The Magic Bullet for Relationships
Updated: Jun 21, 2020
When I’m out socialising, people often ask what I do for work and I tell them I’m a relationship therapist, they quite often follow with the question - ‘what makes a good relationship?’ My sense is that these people are looking for a magical answer, a ‘key to life’ sort of advice that they could go home and apply and they will live happily ever after. Sometimes it feels like they are looking for an answer that affirms what they have been telling their partner as to what the secret to a happy relationship is. For instance, Don’t sweat the small stuff (code for don’t be upset when I don’t get around to washing the dishes); look at the good things in life (code for you should be able to handle all the stress in your life better); you can’t depend on one another for everything, that’s co-dependence (code for it feels really hard to meet all your needs and vulnerable to share my needs with you).
When I get asked these questions in a social gathering I stumble. In my mind I reflect on the countless number of couples that have come through my office. Most of them wanting so much to make their relationship happy and healthy. They come to counselling because their relationship is important. This has taught me that the first fundamental thing to having a good relationship is doing a relationship consciously. The relationship isn’t just a thing that is there when you come home from work, or when you don’t have plans with your friends. A conscious relationship is one where you think about what you can give to the other person- emotionally, physically, practically- and how they can meet your needs. A conscious relationship is one where you carve out time to spend with one another and have rituals like Sunday morning breakfasts, evening walks or weekends away for your anniversary. A conscious relationship is one where you talk about the relationship, know what is going on in your partner’s life and how they are experiencing you. All of this is the foundation of a healthy relationship.
If I reflect further on what healthy couples do, I can’t help but refer to another one of the Gottmans’ findings of what they call the Four Horseman. They say that when criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling are regularly present in a relationship it is doomed (hence the reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse). What they also tell us- and here is the important part- what we can do instead so that we are still engaged with our partner with things that are really important to us.
Instead of being critical we need to be aware of how we communicate the things that we are not happy about. It is so important to tell our partner what we need from them. We are all different and have different needs so it isn’t possible that our partner will know all these things. It is important to think about our tone in these situations- being gentle and using “I” statements will allow the conversation to go better. Generally, the tone and language used in the first few sentences of a conversation will predict how the rest of the conversation will go.
Instead of being defensive, we need to do the really difficult thing of taking responsibility of our contribution to how our partner is feeling and what is going on in the relationship. It doesn’t mean that you had ill-intent or are a bad person but because our partner is a different person to ourselves, we are not going to always meet their needs and we are going hurt them sometimes. This is something that I find a lot of people are surprised to hear. Even in healthy relationships we are going to hurt each other. We are two people always growing and changing and so our learning of one another doesn’t end. And sometimes in our not knowing or being distracted by our self-focus we are going to hurt each other. That’s ok- as long as we can hear our partner’s hurt and understand them and reflect on our own behaviour.
Contempt is potentially the most dangerous of the 4 horsemen. It is the attitude of, ‘my approach, my way of thinking, my way of seeing the world is better than yours’. You can just imagine the power imbalance or struggle in a relationship like this. What healthy relationships have instead of contempt is appreciation. Noticing each others’ strengths and the energy your partner puts into life and the relationship and sharing this verbally is a magical thing. Some couples love my suggestion of sharing a new appreciation with their partner every evening before they fall asleep- this is a beautiful ritual to have.
Stonewalling is more of an individual process that has an impact on the relationship. It is the withdrawing when someone is upset. The silent treatment is part of this but sometimes it isn’t done intentionally and is rather how an individual automatically responds to conflict or big emotions from their partner. The first step to deal with this is to notice that we stonewall and learn how to deal with the big emotions, self-soothe (I will write a post about this soon) and then how to re-engage with our partner when we are ready. For the partner on the other side of the stonewalling the work is to give the space to their partner to go through this process.
So to all the people wanting the magic bullet to a healthy relationships I have 5:
Do your relationship consciously
Be mindful of how you express your needs to your partner
Take responsibly for actions- we all make mistakes
Have a culture of appreciation within your relationship
Learn how you need to self-soothe so that you can engage with your partner even in the tough conversations.