Believing that we understand our partners and that they should understand us is the biggest source of trouble. It is what comes up again and again in my work with couples
. The problem is that it sounds really obvious but its actually far more complex. Even the strongest and longest of relationships can struggle and once a relationship
starts to have unresolved issues then intimacy and connection can be affected.
External factors are often very influential in difficulties arising, bereavements,
, redundancies, children arriving and leaving, health challenges and traumatic events can result in a couple feeling like they are working against each other rather than pulling together.
I asked my Senior Associate, Marybeth Mendenhall
, a Family Therapist with a great deal of experience in working with families, couples, adolescents and individuals to talk to me about what she finds in her work. “During times of stress our sense of safety is challenged, and this triggers coping mechanisms that are built on our assumptions of the best ways to stay safe. Assumptions are based upon unique life experiences and therefore potentially reveal huge differences between partners”.
For my part I think about this in how we share many of the same needs for example, family harmony, to be a good partner, or parent and yet our strategies will be very different. I remember being at a conference where we were asked to say how love was shown in our families. I was amazed by the range of responses including time, holidays, education, family events, food, travel, working together, fun, looking after the older family members, being given the opportunity to go away, being encouraged to try new things… the list went on. I still think about that when people say they don’t feel loved - it sounds simple but actually there is so much to understand. And time and again couples struggle because they just cannot understand why their partners are behaving in a certain way when they would behave completely differently in the same situation.
“Couples often struggle to reach a full understanding around a point of conflict because they do not feel heard by the other. A major part of my work is to help couples develop listening and conflict resolution skills.” states Marybeth.
Marybeth and I put our heads together and came up with some core guiding principles:
1 Words like “love” are short cuts – when talking to each other ask what they mean when they say that.
2 Learn how to improve your communication skills. For example, if you feel hurt by something that your partner do not assume that the intention was to hurt you, instead say how you felt and ask if that was what had been intended.
3 Never underestimate the possible impact of change, difficult times and stress.
3 If you are struggling then do not hesitate to seek professional help. Many couples seek help when it is too late - when there is too much misunderstanding and hurt and not enough energy and commitment left to make the changes required.
In the next edition Marybeth will write in more detail about the techniques she uses in working with couples.
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