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At Couples Therapy Inc. we are tirelessly devoted to couples therapy. We study loving connections. We examine how bonds get broken and mended. We see people not as a collection of individuals, but as a network of families and friends.
For nearly a decade couples have come to us to learn one very important thing; how to make a relationship work.
Not just any relationship but their very specific and unique relationship. At some point it just...stopped working...got off track. They come to us to get things running again.
Some of these couples are recovering from infidelity (or other traumas) some have drifted apart or struggle to find common ground.
Some of the couples that call us (and maybe you are one of them) have struggled for years with these relationship issues. Perhaps they have even tried traditional couples therapy. Yet there is still a lingering dissatisfaction with their relationship.
Your relationship continues to struggle but you refuse to give up, you refuse to stop working and throw in the towel. Despite all of your motivation and desire to stay together there is still that same underlying question; how can I make my relationship work?
This question is worth examining. It is worth your time and energy to build a relationship with your partner that is satisfying, fulfilling, even glorious!
Our clinicians will tell you: the quality of our relationships is what determines the quality of our life.
Building a "working" relationship, this is indeed a worthy endeavor.
You deserve to be in a relationship that is healthy, one where you and your partner “get” each other. Your relationship should carry you through good times and through challenging times.
You probably know that, and that’s what brought you to a site like ours. Yet despite knowing how much your relationship matters and despite the hours that you have spent reading through the advice of “experts” we still come back to that question “how do I make my relationship work?” Perhaps even more concerning “how do I fix my relationship?”
Let’s break that down step by step and look at each part
So, we start at the beginning...
Ask yourself first, what stands in your way? What are the stumbling blocks that are holding you back from having the relationship that you have dreamed of?
As you examine this question you will likely find that some of these stumbling blocks are external and some are internal. Some of the things in the way are within your control and some simply aren’t.
The list can be long but there are two very specific stressors that sit outside of you and your partner and these are important ones to mention. These things are affecting your happiness and your relationship satisfaction but they might not have anything to do with you.
Worse, these things might not be directly within your control. This might sound bleak but hang in there, just because they are outside of your control does not mean you are helpless to their influence.
Relationship stress #1; times are tough!
It’s cliché at this point to say it but we are truly living in extraordinary times. There are more and more strains on our relationships and on ourselves than ever before. These stressors are as diverse as they are pervasive; economic, health, family, politics, social issues and many others that have probably popped into your head. It’s impossible to list them all as they change everyday.
We can’t control many of these things that are happening but we do have some influence over how these tough times hit our relationships. You and your partner can team up against these stressors together. This is your chance to find what your relationship means during tough times, not just when the road is smooth.
Our blog has dedicated pages and pages of research to this very topic. If you feel like your relationship is especially feeling these strains, it’s a great idea to spend some time browsing the topics we’ve covered over these last few months.
Relationship stress #2; family history and a lack of role models.
This one hits a little closer to home (literally.) You, your partner, or maybe both of you may come from homes where relationships weren’t healthy. You might have seen unhealthy fighting, which leaves you insecure whenever there is conflict. Your partner might have seen multiple partners come and go in a seemingly endless loop making your partner unwilling to trust and attach. Maybe there were affairs...lying...substance abuse...mind games.
These kinds of early experiences do not sentence us to a lifetime of unhealthy relationships but they are a signal that we might have a little bit of extra work to do.
If you suspect that you haven’t had the privilege of seeing a healthy relationship role modeled start to seek them out. Find the people in your life that have loving and supportive relationships and watch what they do, how they speak to one another, and how they talk about their partners (even when that partner is not around to hear it.
That’s a very early step and your observations should not end there. Educate yourself, seek out books and resources that will help you to “fill in the blanks.” We have resources listed below and there are many more out there, we recommend anything written by Dr. John Gottman, and Sue Johnson has wonderful resources as well.
Your relationship is an important asset. You deserve to build a happy life with your partner even if no one taught you how to make that work. A professional can help you through that process, you don’t need to build this skill all on your own, our intensives or relationship coaching may be the support that you need.
Those are the stumbling blocks we are going to outline here but you may have some other “relationship obstacles” in your head as well.
What is a healthy relationship anyway?
While there are some nearly universal elements to what defines a healthy relationship, many aspect and qualities will be personal and individual.
Let’s next make sure that you have that vision of what a working, healthy relationship means to you. Review the statements and questions below and jot your initial thoughts down.
How do we celebrate each other?
What are the goals that we are working towards?
What are 2-3 shared family values?
When I am upset I want my partner to _______ .
When my partner is upset I will ________ .
What is intimacy, sex, and physical affection like for us?
Hopefully that gives you an outline of what your ideal relationship looks like and feels like. We are ready to move into that important question now; how do you make your relationship work? How do you bring that relationship vision into your real lived experience?
3 Important steps to making your relationship work
An “attitude of gratitude,” this is a catch phrase that you may already be familiar with but how does it apply to your relationship? We know that folks that orient themselves towards gratefulness see amazing changes in their lives. How do you find that orientation in your relationship?
If things have been especially tense lately or perhaps things are just completely cooled between you, this might be challenging. But it is there, you are with this human being and there is a reason that you are with them. Make noticing those reasons a habit.
Find a journal page (or even just open up notes on your cell phone) and list out some ways that you are a fantastic partner, now list the ways that your partner is fantastic, finally, list the ways that your relationship is fantastic. These reasons might be very basic and simple, they don’t need to be flowery rom-com style over the top gestures.
Maybe you like that he brings you coffee in bed sometimes. Maybe she wrinkles her nose in a funny way when she’s concentrating and you secretly think it’s adorable. You might share these lists with your partner or you might keep these private for yourself.
If you are going through tough times this list might be short, that’s ok, this might take some practice. Set an intention to grow each of these lists each day. You will train your mind to look for things to appreciate--this is the start of building a habit.
Grow and nurture the strengths and the things that you appreciate about each other and your life together, the big things and the little things.
When times are challenging, like say, during a global pandemic, these items are your touchstones. These are the things that you can offer to your partner, to your relationship, and to yourself.
In order to grow and nurture these strengths in our relationships, we have to first pay attention. We have to notice. You can’t have your head down on your phone while your partner is doing a goofy butt-shaking dance that almost always makes you laugh. You missed it!
We started by talking about gratitude and positivity, but let’s be honest, we aren’t always there.
Does having a fabulous relationship mean putting a positive spin on everything until the light shines down from the sky and hearts swirl around your head every time you see your partner? And of course there is never conflict because you complete each other and know each other perfectly. Is that how you know your relationship is working?
This is (luckily) not the standard that your relationship needs to meet in order to work.
Your partner probably does things that irritate the heck out of you. Some of those things maybe they’ve stopped doing over the years other things you might have stopped caring as much about (if at all,) and some things...still...ugh.
Conflict or disagreement isn't always a bad thing. Anyone reading this can think of a time where strife led to something greater.
Sometimes you need to talk about something that's not working for you and honest communication is very important in a healthy relationship. Communication that is compassionate and effective is also critical. After all, honesty without compassion is cruelty.
When there is something on your mind and it needs to be said your approach matters. Folks that are experts in the field talk about using “soft startups” to make sure that your message is heard. We created a walkthrough of how you and your partner can become experts in softened startups and effective conversations.
This is between the four of you??
Here’s the thing, when there is conflict (and even when great things happen) there is an exchange happening between four of you.
There’s you and there is your partner, and that makes two. Then there is the partner that is in your head and the version of you that’s in your partner’s head.
That's four different people in the mix and that's too big of a crowd when it comes to conflict!
You are an expert on the partner in your head, in fact, you know exactly why they did what they did and what they’re going to say when you confront them. In fact, you may even tell yourself that you don’t need to confront them because you “already know how it will end.”
Have you ever told yourself that? We are all guilty of it from time to time. The reality is you are only an expert on the partner that’s in your head and not the actual living breathing human in front of you.
That person has feelings and thoughts. And because that person is a human, they have a nervous system and are going to react when you engage with them. This is why our work with soft startups is so important--watch that video again if this is an area where you struggle! We want to speak with that human being in the most effective and compassionate way possible.
What if you aren’t the person to start the discussion? What if your partner hasn’t read this guide and has started the conversation in a less-than-soft manner.
You might really resent the way that your partner spoke to you, or what they said, or maybe even, what they didn't say.
Notice what is happening in your body and in your mind. As human beings, we are designed to defend ourselves from attack, and that’s a very helpful instinct in some instances! But this is your love and not a bear attack. Entering into a state of fight, flight or freeze is not going to be helpful in your quest to make your relationship work.
Check out this explanation of something called flooding as Dr. K talks about the couples she works with.
You may be able to think of a time when you have experienced this kind of emotional response; perhaps with your partner, at work, even just driving in traffic. It is a natural human response to a threat but I am sure you can see how it is not a good state to be in when discussing something with a loved one.
This is particularly relevant if one (or both of you) have been through trauma that triggers this response more readily.
Take Dr K’s advice, learn to recognize when this is happening to you and take a time out. This time out is a full 20 minutes of going for a walk, taking some deep breaths, singing--whatever it takes for you to reset your nervous system.
After you have reset, face this problem as a problem between the two of you that you will resolve together.
And the real secret...
What does it really take to make a relationship work? Keep trying. Don’t give up on your relationship, don’t give up on your partner. Approach the difficulties that you are having as challenges to be faced and opportunities to grow together.
Perhaps you didn’t have the privilege of seeing committed, healthy relationships in your up-bringing. This is all the more reason to educate yourself.
Divorce-proof your marriage by seeking advice and support from trusted authorities.
The tips above are just to get you started, when you are ready to dive deeper we have some great study-at-home options as well as live, private relationship help from our professionals.
We are here to help, just tell us what you need!
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About Couples Therapy Inc.
Couples Therapy Inc. is a team of two dozen clinicians practicing in three countries devoted to couples therapy. We all have one or more training certificates in science-based couples therapy.
Ours is a lens that studies loving connections. We examine how bonds get broken and mended. We see people not as a collection of individuals, but as a network of families and friends.
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