Nothing is Perfect Forever
Sally and Richard last wrote about how to set realistic and achievable goals for your relationship.
Even if you accomplish your goals, don’t imagine there will not be ups and downs in your relationship. If you are wondering what actions or behaviours you need to change, here are two rules of thumb to help you decide: If something works, don’t ‘fix it’. Just continue doing more of the same. If something isn’t working, do something different!
Jenny was very angry with Peter (all names and circumstances have been changed to protect anonymity). “We never talk anymore.”
When couples aren’t getting along, they tend to generalise. It’s our experience, that however long-standing Jenny and Peter’s problems were, there must have been times when they did talk together. There are always problem free times, or times when problems are less severe. These exceptions contain clues to solving current problems, for by examining what’s different between problem and problem-free times, we can learn what to do more of to make more time problem-free. Unfortunately, we’re often blind to these exceptions.
Causes of blindness
If the problem is long-standing, more than one exception is sometimes needed to convince a couple that the relationship is on safer ground or the exception is more than a fluke.
Also, when we notice something about another person, we usually find it easier to label it – “he’s a happy person”. When there is conflict, partners tend to do the same thing and develop negative images or labels for each other – “He isn’t a listener”, “She’s always getting on at me”, which gets in the way of noticing exceptions that can put your relationship back on track.
Eight ways to find the exceptions – what works in your relationship
Notice what’s different about the times when the two of you are getting along. What’s different about your thinking, feelings, speaking or other behaviour? Knowing this tells you what you need to do to initiate and to maintain the good times. With Jenny and Peter, they got along and communicated better when Peter was able to let go of stress build up from his demanding work.
If you have difficulty recalling current exceptions, try to remember the best of the past. Jenny and Peter remembered that things were much better when they took time to go to the pub once a fortnight and relaxed.
You don’t have to like it; you just have to do it. At swift we sometimes hear, “But I shouldn’t have to do that, he should be prepared to talk to me whenever I want.” Sometimes we feel like this because we don’t understand our partner’s needs. Jenny didn’t realise how stressful Peter’s job was. We suggested that if she wanted more talk, she should allow Peter to de-stress when he got home, before engaging in ‘talk’.
Focus on what is doable or possible. Both Jenny and Peter said that things were better when they both had less demanding jobs that allowed more holiday time. But both agreed they couldn’t easily change jobs for at least a couple of years.
Don’t think that a recurring problem requires a new solution. Jenny and Peter had come to counselling with the idea that they had to do something radically different to make their relationship work. But there had been other times when communication had been poor and they had solved it. Like other couples, they had forgotten what had worked for them in the past.
Pay attention to how problems end. This may unravel the behaviours that allow a couple to transition from problem to getting along. We asked Jenny and Peter how they got from angry silence to talking reasonably. It happened as Jenny stopped pressurising Peter to communicate and left him alone for a while.
If there are no exceptions, identify the best of the worst. When is the problem less intense or shorter in duration? Then notice what’s different about these times. Peter said that even if he felt stressed, he was more able to talk with Jenny over a meal.
Notice what’s different about the times the problem occurs but it doesn’t bother you. Knowing how to keep from getting upset is a good way to diffuse a problem. Jenny said she could tolerate Peter’s silence if she was busy, or if Peter told her what had happened to put him into what he called his ‘silent mode’.
For Peter and Jenny, having identified a number of exceptions when their communication worked, they were both able to determine the part each played in making the exceptions happen. Over a couple of months, they were to make the exceptions into a habit and improve their communication dramatically.
This article, written by swift counsellors, was recently published in the Swindon Evening Advertiser. Go to the Library to see others in this series.
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