By: Anne Brennan Malec, PsyD, LMFT
Do you want to have a relationship style that meets the needs of the 21st-century family?
This is a style that is mutually beneficial and emotionally rewarding. This is a relationship in which responsibility, accountability, and decision-making are shared. Marriage counseling can help, if your relationship is not where you’d like it to be. In order to achieve this, with or without the help of a counselor, you should try to do the following:
Communication in a relationship works like oxygen.
Couples who come into my office for couples therapy, either during individual sessions or joint marriage counseling sessions, never say the problem is that they are talking too much; they often say they have a problem with communication. I rarely take that to mean the partners are not talking, just not communicating successfully. For many of us, our natural instinct is to avoid situations that feel complicated and/or confrontational. Individual or marriage counseling can help you develop healthy communication skills to improve your relationship.
Make the talking space emotionally safe.
Both partners in a relationship need to know that their concerns, feelings, anxieties, complaints, plans, and dreams will be heard respectfully. Communication works best if you come to the discussion table with an open, patient, and tolerant mind. If a partner does not feel safe, they will most likely back away from interaction, physically or emotionally. To be able to share openly with your partner, you must know you will not be yelled at, belittled, dismissed, invalidated, rejected, or ignored. If you’re unsure how to break bad habits, a counselor can offer a new perspective and advice.
Don’t play childish games.
When you expect your partner to just know what you are thinking or feeling, you risk setting yourself up to be disappointed. You also risk blaming your partner for failing at a game he or she could not possibly win; this will only add to your relationship grief. Keeping score or testing your partner is toxic to a relationship’s success. It is more effective to tell your partner how you are feeling and what you need. Playing a guessing game or sulking only serves to frustrate both of you and creates emotional distance. Take the time to tell your partner how you are feeling, without prompting during a marriage counseling session. It helps if you do so respectfully, remaining mindful of your tone of voice.
Set aside time for a daily check-in.
Use this 20 minutes of screen-free time to catch up on the day and discuss what is coming up the following day. This can make for smoother mornings in getting yourselves and kids (if you have them) out of the house. I know you may be tired, but sitting and talking to your partner about your day should be restorative, not exhausting. Some days, you may do more listening than talking; such time is critical to a couple’s long-term connection. If you and your partner have bigger picture items that need to be discussed, scheduling a weekly check-in meeting may be helpful, with or without a therapy session to help. Such issues might include financial or work goals, parenting concerns, household division of labor, or other issues that are troubling you. Some couples do better with an agenda communicated beforehand. Also, this doesn’t have to be a formal meeting at the dining table. This can be at night while you walk the dog, maybe in the morning while you have coffee, or maybe you meet for lunch.
Slow things down.
In our busy fast-paced lives, we sometimes forget to stop and breathe. Let your partner know you hear and understand them by being present, by mindfully being in the moment. Focus on what your partner is saying rather than what your response will be. Slowing things down lessens the risk of escalation, which reduces the chance of getting conversationally derailed, and can cut down on (or eliminate) the feeling that you need marriage counseling to repair your relationship.
Take an adult time-out.
If you feel stressed, you do not need to sit and accept the grief and anger, but do not just get up and walk out without saying anything. You can say something like, “I’m feeling overwhelmed and I don’t want to say anything that I’m going to regret tomorrow. So I am going to stop this now because I’m getting angry and I’m not feeling heard.” Using ‘I’ statements is key. Avoid using blameful language such as, “You are a jerk” or “You are not listening to me.” Take ownership of your need to pause the conversation and remain respectful of your partner. If your partner walks out of the room to seek personal space, do not chase after him or her. Leave your partner alone until he or she is feeling calmer.
Sharing a different perspective than your partner should not be perceived as a lock of love. Both of you have the responsibility to bring structure, listening skills, and emotional self-soothing to the discussion table. If you do not practice the skills, discussions can lead to arguments and unresolved issues and ultimately resentment of your partner or emotional shutdown. A skilled clinician can help you have the discussions and teach you some of the skills that I describe in a more structured environment. Contact Symmetry Counseling today to schedule a relationship or marriage counseling session at one of our two Chicago locations.