If your relationship has been struggling, it will take time and effort to create lasting change. Yet there are ways you can begin to improve your relationship right now. A great place to begin is to raise your awareness of the various thoughts and feelings that happen inside of you. It sounds simple but the ability to notice our inner experience empowers us to create better outer experiences. If you like the idea of starting the journey to improve your relationship, keep reading.
Our feelings influence our actions
Recently, I spent the day assisting at an online EFT couples therapy training, which was fantastic. What followed was a relaxed evening. Yet I was feeling slightly sick so my life partner made dinner for me and the kids. As he was cooking he listened to me share what I learned that day at the training.
He is a good sport right?! Couples Therapy training highlights are not ideal conversation for many!
I went to bed early that night. After falling asleep, I woke up an hour or so later and snuggled up with him.
Normally, he welcomes late night snuggles. But this time he was annoyed that I woke him. I told him I was still feeling sick. He got up to make me some tea.
Although I noticed he was annoyed, I felt cared for. I think to myself, I wake him up late at night and he goes to make me tea! What a guy! I looked forward to his return.
He did not come back.
Instead my daughter arrived with my tea. Moments later I heard the TV go on. One second ago I was basking in my love and appreciation of his. Now, within an instant, I am upset.
I wish I could say that I noticed my frustration, took a deep breath, and lovingly drew him back to bed. The couples therapist in me knows exactly what to do next.
Instead, I walked up to him with my frustration leading the way. It did not go over well.
If you have worked with me privately, or been in my workshops, you will know what I mean by the following...
We stepped into our cycle
You can imagine how stunned he was initially. He made me dinner. He listened. He made me tea. Now, he just wants to zone out in hopes of getting drowsy again.
Yet the moment I heard the TV go on I was hit with anger. On the surface, all we see is my frustration. But if we could have slowed down, and looked deeper, we would have understood that there was so much more that was not seen or acknowledged, by myself or him.
Inside of me, and inside of all of us, are emotions, thoughts, perceptions, fears, longings, and needs swirling around. It is just that most of the time, we are not aware of them.
Notice your inner experiences
Maybe you have had moments like this too. Things are great one second, and then - Bam! - the next second you are triggered. If this resonates, I encourage you to take a moment right now to think of a time when this happened.
What was happening just before you got triggered? Did your partner say or do something. It could even be a tone of voice, facial expression, or a particular behavior that tends to be very upsetting. For example, when Jeff is on his phone when I am trying to talk to him about something important this is a trigger for me.
Our view of self and other
When we are triggered, all sorts of ideas can come to us. We might even believe them, if only for brief time. These thoughts and perceptions are generally not supportive of us, our partner, or the relationship. We may begin to protect ourselves in ways that push our partner away. In the meantime, just notice if you have an inner experience (or thoughts, perceptions, beliefs) that can send you into a space of distress.
What were you feeling in your body? What were you telling yourself? What was happening inside of you?
Your partner has the same thing going on too
It is highly likely that your partner gets triggered too and may begin to dive deep into a negative spiral of thoughts, perceptions and fears.
"How did I end up here again... I am not good enough... I can't make her happy... I am trying so hard but can't get it right...".
Side with your partner
Often in the midst of an argument, we blast our partner using the same tone that we typically reserve only for ourselves. Does this sound right to you? Recognize that most of us are terribly hard on ourselves. See if you can side with your partner instead of the voice that is tearing you both down.
When a couple sits in front of me and shares details of their struggles, I truly see both perspectives. It makes sense to me why she did what she did. It also makes perfect sense to me why her partner did what he did. I have extensive training in being unbiased. Yet everyone can do this.
A great exercise, that you can do right now, is this:
Think of a recent argument. Now, put yourself into your partner's shoes. What was their day like? What stress are they facing? What was happening in his world that day with work and kids? Did they get good sleep the night before? How were they feeling in general? What kind of tone, facial expression, and body language were they observing from you?
Go through this in your mind or write it down. My guess is that by the time you are finished, you will have a more balanced view. Your partner's reactions will likely begin to make sense.
As I do this exercise myself, here is what I notice:
This is a particularly stressful time for my partner. Added to that stress is poor sleep and nutrition over the last few nights. That night had fallen asleep and I woke him. He was concerned about me and wanted to take care of me so he went to get me tea. As he did this, he became wide awake. He figured he would hand the tea off, and watch some TV, as he knew it would make him drowsy. He knew I needed sleep. He had NO idea that I was wide awake too. He had no clue that I was thinking about how much I loved him and feeling excited for his return. When I walked up to him to "talk" all he saw was my frustration as it came rushing through my body language, tone, and facial expressions.
As I do this exercise, I notice my shoulders begin to drop. I feel relieved.
All couples veer off course. We will never ever always get it right. So what do we do after things go wrong?
We repair as soon as we can.
Sometimes this means we reach to each other right away because both are present, tuned in, and able to stop the cycle from taking over. Other times it means we cool our jets first. We may need some time or space to get back to balance. Only then can we find each other again.
The next morning Jeff and I repaired. We talked about where we went wrong. We owned our moves. We shared only what mattered, we each advocated for our self, and we both listened and cared.
Cristina Trette, MA, MFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in Encinitas, California. She inspires others to cultivate great relationships, joyful families, and vibrant wellbeing. To learn more visit www.cristinatrette.com.