When Partners Live With Pain

Most people have an amazingly high tolerance for discomfort.  Some of us can even live many years feeling terrible, terrible about our mate and our relationships.  As a couples counselor I am sometimes surprised though, at how much pain a couple will endure before seeking help.

When I see a couple that feels terrible about their marriage or partnership I am always interested in finding out when the problems began.  Sometimes I hear answers like “six years”, six years, imaging feeling terrible about your relationship for six years.  If you are in a happy relationship you might not even be able to imagine it.  But if you have been suffering for a number of years, you are locked in a system of discomfort and it’s possible you may have lost your sense of time.  You may have forgotten about earlier years when the relationship felt better, and you may have resigned yourself to living your current life because that’s “ just the way it is”.

Most people accept “just the way it is” because they don’t know it could be different.  They may wish it was different, but they don’t know what to do to change the circumstances to make life different.  It’s likely both people in the relationship have tried everything they know to make things better, but the efforts fail. When couples get desperate enough, that’s usually the time they come in for counseling.

And when I see a couple at this point the couple is often wondering if I can save or fix the relationship.  I tell them, “I don’t fix relationships, I help you figure out what you want and then I help you get that.  If that is a good relationship than great, I can help you.”

I tell them there is no fix; there is just awareness, intention and action.  Learn about yourself.  Learn about your partner.  Ask for what would make you happy.  Find out how to make your partner happy.  It may sound simple, but for couples who are bruised from living years of unhappiness all these ideas can appear as just words, hollow.

I think the most important thing I can impart to a distressed couple is that there might be another way to relate to one another that could feel better.  And that may be all a couple that’s been in pain for a while can hear.  They might have stopped believing they can even be happy with each other, and they’ve probably accepted their lot in life, one that includes difficulties.

It’s too much for a person in pain to go from discomfort to happy in an instant. But what they might be able to hold on to is the thought that maybe; just maybe they could feel better.  When people start to feel better they become less stressed, less stressed about their problems and the relationship.  Less stress gives the mind a chance to relax and become more welcoming to new thoughts about what may be possible.

Possibilities, ideas, new ways of communicating, hope.  This is what can happen when the mind is relaxed, new ways of thinking and new ways of thinking can lead to a new life.  And isn’t that what distressed couples are after?  Something better, something loving, something hopeful, a new life.

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When Our Partners Can’t Listen

Most of the time when two people in a relationship feel unhappy part of the problem is that they don’t feel heard by their partner.  When we feel heard and understood we often feel validated and our problems seem to dissolve and we feel better.  If our partner can’t hear what’s troubling us or what we need we feel alone and isolated.

So if it’s that simple, why is it so hard for couples to do it?  Most of the couples I work with want to have a better relationship.  They come to counseling because they want to feel close and connected again.  Both people are usually pretty earnest about their intent.  They see what they want to have, but they are usually stumped on how to achieve it.

Sometimes they blame the other person because they think if their partner really loved them they would know how to make them happy.  Unfortunately many couples aren’t talking about what they want and need from their partner and that makes it difficult for the partner to know what to do.

Here’s what I see when couples can’t hear each other.  One person says how they feel about something, or some incident.  The person talking feels bad about what happened.  What they want is for their partner to understand their pain.  They want an audience from the person who knows them the best.  They want to feel like their partner gets what happened to them.  They might even want the partner to apologize. This means that the listener is not thinking about how guilty they feel for causing the pain.  This means that the listener is also not thinking of ways the partner has hurt them and waiting to respond.  But that’s usually what happens.  One person talks, and the other person waits to retort and sometimes retaliate.  No one is listening.

In order to feel heard, validated and get some resolution, the teller of the pain needs to just tell it to the person that may have caused it.  That’s it, nothing more.  This is part of the healing process that couples need to repair.  One pained person talks about what happened to them.  The other person listens without going into their pain.  Unfortunately that’s the dance that most couples fall into.  One person talks and the other person tops them.  This starts a back and forth with no winner and no end.  Both parties end up feeling exasperated, frustrated, drained and alone.

I help couples learn a new way to communicate.  Both people get their say, but they have to take turns.  It really doesn’t matter who goes first, but it does matter that the listener just do the job of listening so the talker gets heard.  This does not come naturally.  Most of us aren’t taught that sharing our pain actually helps us heal.  Many of us learn that we must fight to be heard, that we have to express our pain in order to get relief.  But that style usually leaves people feeling unhappy and alone.

Once couples learn these tools of being the talker and the listener they never feel alone in the relationship again.  They might even feel terrific, realizing that their mate really cares.

 

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When Your Partner Lies To You

We’ve all told lies in our lives; little ones and maybe big ones.  We’ve all learned the consequences of getting caught.  Many of us realize it’s better to tell the truth the first time around than worry about the lie we told and wonder if the truth will emerge eventually.

When we tell lies we hold secrets from the ones we love.  We might even think we are protecting them from something that will hurt them.  We figure in our mind that not telling them is probably better.  Telling them would cause them pain and we don’t want to hurt them because we really care about their feelings.  Or maybe we’re just afraid of what will happen to us if we tell the truth about something difficult.  Maybe we’re worried that we will be in trouble and people will get angry with us.

Not telling the truth takes skill, and thought.  The person telling the lie has to think about making up a story where all the pieces are plausible.  They have to make sure there are no holes an insightful person could see through.  It can be stressful on the lie teller.  He or she also has to remember the lie, and the details, and not forget what order he or she put them in.  That’s stressful too.

So that’s one side, the person telling the lie.  But what about the person who is lied to?  What happens there?

The one who is told the lie may feel angry, betrayed and ridicules, like they’ve been made a fool of.  It can be belittling and crazy making.  Some people believe that a lie, no matter how small, is a broken trust.  Many people believe that trust is one of the cornerstones in a relationship and when trust is broken they are shaken to the core because what they had believed about their relationship as fundamental is now crumbling underneath them.  They believed there would be truth between each other.  When there is a lie, that truth becomes a joke.

So how do couples heal when there are lies that sit between them?

First, each person deserves to explain and have the other person listen to his and her feelings.  It feels terrible to have been lied to.  It feels terrible to hold secrets and lie to your partner.  Both positions need understanding and compassion.  The one who lied has to become aware of the pain he or she caused the other.  That doesn’t mean you have to fall on your sword and grovel for the next year.  The liars’ job is to realize that his or her actions caused pain.  Once they realize this then he or she should begin to cultivate compassion for their mate by understanding the hurt they caused.  An apology is part of healing, but it’s more than saying I’m sorry.  Without understanding the depth of the injury; the loss of trust, the embarrassment and the anger, an apology can feel meaningless.

When the injured is heard he or she can feel validated by the partner because the partner really gets the pain he or she caused.  At that time the injured person may want to try and understand what led the partner to tell the lie in the first place.  They may discover that the partner was trying to protect them, only the lie turned out to be a clumsy attempt.

What can develop is true communication, connection between the couple.  Lies are an indication that there’s room for improvement.  In most cases when there is a lie people react by turning away from their partner.  It’s natural to protect yourself when hurt.  But turning toward your partner with understanding and compassion could just bring you exactly what you are after… real closeness and truth.

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How to Stay Focused on the Good in a Relationship

When couples try and work out problems often they get derailed with the pain that sits between them and doesn’t seem to go away.  It’s not that couples don’t want to get closer; it’s just that they are stymied as to how to get around the hurt.  If one or both are carrying around some deep pain, how can the couple get together?

This is a situation people find themselves in, even when they are in counseling.  It’s one thing to understand the pain, resolve the hurt and move on, but sometimes it’s hard to even get to that first step.  So how do you keep two people, who believe they have something special between them, focused on the big picture?

I like to help couples see what’s good in their relationship; find five things that work, five things that make you feel alive, five things that you know to be true, five things that keep you in the relationship because they are good.  If you can find five things that are meaningful to you chances are you are willing to continue to work on the union and you will be able to see a big picture.

So what is the big picture? 

It’s the vision of what your relationship looks like when you are gazing at it through hopeful eyes.  Make sure
you add your senses too.  What does it feel like?  Are you safe and full of love?  What does it smell like?  Is it full of fresh air and forest, or salt and sand from a beach?  Where are you and your mate?  What age are you and your partner?  Maybe you want to write about this image.  Perhaps you want to paint it or draw with pencils.  How ever you may want to solidify your vision you should do so. This is your relationship.  It can be any color you want.  And your partner’s may be totally different.

Maybe that would be a good exercise too.  Both of you create your image of your partnership and then share the visions with each other.  You are both right.  You are both creators of your happiness.  See if there is agreement.  See if there is connection.  See if you like hers better, or his.  Be open to the other’s ideas.  Be grateful for their vision.  Be appreciative that they see themselves with you. 

Agree to work toward your collective visions.  Make a pact to walk the journey together.  These steps are not designed to remove all barriers.  Sometimes old hurts and resentments take focused effort to remove them.  Even so, in my experience, when a couple has a goal, some place to travel to together, they grow a sense of “us”; us on the road together, us building something together, us against the world together.

A sense of “us”, not two people in conflict, not two people separated by resentment, but two people undivided and together.

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Why it’s So Hard to Let Go of Resentment

Even when couples want to improve their relationship, if resentment has built up between them it will stand in the way.  Both know it’s there, no one knows what to do about it.  So what can you do?  One way is to seek counseling learn how to
get rid of it. 

Unfortunately the resentment is not a thing to be destroyed; it has become a part of the person who is holding on to it.  It’s with them when they wake in the morning and think of their mate.  It’s there when they talk to their friends.  It’s present in a conversation with their partner. It’s always there, like a thick fog that surrounds everything.

So when couples ask me what they can do to get rid of it I know the next thing I have to do is start explaining.  Explaining how resentment forms and what it takes to soften and fade.  Couples don’t want to hear me talk about this.  What they really want is for me to just give them tools to help them get rid of it, like buying a shovel when you have to dig up something.  Some couples implore me to give them the secret.  But I know there isn’t one. 

Most people who hold on to resentment believe that the other person has to do something to make the relationship better.  I know this isn’t the magic bullet either.  Releasing resentment in a relationship takes both people: the person who acted in a way that caused the hurt, and the person who is hurting.  Both have to be involved and willing to work through the resentment. 

The first phase is all about becoming aware of one’s part.  It’s not about blaming the other.  Each person must begin an internal dialogue with him or herself to understand what part of the action or event belongs to them.  It there are two people each has a role.  One may feel that the action was done to them and that may be true, but where was the silent partner?  Was he or she unavailable and distant?  Getting in touch with your part is crucial, and it’s the first step in your healing and the relationship’s health.

It can be a pivotal moment in the relationship when each person understands themselves as an individual with unique needs and desires, different then their partners.  The more you notice yourself, and that you are different than your mate, the better equipped you will be to resolve difficult issues between the two of you.  Understanding what you are feeling, and not confusing it with what he or she did to you will go a long way toward repair.

Once you know about your part and can identify your feelings you can ask your partner to hear you. Not fix or change your feelings, but just listen to what is going on inside you.  If someone is holding back some pain from an incident that happened a year or more ago there is still a wound that needs attention.  One way of attending to that pain is to ask the offender to listen to what it feels like to carry around the hurt.

If the goal of the couple is to move through and past the pain, each will have to be involved.  The one who does the listening will have to find a way to just hear the partner’s words.  The listener tries to understand the speaker.  The listener offers a safe place for the speaker to unfold and be heard.

The listener does not try and change the speaker’s words or defend an action.  The listener has the chance to understand why the speaker is holding on to the pain.  The listener has the opportunity to feel what the partner has been feeling.  Sometimes when couples reach this state it’s possible for true repair. Through empathy, feeling another’s pain, awareness can grow.

Perhaps the listener hears something new and wants to make amends.  This also leads to healing.

Because the pain is usually so deep, the process for moving through and beyond resentment must also been deep.  It’s hard to reveal one’s painful truth to another, but if a couple is ready to go this route, the benefits can be amazing. 

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