Human beings are designed to be in relationships as it helps us to feel connected to others – we are, after all, social animals. If we get our relationship dynamics right, it can help us to feel supported, boost self-esteem and feel more fulfilled in life.
Often couples come to me saying that they are having communication problems. This always needs to be further broken down and understood. Usually what couples are really saying is that they are in regular conflict or generally not feeling fulfilled by the relationship, but they are unsure as to why.
Any communication is an act of trying to express something to another person. Usually this is a clear, coherent message such as ‘I love you’. However, at times we may find ourselves getting into conflict and we can’t make sense of the origin or the meaning of the situation. In other words, arguments can be symptoms of a deeper root cause. We can end up saying things we don’t really mean and can cause confusion around the source of the actual problem.
I find with couples that often conflict is caused due to emotional needs not being met. When was the last time you asked yourself, what are my emotional needs and how do I get them met by my partner?
At a deeper, and perhaps more subconscious level, events from childhood may trigger disturbances in a relationship.
In my experience, common themes that interfere with relationships include: feelings of low self-esteem/lack of self-value, trust issues, and a feeling of being emotionally uncontained which can create anxiety.
When these unresolved and incredibly painful areas are triggered by our partner, we may react by shutting down, withdrawing or resorting to verbal attack. This can sometimes be because we are confusing the real-time argument we are having with overwhelming feelings and triggers from the past. During these moments of heightened emotion, it is hard to differentiate between what is actually going on in the adult relationship and what is in fact being triggered from the past.
While as couples we need to support one another and be mindful of each other’s triggers and sensitive areas, we are not responsible for the other party’s past. In my experience, the greater the consciousness we can have when negotiating these areas, the better. I believe that we have a responsibility as individuals to look after ourselves when in relationships, and to aim to be the best version of ourselves as possible to enable a successful and fulfilling relationship.
INDEPENDENCE VS TAKING RISKS & BUILDING TRUST
When meeting couples who have come from a background of parents who divorced or separated, I often hear stories of children who have evolved into emotionally independent adults. These are people who perhaps came from families who did not often, if ever, share or process emotions together. These children learnt to cope with things by themselves, keeping emotions to themselves. When in an adult relationship, they may struggle to be able to do this, as it does not feel natural. This may be fi ne for some couples, but for others I have seen that this ‘nonsharing’ has interrupted the growth of trust.
As adults, we may need to challenge how we did things as children and do things differently. This may involve taking some risks and beginning to share more. By doing this, we may begin to build trust by being vulnerable and sharing our emotional world with our partner.
Key to healthy relationships is the ability to negotiate successfully. This is where the relationship wins and less about each partner having to compromise. This can be very difficult for some couples, especially where too much independence is operating. Negotiation is about collaborating, being on each other’s team, and making decisions that fit for the two of you.
KEY TIPS FOR RELATIONSHIP INTELLIGENCE
Couples often create negative relationship patterns. These patterns often feel very ‘stuck’ and can make it difficult for partners to make sense of what is actually happening. I often see couples caught in this dilemma. They love each other, but can’t work out why they argue about the ‘same silly things’ all the time.
This is where building up some skills and thinking around ‘relationship intelligence’ can help. Healthy and fulfilling relationships don’t always come easy; we have to work at them and work at them together.
Try these tips:
- Stand back from your relationship and have reflective conversations with your partner, such as: ‘What are your emotional needs and how can they best be met?’ Revisit these – they can change over time.
- Understand when your emotional needs may not be being met and how this brings about conflict. Take ownership of your needs and explain to your partner why these are so important to you.
- Understand your triggers. Take the time to understand yourself. Ask yourself why you feel so strongly about certain things. How does it connect to your childhood and previous relationship experiences? When we start to make these connections, it gives us the conscious ability to choose either to keep these same meanings or shift these and look at things differently, challenging your ‘self’.
- How independent are you? What does this contribute to the relationship and what does it hold back/erode? What risks could you take to share more and be more collaborative? If you did this, what do you need your partner to do to encourage you to change in this way?
- Explore the positive relationship patterns: the times when things work really well and make sense of what is nourishing at these times.
- How easy is it to meet your partner’s needs? Is there anything that gets in the way that you need to work through and understand?
- Look after yourself, connect with the things that nurture you, and make yourself happy outside of the relationship.
Remember that we all generally act with good intent in relationships and that you have created your relationship together. You need to work as a team when making sense of how it works and which areas you can change. Often couples become polarised from each other to protect themselves, or because they feel angry/upset/frustrated with the other. To change patterns and understand triggers, look after each other, and allow time for much self-reflection. By doing this you can be clearer about what you need, what the other needs, and, most importantly, why.
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