Some couples have rocky beginnings. Maybe it’s a bad breakup that left you terrified of starting something new, high expectations that turned into quick disappointment or a lie that sets the relationship up for future resentment.
Other couples have it easy right off the bat, but end up going through tough seasons later on. Maybe it’s financial trouble, perpetually heated arguments or mutual feelings of disconnect.
These moments of strain question our sense of comfort, safety and security and leave us feeling helpless, defeated and uncertain about how you’ll make it through.
In her book, Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson describes relationships as lovers being poised delicately on a tightrope. When the winds of doubt and fear begin blowing, we go into panic mode. We either hold on tight to each other or turn away to steady ourselves. As we do this, the rope sways more and more, making our balance unsteady. To stay on the same rope, we must shift with each other’s moves and respond to each other’s emotions. When we connect, we find balance. When we disconnect, we lose our footing and fall off the rope.
How we go from rocky to rock-steady is by being emotionally responsive to each other- even during the tough times. It’s not the difficulties we face as couples that send us careening into a place of hopelessness, but how we tackle those moments side-by-side.
There are so many powerful emotions that arise when we feel insecure. Isolation and the potential loss of the one we love seems catastrophic. Individuals seek couples therapy because, in a sense, they feel like they are fighting for their lives rather than fighting for each other. Through the fights, turmoil and anguish that erupts on the surface, couples are asking the same underlying questions of their partner.
- “Are you there for me?”
- “Do I (and this relationship) matter to you?”
- “Can I trust you?”
So how do we get past these stuck moments and view them not as prolonged ruptures but as part of your relationship survival story? First of all, know that you can. I’ve seen it happen many times over in marriage counseling with couples.
Partners need to understand the raw vulnerabilities and fears behind the disagreements and stay kind to them by tuning in to our partners and showing them that their fears and insecurities have an impact. You are not the angry, bitter spouse or the cold and heartless one that just doesn’t care. Rather, you’re both in a place of entanglement and can’t find your way out. Instead of responding in a harsh way or stonewalling, we need to send clear signals of comfort and caring at a time when our partners needs them the most.
Stay Engaged By Staying Focused On the Present
- What is happening between us right now?
- Look at the familiar cycle that spins you around and around. Know that there is no true “start”
- Consider the negative cycle as the enemy, not each other
Recognize the “Hot Spots,” or Statements To Signal A Plea to Connect
- “Sometimes I feel lonelier in this relationship than when I lived by myself”
- “I needed you at that time so much, and you were distant and cold”
- “I get mad, heck yeah. You don’t seem to care, so I lash out. I want a response…any response”
- “I can never get it right with you so I just give up”
- “I shut down and wait for you to calm down. I don’t want to rock the boat”
Stopping the Cycle
- Are you noticing that re-occurring fight again?
- Stop it in its tracks
- “This is that same place we always go to which gets us nowhere. You lash out and I shut down. We know we have good intentions behind it all. Can we start over?”
For some, it might be difficult to stop these negative interactions from happening. They are so ingrained and permanent that they block any attempts at repair and reconnection. Over time, this toxic pattern erodes the relationship and causes rocky moments that spike out of control. Couples counseling can help break the familiar, yet faulty ways you communicate and develop a more constructive cycle of engagement, awareness and insight.
Even the healthiest relationships go through rocky times. We need a safe haven to manage the stress and we look to our partner for that reassurance. Being in tune with one another creates a caring and secure space to share our needs. This is what takes the relationship out of that rocky place and well on your way to rock steady.