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**The Relationship Rehab Series focuses on the intersection between mental health and intimate relationships. Specifically we look at ways to optimize your love life through psychologically proven practices.**
Good relationships are key to great mental health.
In their paper Intimate Relationships and Psychopathology, researchers Mark Whisman and Donald Baum find that “relationship discord is associated with poorer outcome for individual-based treatments for psychopathology…”
This means folks who experience consistent strife with their significant other tend to do poorly in individual therapy.
It goes without saying that the opposite also appears to be true – those who have positive intimate relationships have a better chance of recovering from severe mental illness.
Here at MSB we want you to have the tools to have that stellar relationship or relationships. This is why we’re starting the Relationship Rehab series, a series of practical resources to help you improve interpersonal relationships.
Starting the Conversation
So without further ado, we’re going to jump in to our first topic: How to Start the Conversation. How can we get a partner or spouse on the bandwagon of fixing an unhappy relationship?
Think of this scenario, a couple has been together for 10 years and have not just grown apart but have actively built up a lot of resentment towards each other. They don’t communicate much and when they do, they do so through arguing. Neither is very happy.
As bad as this sounds, it’s actually a fairly normal for us to fall into these patterns in relationships. And since it’s normal, it’s not a difficult fix.
The problem is that at some point, one or both parties has so much resentment they don’t want to try any more. So what seems like an easy fix to us on the outside, is a huge emotional task to those actually living within the relationship. Ugh!
It’s okay, we’re going to break this down into steps.
Your very first task is to get your partner on board. Great, cool. But how do you do that when there’s so much resentment they don’t even want to look at you, let alone discuss your relationship?
Never fear- here are some practical steps to starting the conversation without having to push too hard.
Step One: Take a Look at Your Own Behavior
First and foremost is to stop focusing on your partner.
I know, I know – it seems totally counterintuitive. After all, they’re the ones who hurt you! They’re in the wrong here. They’re the ones who need to change, right?
Wrong. Here’s your hard to swallow pill for the day.
It takes two to tango. No matter how convicted you are that they’re the bad guy – there are things you’re also doing that make an intimate relationship difficult.
So step one is to take a good hard look in the mirror and start noticing the negative patterns you’re contributing to the relationship.
For me, I know I spent a lot of time projecting onto my husband. I would tell him “you never spend any time with me.” or “I feel so invisible to you.”
This understandably confused my spouse who, while sometimes forgetting to be present, actually does spend a lot of time with me. He often felt like he wasn’t good enough as a husband and would in turn shut down.
It wasn’t until I was forced to take a step back that I realized why I was hurting. It was because I wasn’t fulfilling my own basic emotional needs through self care. After I began to focus on my needs, our relationship got a lot better.
That’s all to say, it’s really important to recognize your contribution to the breakdown of communication and intimacy before you go to your spouse asking them to change. Or else you’ll hurt both of your feelings, causing more resentment.
This step can take months or even years to figure out but it’s worth it on a lot of different levels. Individual and couples counseling will be your greatest tool here.
Step Two: Break through the Stone Wall
A lot of times if we’ve built up enough resentment in a relationship something called “stonewalling” can happen to one or both sides.
Basically it’s when you shut down to avoid conflict. Stonewalling includes:
- Being passive aggressive
- Mentally shutting off during a conflict
- Physically turning away/leaving during an argument
- Giving the silent treatment to your partner
- Withholding intimacy
Stonewalling is a perfectly normal reaction to the stress of conflict in a relationship. The problem is, while it’s natural, it’s really ineffective in the long term. In fact it’s quite damaging and one of the main predictors of divorce according to Dr. John Gottman.
Your task on step two is to find out what makes your partner shut down and stop doing those things during arguments.
For some people they shut down when feeling accused. For others it’s when their spouse raises their voice. Knowing these things about your partner may not stop stonewalling altogether, but it will absolutely help.
Once you’ve completed this step and smashed the stone wall, you’ll be able to have a much more productive conversation about your relationship.
Step Three: Use “I Feel” Statements
Once you’ve gotten through the stonewall, it’s important to stay on good terms while your spouse’s defenses are down.
This is where “I feel” statements come into play.
As the old saying goes, you catch a lot more flies with honey than with vinegar.
When you want to start a productive conversation with your spouse, use honey: don’t accuse, yell, demean, or do anything aggressive even if you’re really mad.
Instead approach the situation with a calm, helpful demeanor. “I feel” statements help to diffuse the tension by turning “ugh, you never have time for me!” into “I feel lonely when we don’t get to spend time together; I wish we could have some more quality time. I miss you.”
Which one sounds more appealing to your spouse’s innate desire to care for you?
It can also be a real eye opener for a partner to learn their loved one feels so lonely, sad or hurt. Sometimes we get so lost in our own feelings of hurt we don’t notice our partner is also suffering.
This is a critical step to forge a deeper connection with your spouse. You both may have been hurting inside for years but never realized it. “I feel” statements bring out the best in couples and never fail to keep a conversation going in the right direction.
Step 4: Stay With the Process
It’s important to remember jumpstarting a relationship is going to be an uphill battle. There’s no way around it. You’re dealing with years of resentment that won’t go away just because you used one “I feel” statement.
You have to keep mindfully re-engaging with your partner in order to build trust. And that’s not always going to be easy considering life stresses.
Yes, backslides are going to happen. Y’all are going to lose patience during this process more than once. It’s only human.
I encourage you to double down during those times. Grind your metaphorical heals in, stick with the process even if it’s hard.
Why? Because you’ve opened up a whole new world of understanding between you and your loved one. You don’t want to lose that. The work you put in in the hard times will surely pay dividends during the good times. I promise.
So there you have it, four essential steps to starting the conversation about fixing your relationship.
As you work through these steps, always remember this: you love your spouse – that’s why you’re with them after all, right? And they love you too. Sometimes that love gets buried under life stuff and things can seem really, really bad. But the love is always there like the blue sky above rain clouds.
So just keep going.
Hopefully these steps serve you as they’ve served us in our relationship. We look forward to sharing Part 2 of the Relationship Rehab Series: Fighting Fair with you soon!
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