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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When It Feels Like It Will Never Work

Sometimes in a relationship a fight may bring out such deep feelings of being torn apart there might be an accompanying fear that the union is broken. 

Sometimes the fights are so painful that it feels useless to even think about trying to work things out.

Isn’t this evidence that the relationship just doesn’t work?  How much more proof do we need to know that we can not get along and we are making each other miserable.

Of course you would think this.  Of course you would feel as if your relationship was on the rocks.  Who wouldn’t?  What crystal ball do you have to tell you things could be different?

As a couples counselor I am familiar with people believing that their partnership is in shambles.  I have heard from all types of couples about the terrible things that sit between them, and I have been a witness to some pretty difficult times in a therapy session.

I know it feels terrible to be involved in something that just feels wrong.  I know it weighs heavy on both people when they get mixed up in it.

I also know that every time there is big emotion, it’s a sign that people are becoming vulnerable and dropping deeper into what could become a rich connection with each other.

The emotion tells us of pain.  Pain in a relationship is usually present when one or both people are desperate for something.  They are seeking something from the other.  It could be understanding, closeness, connection, tenderness, intimacy, love.

It’s usually something from deep inside the soul that desires this.  And it’s probably been a deep longing for awhile. Unfortunately all attempts to fill the desires and longings have fallen flat.  The partner hasn’t delivered.  The partner isn’t available.  He/she doesn’t understand, connect, have time for, need, want, and desire me.

This is the message the person receives when their attempts at connecting fall short.  If we receive the message that our mate can’t fill our deepest longings, we might get pretty angry, and we might even get really mad at them.

So of course there will be big arguments.  Of course there will be people raising their voices and saying things that they might not say in other circumstances.  That’s what we as humans do when we have a lot of energy stored up inside us.  We have to let it out, and we do, at our partners, especially when things are not going well.

So do fights mean the relationship is on the brink?  No, it just means there is stuff to work on.  It means there is an opportunity to understand what each person needs.  It means there’s hope; hope that when we understand each other we can give our partner what they want.  And that’s what everyone is looking for, to be understood by their mate, to be listened to when they need an ear, to be treated tender because the world is a lot better knowing we’re loved.

Don’t let a big fight tell you something else, that if we loved each other you wouldn’t do this to each other.  This would be true in a fairy tale, not in real life.  Fighting doesn’t mean you are wrong for each other.  Fighting means you are desperate for understanding.  

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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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