Anyone who has been in a relationship knows that there will be challenges. When we enter in our relationships we don’t do so as blank slates, but instead as individuals with a personal history that has shaped our views on life and love. We have our own unique temperaments, personalities, expectations, and needs, that seem to blend together seamlessly at first, but over time can begin to feel like round pegs being forced in square holes!
When we fall in love it is not only our hearts that are aflutter. Our physiology also responds to the excitement by producing dopamine and endorphins that reinforce our desire to spend every waking moment together! “Where have you been all my life?!”…”You complete me!”…”I cant eat, or sleep, when will I see you again?!” In Psychology we refer to this relationship developmental stage as “symbiosis,” or, as I like to say, “love psychosis!” Eventually though, we have to come up for air and focus on the other aspects of our life, and gradually we begin to see each other as three-dimensional, flawed human beings. For some this reality creates enough dissatisfaction that the relationship ends, but others move through, fall deeper in love, and become committed couples.
Unfortunately, our relationships don’t come with instruction manuals, and most of us have not been taught how to create healthy, connected, resilient relationships.
Whether it’s smaller issues that require attention and adjustments, or more serious relationship injuries, most relationships will need rescuing at some point.
As a Couples Therapist, the number one complaint I hear is, “we don’t communicate.” Generally what that means is that, at a minimum, they aren’t truly listening, become defensive, and get caught in an, “I’m right and you’re wrong” dance. More often than not, what has really happened is they have unresolved emotional injuries, lack the tools to repair, and have therefore become emotionally and physically disconnected.
So, how can a couple prevent against serious relationship injuries? The research on relationships has identified a number of traits that healthy, successful couples demonstrate, which is a great place to start. We know that successful couples have a foundation of a great friendship. They like each other, know a lot about each other, and enjoy spending time together. Their relationship is a priority and they see each other in a positive light the majority of the time.
Boundaries are very respected by successful couples. They encourage each other to have alone time for self-care, to pursue outside interests, and to have friendships.
They also value time away from children, extended family, and work, to nurture the relationship. Whether it’s a weekend away, a date night, or a little time each evening without the distraction of phones, computers and tv, they make sure to tap into their partner/spouse relationship. At this time, they are not mom/dad, son/daughter, employer/employee. It is a time to remember they are two people in love, and to focus on that special connection.
Physical intimacy is also a priority. Successful couples take responsibility for creating space for sexual/sensual intimacy in the relationship. They find ways to set the stage, and don’t expect these moments to be simply spontaneous. They let their partners know they are desired, and remember to act like people who would also be desired!
When these couples are annoyed or even angry with each other, which every couple experiences, they are able to conflict without hurting the relationship. What this means, is that they don’t get so escalated that they lose control, say critical, demeaning things, and communicate verbally and non-verbally that “I am right, you are wrong, and I don’t respect your point of view.” They are actually able to slow things down, listen to each other, accept that there is a little truth in everything, and later even show each other some affection, repair and regroup.
Unfortunately, knowing the key traits of a successful relationship does not mean they are easy for couples to achieve. Every person enters a relationship with their own lenses and filters, which will often distort how they experience and interpret things. Acting as a “psychological detective,” my job is to help couples make sense of their thoughts and feelings, and to understand the dance they do. When one partner does “x,” the other does “y,” and vice-versa. Until one recognizes the emotions that are triggered and why that is so, it is next to impossible to shift the relationship dynamic in a positive way.
Overall, healthy couples feel very connected to each other. They feel cared for, valued, desired, and they have fun together. They act like two people who are on the same team, and regardless of what is happening they have each other’s back. This doesn’t all happen without effort, but as a result of making the relationship a priority, and nurturing the love, intimacy, and connection.
When partners respect their differences, care about how the other experiences the relationship, and have empathy for each other, they have a solid foundation to build upon. As a Couples Therapist, I love nothing more than to help guide a couple through this powerful process of personal and relationship growth, so they can create and maintain the relationship they dream of having.