Valentine’s Day is upon us, so I thought it appropriate to write a blog looking at the subject of relationships, and what keeps them healthy and happy.
Now of course, I’m fairly confident that you might be thinking, ‘surely love is what keeps a relationship strong’… and you’d be absolutely right, but as a couple’s counsellor I’m always finding that there’s a key ingredient that’s essential to maintaining and improving relationships and that’s communication. So I’m wondering… how well do you and your loved one communicate with each other? It’s a question worth pondering on for a moment, and I’ll tell you why: ‘Communication to a relationship is like oxygen to life, without it, it dies.’ (Quote by Tony Gaskins). OK, it’s quite a strong statement, isn’t it? But when you think about it, it makes total sense… how can a relationship thrive if either of you struggle to talk to the other? In this blog I’m going to look a bit deeper into this, so not the everyday chat such as ‘what are we watching on Netflix tonight?’, but the stuff that helps us navigate the tough patches of living life together.
I think it’s fair to say that communication is generally easier when life is moving along as expected and everyone is getting along OK, but what about when it’s not? What if your spouse/partner is doing something that’s really getting on your nerves? Or there’s a very stressful situation you’re going through that’s causing a lot of tension between the two of you? How do you tend to handle it? There’s several options here; such as keeping quiet and trying to tolerate it for the sake of ‘keeping the peace’; you can moan about it to family or friends in the hope that someone else might speak to your partner on your behalf; you can give them the silent treatment in the hope they get the message; or you can talk to them about it. As I’m sure you can imagine, each one of these options has it’s downsides – toleration can build into resentment; being talked about behind their back can make your partner feel slandered and betrayed; the silent treatment can lead to tension that you can cut with a knife, and talking about it can feel a bit dangerous, that you might be walking into a potential minefield where things could get ugly really quickly and you’re both saying things you’ll regret later.
It’s no surprise that most of us hate confrontation, but when we’re in a close relationship with someone else it’s bound to come up from time to time. After all, two people trying to live together can have a number of challenges to negotiate such as different perspectives on finances (spenders and savers), how the housework and DIY gets shared out, demands of careers and childcare on how much time you have for each other, different political views, different cultures or religious beliefs, and of course the reality that we’re all imperfect and make mistakes.
Yes, you love each other and want to make it work, but the question is…. how?
This is where communication really comes into its own. In order to understand how each other thinks and feels about things, you need to talk, really talk, sometimes for hours about your different perspectives. They’re known as ‘deep and meaningful’ conversations for a reason, they need to go deep because it’s in the depths of discovering another person’s life, their history, their experiences, their interpretations of events, the way they’ve been brought up, their thoughts about themselves and the world around them, their morals and values, what they care about and why, it all needs to be heard and understood so that you can get to really know them, and by knowing them you’ll gradually develop more understanding of how they think and why. Of course, this takes time, and the willingness of both of you to be vulnerable and open up to each other. It’s also imperative that each one of you listens with patience, and compassionate empathy. It can take years to really get to know so much detail about a person, and modern life with all its business means that taking time out for such conversations isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary if you want to truly know the person you love.
Whilst arguments are often considered a bad thing, in some ways they’re not, they can actually be an opportunity to have such a conversation, if handled in the right way. Arguments don’t necessarily have to be a slanging match. If you can both try to cool the tempers and speak to each other calmly and respectfully, and give each other space to talk without interruption, you can find out some really useful information about why one or both of you are upset and what lay behind it. For example, an argument about money could reveal that one of you grew up in a home where money was scarce and parents would be worried about how they were going to pay the bills, where you weren’t allowed to ask for treats, because you knew they couldn’t afford it and being frugal and careful with money was taught as a survival skill, and as a result you preferred to be very careful with money and ensure that there was always a healthy savings pot for unexpected bills. Whereas the other may have come from a home where finances were more secure and they were used to being treated regularly, and a bit spoilt with gifts at Christmas, so be more of a spender, who wants to enjoy life’s luxuries now and not worry about it. By understanding these histories, it sheds light on the different perspectives you both see a situation from and therefore can give you insight into what kind of a compromise you might reach.
The truth is, there’s a reason for everything, there’s a reason someone says or does something in a certain way, there’s a reason that someone’s upset about something the other has done, and finding those reasons out will give you the key to finding a way forward, rather than labelling each other as rude, uncaring etc.
Now I get the feeling that what I’ve written so far sounds great in theory, but very difficult in practice, because talking about the difficult stuff can be hard, especially if there’s deep emotions underneath the surface. Perhaps something they’ve done is really distressing but you’re struggling to understand your own reactions, let alone explain it to them. Perhaps either of you really struggle with approaching difficult issues because of painful experiences of confrontation or violence in a previous relationship. Maybe there’s been too many nasty arguments already and you just can’t see the point of raising an issue again, perhaps the way you’re talking to each other isn’t edifying because you’re always interrupting each other and trying to get your own views across and winning points, rather than carefully listening to what each person is saying and the reasons behind their perspective. There’s lots of reasons why getting to a place of communication, resolution and compromise can be hard, which is why I’ll be writing more blogs about this in the near future, so keep an eye out for these.
However, whatever the reason for the breakdown in communication, it might be that you’ve come to a place where it’s hard to see a way forward. Maybe you’re both realising that you could benefit from some support in healing broken areas of your relationship and having a safe space to talk things through. A couple’s counsellor is trained to offer support to you both in exploring the issues gently and carefully to help you discover the deeper issues lying underneath the surface and how they might be resolved together.
They can also help you with strategies for better communication in your relationship. If this is something you’d like to try then feel free to get in contact with me. An initial session will give you both the opportunity to meet with me and get an idea of whether relationship counselling could benefit you both.