When couples enter couples counseling, they often wonder if the therapist will “take sides,” by taking up the cause of one partner over the other. If the truth be told, each partner hopes the therapist will take their own side. But family therapists are taught to consider neither partner as the client. Their patient is the relationship itself. With that said, here are three remedies often prescribed to an ailing relationship.
1. Schedule a daily “we” bubble. All couples report fighting over in laws, money, sex, parenting, and domestic responsibilities, but the couples who are able to work through that stuff best are those who act and think as one mind. To create an environment for that one mind to grow, couples need a “we” bubble, a daily cocoon, to simply be together in routine and ritual. Your cocoon, may be a morning coffee together, an after-dinner stroll, or a bed-time cuddle. The key to building strength in a relationship is to bond every day.
2. Problem solve with the relationship in mind. Make decisions based on what’s good for the relationship rather than what’s good for one. Just as a therapist looks at the relationship as the patient, couples can be transformed by the mental mindset of solving problems through the lens of what’s best for both instead of one. Sometimes, it can be as simple as training your mind to refocus and with every conflict, asking yourself what’s really important here, and understanding that compromise can sometimes get you more in the long run.
3. Join his or her cheer team. If a relationship is an exchange of care, there is probably no better kind of care than to be in your partner’s corner while he or she faces the stress of life. Think of yourself as the captain of your partner’s cheer squad. You might be surprised at how your entire relationship can be transformed by the addition of a few compliments, words of encouragement, and reminders of how loved they are.
All intimate relationships have conflict. The tricky part is learning how to fight like a champ. Because conflict has that sneaky way of piling up and either exploding or leaking out into all the happy areas of your life. But there’s one specific thing that you can do today to bullet proof your relationship. Replace stonewalling with an intention to understand.
If your home life is beginning to sound like the Bickersons and you’re best strategy is to duck or pass, then know this: The very worst way to deal with conflict is something that psychologists call “stonewalling.” Stonewalling happens when one partner feels overloaded by the other’s expressions of discord. These expressions may include, nagging, complaining, bickering and all–out-yelling. Unable to find a way to negotiate a peace treaty, the overwhelmed partner (often, but not always, the man) puts a complete embargo on communication. He (or she) either stares at the TV, gives one-word answers, changes the subject, or walks out the door. But withdrawing from communication is a sure fire ticket to divorce court. Eventually, the dismissed partner will find someone who will gladly listen, and that person may be a lover or a divorce attorney.
Of course, when someone is feeling engulfed and attacked, it can be very hard to suddenly counter with loving, rational communication. For some stonewalling is a natural fight or flight response. The first thing to do is acknowledge your feelings and explain them to your partner. Then make a plan with some ground rules and conflict strategies long before the next fight. Your rules might include, setting out specific times and places when you will be more open to uncomfortable communication — say, after the kids are in bed and never during the morning rush to get out the door. Then become aware of which words trigger your withdrawal. For instance, you might ask your partner not to blame or name call.
Finally, when you are in a situation where you want to check out as a defensive strategy, think like a champion boxer who understands his sparring partner. No boxer won a round by cowering. So, take a deep breath. Try not to react impulsively. And instead, think about why you fell in love with the person who is attacking. Remember that you are in the ring with a teammate, not an opponent. And instead of mounting a crazy defense, simply say, “I love you and I want to understand you.” That sentence alone can have a powerful, transformational effect on this bout.