Working as an Associate Marriage and Family therapist who works primarily in the substance abuse field, the vast majority of the couples that I encounter are facing their own challenges and in search of solutions. Whether working with couples in my capacity as a therapist, working on my own relationship, or talking about relationships with my close friends, there are three issues that seem to transcend relationship, circumstance, and stage of life.
In this article, I have identified common relational issues, shared my personal and professional experience, and highlighted leaders in the field that you can read if you wish to improve your relationship or prepare for a future one. At the end of the day, all of us — myself included — can do things to improve our relationships.
Many couples I see have come to therapy having identified their core issue as ‘communication.’ But communication issues can mean a lot of different things.
Are they arguing? Are they isolating themselves from one another? Are they having trouble understanding one another? The first distinction to make is between verbal and nonverbal communication.
Disagreements and arguments are a normal and healthy part of any relationship, and how couples talk to each other during these times is incredibly important. Drs. John and Julie Gottman have identified what they refer to as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which are red flags for any relationship.
The four horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. In short, criticism involves blaming and using absolutes such as “always” and “never.” Contempt involves treating your partner as ‘less than’ through the use of sarcasm, mimicking, eye-rolling, etc. Defensiveness involves looking for excuses when feeling unjustly blamed. Stonewalling involves one party shutting down and completely withdrawing from the interaction.
While it can be uncomfortable to identify these traits in relationships, the truth is that rather than being indicators of impending doom, the process of identifying them takes power away from this reactive process and gives autonomy back to both individuals. Identifying these unhelpful patterns is the first step, and then you can begin implementing simple antidotes.
Given that communication is going to continue to be a work in progress, it naturally follows that it is incredibly important to learn the art of reconciliation after a disagreement has gone awry.
My fiancée and I were lucky enough to stumble across How We Love by Milan and Kay Yerkovich. How We Love identifies five distinct ‘love styles’ and goes on to explain how each pairing of love styles has its own ‘core pattern.’ After reading the book, we quickly identified that I am what is known as a ‘vacillator’ and Erica is a ‘pleaser.’ The core pattern the Yerkoviches identified for the vacillator-pleaser pairing eerily identified our process of arguments and attempted reconciliation down to the last detail.
Once again, identifying the issue was not the final solution. However, it did provide Erica and me with a starting point and a roadmap of what our next steps would be as we moved forward.
Additionally, the process of finding the book, reading it together, talking about our love styles, and formulating solutions brought us closer to the solution rather than the problem. We have even come up with our own code word for when we notice ourselves starting to get pulled into our core pattern again.
The journey of working together to find a way to reconcile more effectively can be just as helpful toward reconciling as the destination. The process of working together and communicating the desire to improve your relationship repairs and builds up trust and intimacy.
How to make time
Time is one of the most common topics I have encountered while working with couples. The common scenario is that one partner wants to have more quality time together and the other partner feels pressure and expresses defensiveness.
Couples can sometimes interpret ‘quality time’ as meaning they need to spend any free time they have together. This is not only unnecessary, it’s also unhelpful, because it can place undue stress on each partner to meet all of the other’s needs. And that is simply an impossible task for any one human.
It is essential to any healthy relationship for partners to spend time apart. Whether the time is spent in solitude, with friends, or with family, this time allows each partner to have social and intimacy needs met in other ways and builds/strengthens resources for the relationship. The time apart also provides the couple with perspective on the relationship that they would not have if they spent all of their free time together.
When you are desiring more quality time with one another, it is helpful to be intentional about how you would like to spend that time. Consider choosing an activity to do together rather than just setting aside a block of time. The process of communicating to find an activity that you both agree upon is one way to increase intimacy. And if you can’t agree on a specific activity, consider taking turns enjoying each other’s activities.
If you’ve taken the time to read this article, it’s a testament to your desire to thrive and experience connection in your relationship. I encourage you to dig into the links I have provided, and continue your own journey of growth in your current or future relationship!