Relationships are hard. Everyone laughs knowingly when I say that. But you can’t really remember just how hard they are until yours is hard once again. They are precious and therefor require a lot of work. Everyone talks about the fear of leaving a relationship which of course is scary. But the real work sets in when you decide you are going to stay. Maybe you decide this every day, picking your partner over and over again.
When we feel like we are under water in our relationship often it is because we are bumping up against each others “baggage”. My stepmother once said to me “Everyone brings baggage to a relationship we just have to make sure that our baggage matches up.” We all come into a relationship with beliefs about the relationship that…you got it…often come from your first relationships…your parents. We experience what is called transference. Which means we transfer our feelings from our primary caretakers to other important people in our lives like our partners. So if your dad was really strict you may find yourself submitting to your partner all the time and feeling really angry and resistant about it. If your mother left your family when you were young everything and anything that even slightly seems like a leaving will be much deeper and darker for you. In essence you are working out the power of what has happened to you in the past in your present relationship. This is supposed to happen. You are supposed to grow. Sometimes that growing can be very painful. The key is to work together on not working it out all over one another.
And of course there will be you folks out there who will say we never fight. To which I say Uh Oh. Are you holding stuff in? Do you say how you feel? All couples have disagreements. And then there are the glorious times…and those can and often do occur in the most simple of moments. An “I love you” from your sleepy partner when you have been up all night. The first few moments of coming home from your long day to your family and breathing a sigh of relief.
Staying above water: Points of navigation
Childish: When you bump up against each other’s baggage in the relationship chances are it feels really intense. That is because things from your childhood tend to feel much more overwhelming and encompassing than emotions from the present or recent past. It is important to understand this because these issues will feel harder to navigate. Do not mistake these feelings as having to do solely with your current relationship.
Cognitive Scale: Using a cognitive scale can help. Cognitive refers to your thoughts about yourself in reference to the world, situations, and people in your life. A simple scale starts with 1-10, 1=completely content and relaxed, 10 = feelings you experience during traumatic events, Physical Assaults, Natural Disasters, Murder, Death of a child etc. The way you use this is when you have feelings about a situation that fall between 7- 10 which is not a traumatic event this means that something that happened in the past is probably coming up for you. For example you have a disagreement with your boss which falls between a 7-10 in terms of your feelings. Maybe your father was very abusive to you and therefor any male authority figure triggers this kind of reaction. The enormity of your response to a pretty average experience can be scary. Therefor simply knowing what is happening by using this scale can help the situation feel more manageable.
Inquiry: When your feelings are registering in the higher range on the cognitive scale here are questions to ask yourself that can be helpful. How do I feel?(be as specific as possible). When have I felt like this before in my life? If you are not sure take five minutes to write or meditate on the feelings you are having in your body and heart. When you had this experience before what happened? How did you react? How can you handle the present situation differently?
Recovery: When you have the answers to these questions give yourself some time to recover from the feelings especially if they are the first time you are encountering them. Write them, draw them, express them. Remember these feelings will eventually stop and you will get through this. It can be hard as hell. Be gentle!
Space another dimension: Space really does bring another dimension to your relationship, always, but especially when you are fighting. Get out. Change your environment. Go see your friend. Take your kids to a movie. Experience something different. When things are good this gives the relationship texture and enrichment giving yourselves something else to share with one another. When the relationship is tough it brings a renewed perspective. Sometimes things get so dark between two people that you need a break from one another if only for an hour or two.
Fill in name here interruptous: This is something that we do to each other all the time. We do not fully listen to the other person, we interrupt them because we are so sure we know what they are going to say. Not only do we interrupt their flow of thoughts and expression but we do not know what that person is going to say unless we listen to them.
Emotional mad libs: This goes really well with interruptous. We think we know how someone is feeling or how they are going to finish a sentence so we finish it our own heads and assume that we are right and act off that information. I had a couple the other day who had decided to come in for more couples counseling. Reba said lets make another appointment. John assumed that Reba meant the following week. Reacted to his own incorrect assumption before clarifying his thought with her. In a matter of moments both people were not talking. Reba clarified that she had meant 3 or 4 weeks from that moment and John apologized for not clarifying. This a perfect example of how communication breaks down when we think we know what our partner is going to say without asking them. The assumptions often have nothing to do with our partners and thus the old saying assuming makes an ass out of u and me.
Jumping ship: Don’t talk about leaving unless that is really what you are contemplating doing. This constant “should I stay or go” approach wreaks havoc on the stability of your life. It also blinds us to what is actually the problem at that moment. It leaves us crushed about the prospect of possibly needing to leave the person we love and then ill equipped to deal with the actual problem, picking the kids up late constantly, needing date nights, needing to listen to each other without making assumptions.
Much like being underwater when sounds and sights become murky and tend to take on a form of their own so do our thoughts during times of trouble in our relationships especially when we are encountering feelings from the past. Talk to your partner. Tell them what is happening and how your are feeling. Listen to each other and fully allow one another to finish thoughts before speaking. Remember love is the greatest force and it is resilient when cared for. When you come up from under water breaking through the surface into a bright and seemingly other world this is often how it feels when we have come through something together as a couple. Renewed. Excited. Slightly tired but mostly hopeful. Often from trouble we grow together, become closer than before and come out trusting one another more.
(c) Cori Grachek, 2010