Have you ever felt unhappy with your partner? Have you experienced feeling lost, not knowing how to create change in your relationship? Most of us have experienced these feelings, regardless of how much we love our partner.
During her first few sessions, one of my clients described all the things her husband had said and done that made her unhappy. She prided herself on being a good wife who would do anything for her husband.
It was clear that what she desired in our work together was an answer – one that would make her husband change. She wanted her husband to meet her needs and show her more love. She is not wrong to have this desire; however, the pathway toward change is not an easy one.
At one point I asked her how all of these things that her husband said and did made her feel. She quickly said, “I don’t like it” (take note that there was not any feeling expression in her statement) and then she journeyed back to describing the details of her husband’s behavior. I persisted in wanting to know how her husband’s words and behavior impacted her emotionally. As I persisted, she quickly shifted from talkative to very quiet.
I encouraged her to share her emotions, as this was the only path toward change in her relationship. She said, “Otherwise the session becomes a ‘bitch session’, right?” Nooooo I said – it is important to share with others what we go through in our relationships. HOWEVER, and this is the tricky part – we need to share what we go through with someone who will validate us and at the same time, try to understand the side of your partner. Oh my, this is tricky!
Many share their unhappiness regarding their partner with friends and family. It is important and necessary to have support. We need validation for our emotions and experiences, we need empathy, and we need compassion and understanding. However, It is important to recognize that support from loved ones can have positive and negative impacts on us.
I need to preface my next statement by saying that I am a huge advocate of the necessity of empathy and validation; most of us get far too little empathy and validation.
What I have learned however, is that there is a necessary balance of providing that same understanding to our partner. There are times when validation of what we go through can make us even angrier at our partner, when, really, what we desire is both validation of our experience and understanding toward our partner. We need to understand why they do some of the things that they say and do that we find so hurtful. When we receive only validation of our experience, it tends to cement our position against our partner when what we crave is connection. I also wish to stress that understanding does not mean endorsement of hurtful behavior.
Let me explain!
After reading my eBook, someone said to me that one big take-away was that “maybe my wife was hurting too”. I was so excited, because it is my hope that we learn to see our pain as well as the pain in our partner. That is the pathway toward healing and connection. However, our own pain tends to blind us to the pain in our partner. Quite understandably, I might add.
We desire change in our relationship so that we can move out of our pain and unhappiness. Most often this is expressed by wanting our partner to change. Keep in mind though; both people in a relationship contribute to the challenges you experience. In the example that I shared, this wife does not share her feelings with her husband. She may share what makes her unhappy but she does not say, for example, “I really miss us as a couple and I think that both of us are hurting. How can we work toward coming together?”
Many are in need of change in their relationship. But change does not come easy and many even resist the word change!
Can we redefine the word Change?
Change can have strong negative reactions. I understand. All of us want to be loved and accepted for who we are as a person. However, change from my perspective simply means personal growth; the gaining of self-awareness and personal insight. This means seeing both the beauty in ourselves and the challenges that we bring to our relationship. Only then can we decide how we want to respond to our partner in regard to the challenges in the relationship. And all of us have challenges!
How to encourage Personal Growth in your relationship:
~ Positive Communication with Understanding
Inviting change in your relationship through understanding and communicating that understanding provides the best hope for positive change. For example, if you desire your partner to spend more time with you – you might say, “I know we are crazy busy and it’s hard for both of us to find time but I miss you and would love to do more together. I think that ultimately it will be helpful for both of us.” Or if you need to talk about your finances but it always ends in an argument – you might say, “I know that when we talk about finances, we argue. And I know the last thing that either of us want is to argue. But I get worried about our finances. I think that both of us have good ideas about how to manage our money. If we try to talk and an argument begins, we can take a break and then try again later.”
One more example, if your spouse spends more time than you would like on the computer or any kind of technology – you might say “I know that you are tired from working all day and it is helpful for you to de-stress on the computer. I would really like to spend some time with you. Let’s do something fun together to de-stress.”
~ Set Boundaries in a positive manner:
If you find that when you share what you go through with your partner and they have a strong negative reaction – you can make a choice as to how you want to respond to your partner’s reaction. Remember, boundaries are your response to a situation; it is not telling your partner what you want them to do. For example, if your partner is yelling at you, you might ask them to stop. However, this does not mean that they will stop; we don’t have that kind of control! However, you can choose to disengage from the conversation. This does not mean to disengage in a punishing way by withdrawing for days on end. It does mean that you can tell your partner that you are going to go for a walk until both of you reach a level of calm before you try again.
Some people say to me – why do I have to be the one to leave my house and go for the walk? I know it can feel unfair if you perceive it as you are making the sacrifice, however, it is the only control that you have in the situation. And knowing you have control over your response toward your partner can feel empowering. This is not meant to be against your partner, it is simply meant to recognize that you have choices in regard to a challenging situation.
In a sense – you will actually be helping your partner by disengaging from an angry encounter as well as encouraging change. Most people feel either guilt or shame for losing their temper (even if they don’t share or show their guilt and shame) so, by disengaging, your partner will not lose their temper to the point of having to feel guilt or shame for losing their temper. And they learn that they can actually manage their anger. Again – disengaging needs to occur in a positive manner. For example, you might say, “I’m sure that both of us don’t feel good about the direction that this is going. I’m going to take a walk to think things through a bit so that we can try again.”
~ Share what we go through without blaming:
This is where it becomes necessary to focus on our feelings, as I suggested to my client in the example I shared with you. It is even more important to be aware of our emotional triggers. All of us have emotional triggers. If we do not recognize our emotional triggers, we will blame our partner for our emotional experiences with them.
For example, Julie expresses in therapy that her husband does not care about her and that his work is more important to him than she is to him. Feeling unloved is a trigger for her. When her parents divorced, her father had little involvement in her life and her experience with her husband pushes that button. Unfortunately, this trigger will never go away. While she cannot usefully blame her husband for her feelings, she can share with him what she goes through, how his busyness or his work affects her, and she can share with him what she needs from him. Now this is the tricky part – he still might feel blamed and/or he may feel that he cannot give her what she needs.
The work in relationships is to try to come to a meeting in the middle which, I know, can be challenging. However, the opportunity to grow and/or heal your relationship will only occur when you begin a conversation with one another.
One Final Thought:
I want you to know that I realize relationships are complex. We are complex beings! The suggestions that I offer are small nuggets of guidance to help with the complexities of your unique relationship. Keep working at it. Change takes time, or as they say – blood, sweat and tears.
“Change takes vulnerability – the vulnerability to examine our feelings; vulnerability to share our feelings, needs, and desires with our partner; and vulnerability to hear our partner’s feelings, needs and desires”
Please try to keep expectations in check so that you maintain hope for change in your relationship. And remember, always – do this very challenging work with self-compassion. You deserve it.
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If you want to learn more about relationships – I wrote this for you “Ten Essential Things I’ve Learned About Marriage & Relationships” I’ve included the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Let me know!
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Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
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