safety and reduce triggering in fights so you can aim for kinder, more effective communication with one another.
After the fight ends or even during a fight when you’re both feeling more regulated, skillfully processing the rupture that occurred can help both individuals feel seen, heard, acknowledged and attuned to. Doing this has the potential to help bring you both closer together, re-establish your connection, and help you move forward in your relationship.
I’ve written about this at length in earlier posts, so I’ll link the steps to the skillful process for continued reading:
- Frame the conversation for success.
- Communicate assertively.
- Reflect, validate, and empathize with the other.
- Create solutions together. Using the rupture as an opportunity for both of you to co-create solutions that feel good to each of you around the rupture that just happened is an incredible opportunity to get closer and build and hone and improve the topography of your relational universe together.
Build up your relational bank account.
While rupture is inevitable, I also believe that when we have a strong, robust, and resilient emotional bank account in our relationships, we can better weather the challenges of rupture. What do I mean by an emotional bank account? I like this definition from Stephen Covey, Ph.D. in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families:
“An emotional bank account is an account of trust instead of money. It’s an account based on how safe you feel with another person.”
Like with a real bank account, in relationships we’re constantly making deposits and withdrawals on our “account.” Since “withdrawals” are inevitable (a.k.a: ruptures), ensuring we have a good-enough balance in the account helps buoy us and our relationships over the course of time.
So how do we build up our emotional bank account with another? Practice understanding each other. Taking the time and emotional and mental energy to understand your partner, their likes, dislikes, triggers, fears, hopes, and dreams, can greatly increase the level of emotional intimacy between the two of you.
Drs. John and Julie Gottman – renowned couples therapists and researchers – have created a process called Building Your Love Maps which does just this: The Upward Spiral Gratitude Practice. In many of my couples counseling sessions, I lead partners through The Upward Spiral Gratitude Practice. This is a simple (but not easy) exercise of two people taking turns thanking one another for something their partner did that day and how it made them feel when they did it.
Don: “Thank you for making me dinner tonight (and every night this week!) because it made me feel taken care of.”
Betty: “You’re welcome.”
Betty: “Thank you for being on time coming home when you said you would. It makes me feel like I can depend on you.”
Don: “You’re welcome.”
(Side note for any fellow Mad Men fans out there: As a therapist, I can only *wish* Don and Betty Draper would have gone to couples counseling!)
Pop culture fantasy examples aside, the practice of taking the time to notice what went well in the relationship that day and thanking your partner for their contributions and efforts starts to build an upward spiral of gratitude which can profoundly help build up your relational bank account. Turning towards vs. away from when bids are made.
The Gottmans have identified another key factor in helping couples build up a relational bank account: how often people turn towards each other versus away from when bids for affection are made. A bid is an attempt from one partner to another for some kind of attention or positive connection. Bids can be simple (“Hey honey, what do you think of this JCrew buttondown in the catalog?”) or complex (“I really want you to come with me to visit my brother over Christmas. I know it’s not easy but it would mean a lot to me.”) The more we turn towards each other when bids for affection are presented, the more we build up our proverbial relational bank account.
Learn about relationships.
Like I said earlier, relationships are hard. They require work, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and so much more. I personally think that relationships should be an experiential and academic subject from Kindergarten onwards because, let’s face it, most of us are never taught how to healthily, skillfully be in a relationship. But the good news is that it’s never too late to learn. That’s why I recommend that you:
Literally make the topic of relationships a self-study course. Learn about how you show up in relationships, what kind of relationships you seem to attract, what your defaults are in times of conflict, learn your unique triggers and what your deepest fears and needs and wants are. Study what qualities and characteristics seem to contribute to long-lasting, healthy relationships. Pick up a book (or more!) from my recommended resources below or book a session with a skilled therapist and start your studies.
Please seek help when you need and want it! Individual psychotherapy and couples counseling can be hugely supportive in healing and strengthening your relationship. A good couples counselor can help you both re-establish an emotional connection and learn skills about how to navigate triggers and conflict.
Become a connoisseur.
Even if you’ve never directly experienced or witnessed great relational models, it’s not too late. I invite my clients – both individuals and couples – to seek out relational models from afar — a friend’s parents, a Hollywood couple, neighbors down the street — who seem to model and embody the kind of relationship you want. Seek these models and examples out, allow yourself to be inspired, and to get curious about what you can create for yourself in your own relationship.
We’ve covered a lot of material today but before we wrap up I want to leave you with some inquiries to help you deepen your understanding of how you relate to yourself and to others:
- What did you learn about relationships growing up? Did they feel safe, scary, dangerous to you? Which part of my intro felt most true to you? The frustration or joy piece?
- Growing up, did you have healthy models of relationship? Did you watch your parents, other family members, or maybe even your friend’s parents be able to have conflict and move through it?
- What are your expectations about your relationships? What are some of your beliefs about what having a thriving relationship will be/give/do for you? Are these expectations reasonable?
- What do you imagine is a growth edge for you in a relationship? What do you know you do well in a relationship?
Annie Wright, LMFT is the founder and clinical director of Evergreen Counseling – a therapy center located in Berkeley, California – as well a licensed psychotherapist who works extensively with Millennial and Gen-X’ers dealing with anxiety, depression, relationship, and career challenges. She’s also a published writer with pieces and opinions appearing in Forbes, NBC, The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Reader’s Digest and more. You can find her online at www.anniewrightpsychotherapy.com or at www.evergreencounseling.com.
Stories, tips, and resources from others who have experience with anxiety can be found below:
Mental Health as a Priority in the Workplace
The Young Introvert’s Social Survival Guide
Tips to Manage Anxiety Around Work
5 Ways to Feel Less Anxious When You’re a Sensitive Person