How do you heal a broken relationship? How do you trust, again, after someone cheats? How do you reconnect after so many years of living with distance between you? These are a few of my many questions that I hear from clients who are trying to repair their relationships. Unfortunately, most people wait until they are ready to divorce or leave a relationship before they decide to seek couple’s therapy. At this point they have one foot out the door and are saying “Let’s give it one more chance.” That makes my job as your therapist much more difficult because you feel defeated, hopeless and ready to quit. The first thing I have to do is to help you see that there is hope.
Have you ever worked on trying to fix a piece of equipment or even looked for a job in a poor job market with no skills? Then you realize what that level of frustration is like. It is difficult to go back out there and try one more time because you have had one set back after another. What would make the difference in this process? If you were trying to fix a piece of equipment you might want to research the problem on the internet or ask someone else for help. If you were trying to get a job with no success, maybe you should learn some new skills or ask for help from a head hunter or career counselor. In other words, you look for a new approach and somewhere you can find expert help. The new approach and help can provide the hope you need to keep pursuing a solution.
Growing up, you learned about fairytale weddings, but not a whole lot about what it really takes to keep love and caring alive for the long haul. According to the latest statistics, 41% of first marriages and 60% of second marriages end in divorce. Even the strongest relationships get off track sometimes, because of the stresses of living, mismatch of expectations, or what author Dr. Sue Johnson calls “attachment injuries” – ways in which we fail to hold & comfort each other during key moments of need.
Tips for healing your relationship
Listening to when your partner speaks, make an effort to stay mentally present. Open your heart and take down your defenses. It’s not about defending yourself, but about trying to understand your partner and learning to fulfill each other’s needs. You are both fighting for the same thing so you are on the same side, remember that. Listen and observe for nonverbal signs of emotion. Does she have an angry expression on her face or sadness in her eyes? Is his body language open and reaching towards you or closed off and guarded? What do you think your partner is feeling? What are the needs she has that are not being met (such as for love, companionship, understanding, control, or respect)? The best way to soothe an angry spouse is to let him know they are heard and & accepted. Acknowledge his unmet needs and express that you are willing to make changes to help meet them.
Try to understand what your partner feels and verify with him that you understand him clearly, pay attention to what feelings surface in you when you observe him feeling this way. What feelings are being triggered in you? Ask yourself what is really going on here. Why am I feeling this way? Often expressions of anger are actually feelings of being stuck, sad, insecure, or lonely. Staying present with your partner, and connecting with her deeper feelings, perhaps feelings of pain because she is in real pain will help you empathize with her. Be empathetic by letting your partner know that you want to understand. Your first instinct in hearing your partner’s distress may be to try to solve the problem or give advice. Often this advice comes across as critical or judgmental, which makes things worse. On the other hand, staying emotionally engaged and expressing compassion can provide healing comfort and connection. Many times, that is all she needs.
Being compassionate and understanding of your partner’s feelings helps to show empathy. However, don’t crawl in the hole with them. In other words, if your partner expresses that they are depressed and anxious; do not take those feelings on. Many spouses will express to me that they just want their partner to be happy. They are angry, depressed and anxious because their spouse in unhappy. As I mentioned earlier, your first instinct is to try and solve the problem. Unfortunately, you cannot fix their feelings. You might make changes in your behavior that will improve the relationship but you are not responsible for making your partner This makes you codependent and is taking the responsibility for their happiness away from your partner. If you are responsible for their happiness then they are not. This will cause your partner to feel inadequate and resentment will build. You will hear statements like, “You used to make me happy but I am not happy anymore.” This is not attractive to you and your partner feels like they have no voice or power in the relationship because their emotional state is based on your feelings.
What does your partner need? With intentional action address your partner’s needs and concerns. This can range from simply helping more with the dishes to calling your partner during the day to let her know you are thinking of her, to spending less money because it makes him anxious. This is where you, again, must be present and really listen. When your partner sees that you take his concerns seriously, he will be more likely to feel valued and respected. By creating a positive cycle and building on your partnership by showing you are a team, in which you express appreciation for each other, you will feel more loving. No couple or partner is perfect at it – just the fact that you care and are trying to change is enough to help most people feel hopeful.
It may sound simple, but you must make space in your life to deliberately reconnect with the loving feelings you have for your partner, even if recent interactions have made you feel distant or angry. Ask yourself what attracted you to her when you first met? Think about what we have covered so far; have you addressed your partner’s needs in the past or have you ignored them and taken for granted that the relationship would always be there. A relationship has pain but with pain comes growth. What can you do to grow together? Are you taking care of your own needs and making yourself happy? Or are you trying to make your partner happy and feeling resentful? Can you find a way to forgive each other for the mistakes you have both made that got you off track? What do these feelings of love motivate you to do? Are you listening and are you 100% committed to the relationship or do you have one foot out the door? Are you feeling inadequate? Why? What can you do to feel better about yourself? Are you too needy? Is that attractive or do you need to work on your own self-esteem? Do you attach strings to your love? Are you expecting your partner to fill your every need and make you happy? Is there a trust issue? Do you feel that you can control your spouse’s behavior or insure that she won’t cheat, again? If there are unresolved trust issues that hamper your ability to love your partner freely, think about the next steps you could take to air these issues and what it would take to rebuild trust. It will take time but if you are committed and want to move forward you can by making a decision that you are not going to let the past define the future.
In closing, why are you in the relationship? Are you in the relationship to win all the time or to be right or are you in the relationship to build a solid bond? There are no perfect couples or perfect spouses. We each come with different expectations, definition of what a relationship looks like and what our roles in the relationship are, from our family of origin. We go into a relationship with romantic love that we feel will carry us through, however, it isn’t the romance that makes the marriage last. It is the everyday team work, common goals and compromises, understanding, dedication, patience, empathy, caring, loving, support that make the relationship last. Relationships are like roller coasters and you have to be willing to understand that you can be okay when you are uncomfortable and that you will get through it because you are riding out the storm together.