Jacob and Priya have been married for just over a year, but they’re not exactly your typical love-struck newlyweds. Both of them had a serious case of cold feet on the eve of their wedding — Jacob spend the night drinking with friends and tried to forget, while Priya spent the evening crying to her mother and maid of honor who assured her everything was going to be okay, and that what she was experiencing was “normal.” On the other hand, their courtship was filled with light-heartedness, laughter, and romance. They were the kind of couple that couldn’t stand to be away from one another for very long, and everyone genuinely believed their quick bonding process was the stuff movies are made of. Standing in their kitchen after their most recent fight, neither of them was certain they wanted to keep going.
Shawn and Marcus are the classic “break up to make up” couple. Their dating relationship has been wrought with on-again off-again ups and downs, and each time the cycle completes itself each of them is “really sorry this time” and vows not to let things get so out of hand. The dynamics surrounding their relationship no doubt hold some clues, as Marcus is infamously insecure and Shawn aloof. When Marcus proposed last year, Shawn told him that they couldn’t talk seriously about moving forward until they were “more settled.” But the relationship has been going like this for nearly 4 years, and as they headed into the latest round of “taking a break,” their future as a couple seemed dubious at best.
Meredith and Anthony spent the better portion of 3 decades raising their children, and now that all four of them have made an exodus from their home after their youngest left for college 3 months ago, they both confess openly that the nest is feeling a little “empty.” They anticipated this, but what they hadn’t anticipated was how “empty” their own relationship would seem without the children present to distract them from the notion that to one degree or another, the roles care-taking and making ends meet had lead to virtually separate lives except for the children themselves, who again, were no longer around to provide common interests. Meredith enjoyed church and civic life, having been active for several years now with the Kiwanis and the Methodist volunteer tutoring program, while Anthony had taken on new projects at work as well as new personnel to mentor, and spent most of his spare time playing golf or wishing he was. Both of them wanted to reconnect, but they were fearful that perhaps the other no longer felt the same.
Not “MY” Relationship
Most of us are comfortable thinking of relationship difficulties as being things that everyone else experiences, so we’re often quite shocked when we bump into them ourselves. With the myriad books and blogs out there highlighting just how common these things are, it doesn’t make sense to be so shocked, but we are anyhow!
That said, difficulties in relationships do tend to have some common themes. Here are a few of them that may cause you to wonder whether relationship counseling is in order:
- Having the same conversations over and over
- Major transitions in life involving career, moving, or family situations.
- Issues of security, trust, or jealousy
- Not “fighting fair” — name calling, temper tantrums, stonewalling (also known a “the cold shoulder”)
- Affairs — emotional or sexual
- Overcommitment at work or other obligations crowding out time to build your relationship
- Struggles with one partner as an individual related to addictions, childhood, or other difficulties
A Quick Assessment
Variety is the spice of life, and it is often our partner’s differences that first attract us. But anyone who spends much time in a relationship begins to find out that the small differences can get increasingly difficult to manage. Still, those differences aren’t likely to go anywhere, so the key isn’t eradicating them, but finding a way to work “toward” one another in the midst of differences rather than “away.”
Here’s a great relationship assessment to help you determine areas of both strength and weakness. Answer each question with a simple “yes” or “no.”
- My partner and I have clear communication.
- We have trust in one another.
- There is mutual respect between us.
- We have common interests.
- We are able to perceive things differently without expecting each other to see things the other’s way.
- I feel my partner values me intellectually, emotionally, and if intimate, physically.
- I am able to grow independently, and I support my partner’s growth, thus our relationship is also growing.
- We each have activities and friendships we enjoy outside of those in our relationship.
- We accept each other as we are, rather than constantly trying to change each other.
- I truly receive joy from our relationship.
NOTE: Even one “no” on this list can often be an indicator that the relationship could use the help of someone else.
Some relationships have unique dynamics.
With the increasing frequency with which gay and lesbian persons are able to pursue relationships openly and without shame, you may find yourself wondering whether same-sex relationships have any unique dynamics. We all have compassion, love, intimacy, and communication needs, but in fact, same-sex relationships may have some specific issues:
- Since both partners are of the same sex, the characteristics of that gender may be exaggerated in the relationship. This may be experienced positively or negatively.
- As much as things have changed, same-sex relationship partners still tend to face an inordinate amount of additional hardship due to the fact that friends, family, or colleagues may not be supportive. In that sense, same-sex couples may intrinsically lack primary and secondary support systems both as individuals and as a couple.
- Some portions of queer culture do not embrace heterosexual concepts of monogamy, relationships, and polyamory, and thus by definition may require more thought and work to live in a way that honors the values of both the individuals within a partnership and the partners themselves.are unique in some portions of queer culture.
Some healthy reminders for everyone.
- You can only be you. Remember not to spend all of your time trying to anticipate what your partner wants, because they already have it — you! Being authentically yourself gives everyone a chance to relax and feel accepted. Ironically, you are in charge of this!
- Three words: communication, communication, communication. Many people enter counseling because they’re having the same conversations over and over, but no one is really listening. Often, this can occur when our natural approach to conversation puts our partner on the defense and shuts them down before they’ve even had a chance to hear what we’re really saying. Using “I” statements (“When you say things about my mother, I feel frightened because I think you think I’m like her,”) rather than “You” statements (“You make me frightened when you talk about my mother,”) is mission critical for reaching a mutual understanding. It promotes a healthy attitude of ownership for your own feelings, and allows your partner the opportunity to respond productively and clarify their own intent. More good skills to consider:
- Too much (sometimes too soon). Especially at first, but even when you’ve been with your partner for some time, disclose your internal world slowly and steadily, rather than all at once. Keep them from feeling like their drinking from the fire hose. This isn’t a statement about you being “overwhelming” or “too much,” but about your partner’s limitations as a human being. We’ve all got limitations, so don’t be surprised when you bump into them.
- Ask, but don’t demand. Many people get reassurance from well-meaning friends and loved ones when they say, exasperated, “Is _____ really that unreasonable?” The truth is, asking for what you want or need isn’t unreasonable, but demanding it is. Think in terms of the 80/20 rule — at any given time, your partner is only going to be able to meet 80% of your needs. Branch out and find friends, co-workers, clergy, or…counselors to help meet the other 20% so you don’t become too demanding on your partner.
- Resolve Conflicts, except late at night!!! Take a cue from the old Proverb, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” Try to handle conflicts expeditiously and quickly so as not to let anger fester and boil into resentment. However, remember not to take that Proverb too literally. When you discover a point of contention between the two of you late at night, say, anytime past 8pm, consider developing a routine that will allow the two of you to revisit the subject the following day. Most people are remarkably unable to handle conflict productively when they’re tired.
- If all else fails, enjoy each other! Laughter and fun truly have great medicinal problems for troubled relationships. Schedule in time for dates and unstructured “play” to keep your relationship fresh. Make it a priority as much as you would work, children’s school or sporting events, and church or other civic duties! Here is a great list of Nashville-specific date nights provided by Yelp!
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