Many people experience difficulty in adult romantic relationships, even when they do very well in work or friendship relationships. In a romantic relationship, you can find yourself feeling emotional extremes that simply do not exist in any other area of your life.
You may experience extreme emotions, such as:
Intense love and connection
Most mental health experts agree that feeling these deep emotions are related to your early childhood bonds experienced from family life. These are deeply ingrained emotional memories, and they can emerge when you least expect them. Sometimes it can be a nuance or a tone in your partner's voice with an intensity that reminds you more realistically of your past relationships.
The art of being in an adult and loving relationship involves learning how to recognize your own emotional triggers and then make a commitment to manage triggers more effectively.
In my work with couples, I've developed these six strategies for the ongoing work of being in-relationship with your partner.
Skill #1 - Stop to Identify Your Feelings and Check Them Out:
Just because you feel something, such as:
It does not necessarily reflect your partner's intention at that moment. In fact, in the case of intense and repetitively occurring feelings, this is probably not the case. Remember, these intense and repetitive feelings are usually deeply ingrained emotional body memories and sensate responses related to childhood trauma.
Be sure to stop and then check out the reality of your feelings with your partner. Ask!
Instead of saying: "How dare you talk to me like that?"
Try saying: "I'm feeling criticized. Can you tell me what you need instead?"
Skill #2 - Listen With Curiosity to What Your Partner Has to Say:
Breathe. Stay open. Reach for empathy from your partner.
Stop explaining or defending, and really listen to the content of what your partner is saying.
It's even helpful to try and repeat it back to your partner (active listening). It is always unproductive to listen and then counterattack, counter-threaten, counter-blame, or counter-reject in an attempt to manage your own emotions. You miss what they are trying to share, and you aren't listening through the lens of curiosity.
As an adult, you can survive when you've been blamed, rejected, threatened, or attacked, and even if it is actually happening, but you perceive it is. You do not have to fight as if your survival depends on it, and you do not have to be vindicated at that moment.
When there is a need to "win" or to be "right," it completely eliminates the opportunity to have a healthy dialogue about what may be your partner's legitimate need or disappointment.
Instead of saying: "How can you talk to me about making dinner? When was the last time you did anything for me?"
Try saying: "You're saying that you're upset that I didn't think about making dinner. I see that this was very important to you. You would have liked me to think of you."
Skill #3 - Contain Your Feelings and Don't React Harshly:
Stop. Breathe. Attempt to make contact with and support the frightened, hurt, or angry child within yourself. This is your job. This is not your partner's job.
Your sense of well-being cannot be dependent on your partner's behavior or validation. This is how you felt as a child when your survival actually did depend on the goodwill and validation of an often irrational or non-respectful adult.
Remember that your partner is probably imperfect rather than acting from a truly bad intention. Two people of goodwill can have different perceptions of the exact same situation, and it's important to remember that each one is rooted in their own experiences. Support yourself so that you can be open to your partner's experience as well as your own.
Instead of saying: "Unless you admit what you're doing, this relationship is over. I can't be with someone I don't trust."
Try saying: (Say to yourself): "These are my familiar childhood feelings. I don't have to defend myself. I can breathe through these feelings. I can wait to respond. I can be open to what my partner is saying."
Skill #4 - Ask for Exactly What You Need:
Just because your partner has not intuited your needs does not mean they have actively rejected you. Your partner may be anxious, depressed, threatened, unaware, or even self-involved.
Hopefully, your partner is of goodwill and interested in learning and working on building a positive relationship together. If so, your partner will learn to be more aware and responsive over time.
Ask for what you need rather than making a statement about what you're not getting. This creates a shift toward hopefulness and openness and away from blame and self-fulfilling negative prophecy.
Instead of saying: "You are just a mean person. You'll never learn how to talk to another human being."
Try saying: "You know how easily I feel criticized. Could you try to say the same thing without any blame attached? Could you try and just tell me about your own needs or reactions?"
Skill #5 - Accept Frustration or Disappointment:
Your partner cannot always give you what you need, even when you do ask directly. This is usually because of his or her own emotional trauma and imperfections or even because of realistic time restrictions or other obligations.
In a good relationship, we get some of what we need most of the time. In a great relationship, we get most of what we need most of the time.
Over time, you can assess whether you have a "good enough partner" and a "good enough relationship," and you can make decisions about the relationship based on your assessment. However, an assessment usually cannot be made in the heat of the moment during one fight or because of one disagreement.
As adults, we can survive not having our needs met, even needs that are deeply felt. This is part of accepting our partner as an imperfect, separate human being. Again, our survival does not depend on a specific emotional need being met immediately. We can only assess the value of the relationship and the full measure of our partner over time.
- Instead of saying: "This relationship is hopeless. I'll never get what I need from you. I'm leaving."
- Try saying: "I'm disappointed that you keep criticizing me, and I feel upset by it. I hope we can work out a better way to talk about your frustration (hurt, disappointment...) in the future."
Skill #6 - Work Out Your Feelings Inside and Not Outside of the Relationship:
This is especially important when you find yourself confirming familiar negative thoughts or feelings (triangulating) with a friend or even with a therapist or when you find yourself withdrawing into a private self-congratulating mental dialogue.
If you confirm your negative worldview, you will feel morally superior, and you may even feel safe, but you will not develop a partnership. This is the opposite of being in a relationship. It is like being alone—either with yourself or with someone who is offering you a mirror image of yourself. It only serves to confirm your childhood emotional worldview and set of expectations.
As Harville Hendrix, one of the founders of Imago Relationship Therapy, asked, "Would you rather be right or be in a relationship?"
- Instead of saying: "Don't you agree that I'm right? Can you believe how badly he/she acted? Isn't he/she unbelievable?"
- Try saying: (to a friend): "I know you're trying to support me, but I should really bring these feelings back to my relationship and see if I can work them out there. It's too easy to confirm all my negative feelings."
If you are struggling in your relationship right now and need a little help developing your relationship skills, we are here to help. Check out our Imago Relationship Workshops and Relationship Therapy. We also have Online Couples Therapy and Online Couples Workshops right now!
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In her work with couples, she focuses on the emerging present moment, and its possibility for connection and growth. She encourages couples to share their vulnerability and their need, in relation to each other, rather than focus on past hurts and disappointments. She believes that if couples truly hear each other, and meet each other with empathy and curiosity, a solution is always possible.
Arleen is a member of the International Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy, the NYS Society for Clinical Social Work, the Greater N.Y. Association of Imago Therapists, Imago Relationships North America, the EMDR International Association, and the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis.
In Fall 2021, she will offer a course in Couples Therapy, The Person-In-Relation, at the Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy.