For Couples – How to overcome the most difficult challenge of relationships

 In Blog, Couples

(Time to read: ~4 minutes)

Chris and Robin (not their real names) came to see me because, although they love one another, and their relationship is good overall, it all goes down the drain when a conflict arises.

Chris speaks more and more loudly (Robin calls it yelling), wanting to be heard and understood.

Robin disconnects – sometimes by physically leaving the room or the house, other times by giving up and withdrawing inside. This just makes Chris more frantic for connection.

The experience is so unpleasant for both of them that they try to avoid the topic in future, even though they both recognize that important issues aren’t getting resolved.

This works for a while – the issue goes underground where they can’t see it.

But the pressure of the unresolved topic just keeps building, until eventually it blows up.

And the cycle starts over.

The most difficult challenge of couple relationships

The most difficult challenge of couple relationships is that you most want support and love from your partner at precisely those moments when it will be hardest for them to give it to you.

What does that mean?

In my experience, you are most likely want support and love from your partner when (for example):

  • You’re angry – especially when you’re angry at them
  • You’re feeling hurt by something they did or didn’t do
  • You’re feeling stupid, unattractive, depressed, guilty – or just not very lovable.

Why is it so hard for partners to support us at these times?

  • When you’re angry at them – their natural first priority will be to defend themselves and their self-esteem
  • Same thing when you’re feeling hurt by something they did or didn’t do
  • When you feel stupid, ugly, depressed, guilty, or just not very lovable – they are likely to have one of two reactions:
    1) Part of them might agree with part of your negative judgment of yourself – after all, none of us is perfect. They might not say it, but you will feel it.
    And they probably don’t know what else to say.
    2) Part of them might feel helpless, and be criticizing themselves, because they don’t know what to do to help you feel better – even though they very much want to do that.

How to overcome it

There are two keys to overcoming this challenge.

  1. Develop a “Plan B” – something else that you can (and will!) do when you are feeling angry or hurt about something your partner said, did, or didn’t do.
    My “Plan B” involves two parts:
    1 – Something I tell myself (repeatedly): “We are going to get through this. It’s going to be okay.”
    Sometimes it also includes “You know it will end up just making things so much worse if you say something now. Remember (the most recent incident when I did that). So let’s just breathe and let things untangle inside.”
    2 – Something physical that I do. Research indicates that taking 3 slow, deep breaths can help activate the soothing part of our nervous system, so I try to remember that.
    And going for a brisk walk outside is my personal best choice – it combines deep breathing with a muscle-pumping action that helps to clear the stress hormones out of my system. And makes it impossible for me to say something that I will regret later – at least while I’m out of the house!  🙂
    Putting on some music and dancing around vigorously is a good indoor alternative.
  2. Once the emotions cool down, have a conversation to reach agreement on ways that work for both of you to handle these three emotionally-charged situations.
    Research indicates that it takes most of us at least 30 minutes – if we don’t re-stimulate the anger or hurt through our thoughts – to get over being emotionally triggered. It takes that long for the stress chemicals to clear our system. Until that happens, it is much easier for us to be re-triggered.
    When you talk together, seek to understand and acknowledge the other person’s experience.
    And try coming up with things you can each do to support one another to feel heard, valued and cared about in these challenging moments.
    Sometimes particular types of physical touch, possibly combined with a few simple words, can be very powerful – because gentle, comforting physical touch and a soft tone of voice tends to help activate the calming, soothing part of our nervous system.
    One person I was in relationship with used to feel quite overwhelmed when I was experiencing negative emotions – he just didn’t know what to do. And what he did do – give advice – didn’t work for me, which I tended to share with him in negative and critical ways. And things would go downhill from there.
    After talking things through after one of these incidents, we came up with the idea that he could rub my back and say “Everything’s going to be all right”.
    After that, he felt comfortable and confident about what to do when I got upset (because he really did believe that everything was going to be all right). And I felt truly cared for and supported when he chose to do this – which he really “got” and appreciated from my responses. So we created a positive, upward spiral.

I specialize in helping people learn how to prepare for and have these types of  conversations – in ways that feel comfortable and connecting and that are successful in helping each couple identify their unique “right” solutions to their own challenging situations.

The Benefits

Couples feel much more comfortable talking through their “difficult” topics – all the way to solutions that work for both of them.

Because they know how to do it peacefully. Including multiple back-up “Plan B’s” when things start to get tense.

They navigate difficult, emotionally-charged moments better – in ways that are less painful for both of them.

And they are amazed to discover that they have far fewer difficult moments than they used to. And the moments that do occur get resolved much more quickly.

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Would you like more of these skills in your couple relationship?

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