As established in last week’s column: Relationships may be easy in the initial sprint, but difficult to go the marathon distance. (As if you need a column to establish that one!) So let’s roll up our sleeves and get right to it.
What are the perpetual problems that plague most long-term relationships? In my experience, it usually comes down to sex, money, and “tone.” These are what typically fuel the “marriage-go-rounds” couples become trapped in. Tone is probably at the top of the dysfunctional hit parade. That is what it usually comes down to: the way we talk to each other.
So there is the problem; what is the solution? It’s a complex question to answer. But here are three essential ingredients, in my book, to effectuating a conscious/constructive relationship.
When a member of a couple loses the ability to understand where the other person is coming from, it usually means they have crossed through the DMZ and into hostile territory. You may not agree with your spouse, but you owe it to him/her to always make the effort to see why they are feeling or thinking the way they do. Distressed couples will often stubbornly refuse to make the effort to become more empathic.
Here’s a suggestion for restoring compassion and empathy when it has fled the marital dialogue. Separate from your warring spouse, go to your corner and write on a piece of paper what your partner’s point of view of the conflict is. That’s all, nothing else. You aren’t allowed to insinuate your own rebuttal. It is not at all about you, but all about the other. Come back from your corner and read aloud the brilliant and compassionately rendered essay about your loved one’s point of view. You will be surprised at how feeling understood-no matter what the disagreement-can change the tone of the discourse.
Standing in your own truth
If the implicit contract of a marriage or relationship requires you to abandon your truth, your way of seeing things, then you are most likely involved in either a codependent relationship or an abusive one. Strong words, so let me explain. If you can’t describe your feelings of anger, hurt or disappointment to your spouse because it is disallowed-through such typical maneuvers such as shaming or ignoring-then you are being emotionally abused and you don’t have a viable relationship. If you feel you must squelch your feelings and thoughts because it will threaten or destabilize your partner-a common scenario with an alcoholic spouse-then you are codependent and not in a conscious relationship.
What is helpful here is for the individual partners to become more conscious about their own defensive patterns, take responsibility for them, and then learn to communicate in a clear and non discounting way.
Without safety, there is no intimacy. Yet so many distressed relationships devolve into unsafe harbors. Compassion and empathy are exiled. There is no shelter in which one can “stand in their own truth.” Everyone who aspires to a conscious relationship must be aware of what they are doing to promote a safe psychological shelter for their mate. Surely everyone starts out with this intention, but perpetual conflicts will, after awhile, create a militarized zone. The couple soon forgets that they are partnered and see themselves at odds in the pursuit of a shared life.
One simple way that a couple can address this is to write down their “perpetual conflicts”-the ones that reoccur over and over in the relationship-on a 3×5 card. Pick one of the cards; place it on a coffee table as you sit side by side on a sofa and “face” the problem. Then, in this partnered, non adversarial physical space, begin discussing the matter at hand. Speak to one another not as enemies, but as partners who, together, have a problem to solve.
Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his web site/blog at HealthspanWeb.com for more information on the topics covered in this column.