Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Strengthening Your Relationship

Why is being in a relationship sometimes the most satisfying and joyful experience and at other times the most miserable?

Many romantic relationships start out feeling fantastic. You feel seen for who you really are, and even your flaws are loved and cherished. You feel the same in return. In the beginning, your partner's flaws are endearing and loveable, and their mistakes can be fairly easily forgiven. Being together is exciting and satisfying.

For many couples, this experience of feeling easily understood changes at some point. Perhaps this change starts when your partner says something that makes you question whether they really understand you after all. Perhaps one of you wants more sex or intimacy than the other and that begins to throw things out of balance. Or maybe changes in your lives such as a child entering the relationship, or more demanding work schedules begin to take away your time and energy to tune in to each other.

When you reach out for connection with your partner and feel let down by their response (or lack of response), it is painful.

A negative cycle begins to form. One of you reaches out, and the other inadvertently does not give the desired response. Feeling rejected or disappointed, the one who has reached out loses some faith in the relationship, responding with anger or distance. The other partner responds to the distance or anger by withdrawing more. The cycle is in motion, and it seems to have a life of its own.

Why can't we just change the painful cycle when it starts? Because when you are in the middle of this pattern, it is hard to see your part in it. Feeling hurt or defensive and stirred up by conflict makes it hard to think creatively, empathize with your partner, and take the risks that are necessary to stay close and connected.

Couples therapy is the process of slowing down the cycles that increase distance and creating enough safety for each person to take risks that lead to connection and deeper intimacy. Couples therapy can give you tools to soften conflicts and to make risk taking more successful.

One of the skills I teach to couples is how to become an expert on the internal world of your partner. Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute calls this skill "Love Maps." He has researched hundreds of couples over three decades (footnote), and discovered that couples who have a deep and accurate knowledge about each other's thoughts and feelings tend to have long and satisfying relationships.

When couples are dating and falling in love, they tend to ask each other questions and learn about each other's daily lives, thoughts and dreams. This process tends to lead to a positive cycle of more and more connection and intimacy. However, many couples lose the habit of creating "Love Maps" over time. Partners can get back in the habit, and ask questions to update this knowledge regularly. Here are a few examples of the types of questions partners can ask each other to rebuild "Love Maps":

"What would you like your life to look like in five years?"
"What events are coming up that you are worried about, and why?"
"What's your favorite movie that you've seen in the past year?"
"With whom do you currently have a conflict (besides me)?"

When you feel known and understood by your partner, the times when you reach out and don't get what you want feel less painful. When you deeply know and understand your partner, you have more access to empathy and can more easily handle the times your partner is unavailable. This is one of the many tools couples can use to break the distancing cycle and make deeper connection possible.

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