First Things First – Are You Relationship Material?
The best advice for relationship problems that anyone can give, is for both partners to start with an honest assessment of themselves. This may mean that you have to “own” or take responsibility for your own behavior – whether in the past or currently.
Let’s begin with some things that need to be said.
Projecting your own crap onto the other person; making the problem theirs instead of honestly facing your own contribution to the present situation, is one of the biggest relationship destroyers in existence. To be totally honest with, and about yourself, requires some courage. To be able to step outside of yourself and look objectively at your own behavior is a skill that requires practice to develop.
“Oh yes”, you say, “but you don’t understand what I’ve been through in my life. This is why I’m the way that I am”. Sorry friend – you’re making excuses for yourself! We all have crap from our past. We all have unpleasant feelings that are triggered in a given situation. But every one of us also has a choice as to how we behave when these feelings arise. If you don’t think you can behave appropriately then that’s okay – but here’s a reality check – you’re not “relationship material”.
If you choose to reconstruct your reality in the belief that there will be “someone out there” who understands you and is willing to deal with your behavior, then here’s the bad news – it won’t be long until you’re back again, searching for more advice for relationship problems.
When the going gets tough we all have a choice about how to respond. We can start acting like a child; we can be emotionally manipulative; we can spit the dummy and call it off; we can scream and shout abuse at our partner; we can accuse and name-call; we can stage a dramatic walkout and feign indignation, even alleged abuse; we can play the victim; we can deliberately misconstrue our partner’s words into something that we know they don’t mean so that we don’t have to face the issues, or at least, win the argument ….. or ….. here’s a thought ….. we can behave like an adult.
Having said all that, we now have a foundation on which to build some practical advice for relationship problems.
For Adults Only – Advice For Relationship Problems
Planning and Principles
Plan together what your values are in the relationship. Test yourself against them and check out with your partner whether you both agree on what is important and what your vision is; include beliefs and discuss your understanding of love, commitment, relationship boundaries, honesty, forgiveness, spirituality, fairness, fidelity, trust etc.
Accept that at least in some measure both parties will fail in some of these values. Decide on how failures will be addressed.
Ensure that both parties have emotionally left their family of origin – this means leaving them as children and reconnecting with the extended family as adult visitors.
Set aside time to discuss the process (how you communicate) and issues (problems).
Make physical safety (no violence) the top priority and when this is in place work towards emotional safety (care for each other) as priority number two. There is no room for any abuse in a healthy relationship. There are ways to express anger without abuse.
Do make the issue of how you talk with one another or argue the very first topic. There may be 25 issues but only one continuing destructive process (the way in which you talk with each other). Work out the communication process and you may well be able to resolve many problems together!
Defensive responses invest energy in protecting oneself. Aim for responses that protect the relationship. Be courageous to admit wrongs, listening to what the other person is saying but offering an alternative explanation only when you have understood where the other person is coming from and especially if there is misunderstanding involved.
Focus on the building of the relationship rather than the preservation of self. Two people offering self-sacrifice always build relationships and both win. Two people taking from a relationship depletes the investment and both lose.
Agree on Rules of Communication
Invest in resolving the problem rather than attacking the person.
Strive to remain calm but when angry, work hard at keeping the volume down. The process is about understanding and explanation but not intimidation.
Allow one person to speak at a time (this is respectful, loving, and allows for effective listening).
Keep points made short and take turns – summarize your points rather than do all the talking and overwhelm with information, complaints, or distractions.
Deal with one point at a time even though it is connected to many others.
Listen to the other person even if you disagree. Emotional maturity is in place when you can summarize to the other person’s satisfaction what they are saying even when you disagree.
Listen without advice (you don’t have to agree; just strive to hear and understand where the other person is coming from). Give credit that the other person can solve problems unless they request help or ideas.
Stay on track with the issue raised. When challenged do not challenge back even if “attacked” as this changes the topic of discussion and avoids the concern. You could take time out to discuss how a concern is presented, inviting gentleness, but then return to the matter raised. If you have the same concern about the other person raise that when it is “your turn” but avoid ‘What about you…’ until the first topic has been fully aired.
Focus more on the here and now and less on the past – working in the present gives plenty of opportunities to find new ways to engage and relate and love. Past issues are addressed below.
Speak for yourself – share what you feel and think (but not for the other person who can express their own opinions and tell their own story).
Avoid put-downs, judgments, name-calling, and blame – these are false projections of one’s own anger not acknowledged. Instead, describe the concern, talk about the impact upon you (your feelings) and the consequences in the situation of the relationship (outcome and impact). Invite a new response rather than demand. Courtesy is more attractive than bullying.
Advice for relationship problems needs to be given only with permission or invitation (in the context of a loving and safe relationship – which may not be present).
When the Past Gets in the Way of the Present
Heal the past – the past, if not dealt with may be full of ammunition which is endless and full of hurt. To empty that you may decide to discuss one past issue at a time and stay with that to heal it. This will require strength of character, honesty, and humility in confessing mistakes, and the same sort of strength to forgive.
If you have been in a long term relationship you may wish to decide upon a few major issues that need repair and spend a lot of time on those – and forgive the rest of the wrongs:
a. Confess wrongs – you may need time for grieving the loss (with all the stages of grief) because of shared values broken. Both partners need to enter into this pain which should not be rushed.
b. Forgive mistakes – New mistakes may be challenged but without the tempting phrases of ‘again’, ‘never’, or ‘always’. Once forgiveness is in place that issue or wrong must not be raised again because by definition it has been released even as an undeserved gift. Forgiveness begins with a decision, then strengthens as it is practiced in attitude and finally manifested in behavior.
Dealing with Risky Relationships
Never: Use physical force or threats of violence to make a point no matter who started it, how you are provoked, how frustrating it is, or how outraged you may feel. Walk away and find ways to calm down. If force and fear are your only weapons you don’t have a relationship – you have control.
Don’t retaliate (get back at the other person) or you sink to their low place and both lose.
Don’t put the relationship on the line to win an argument (e.g. ‘if you don’t agree with me, I am leaving!’). This only adds insecurity and fear and makes the situation worse in the long run. If the relationship is genuinely at risk, decide on the shortest time you guarantee to stay together while you attempt to work things out (e.g. a few days to a few months). Honor that guarantee and invest in the relationship for that period. Review and offer new and longer guarantees if possible until you can both re-commit.
Offer a degree of mutual tolerance but do not accept abuse. If necessary, put into place the following progressive steps of withdrawal checking after each step to see if there has been any change: turn away, walk away, go to another room, leave the house, leave the relationship temporarily – but one step at a time. Always seek safety first in dangerous situations. Leaving as a first step might be necessary for some situations.
Do not ‘pay off’ personal attacks by giving them undue attention (unless dangerous) but find time to describe what you experienced. Invite the other person to take a different approach which you need to honor with an affirming response even in disagreement. Work first on the way of relating (relationship) and then the solving of problems (issues).
How to use Separation as a Tool
If separation is the only initial outcome, consider a trial separation and make it short (time out for a few days and work on a plan while away from one another to work on the issues – i.e. do something different from what you were doing before). Set a date for reconciling or at least review. Keep the joint values in place during this time. Make restoration the aim unless under threat of or in an experience of Domestic Violence in which case seeking professional and other support and adhering to a Safety Plan is vital.
Relationship Maintenance Along the Way
Show appreciation for your partner and accept it humbly. The more unconditional the better. Offer it frequently.
Offer attention to the other person’s interests even if this is a sacrifice for you.
Work on growing as a person and on your responses to the other. Accept that you can’t change anyone else but we can change our response to others. Accepting the other person as they are with all their idiosyncrasies is a milestone to be reached (not to be confused with accepting abuse).
Spend some special time with one another on a regular basis even if brief.
If you feel the need for independent and interactive advice for relationship problems, then consider some maintenance counseling or do an enrichment course together. Consider a communication skills course or if appropriate a parenting course together.
Accept any efforts towards change even if awkward or seemingly artificial. Appreciate the effort and intent.
Acknowledgements: Lutheran Community Care