Navigating Relationship Rough Patches

by Lynn Wonders on July 26, 2017

couples counseling in east cobbI often receive messages from 1/2 of a marital partner saying, “Our relationship has hit a rough patch and we need some help.” 

It takes a lot of courage to reach out for help from a professional when you are experiencing relationship trouble It also takes a lot of commitment from both partners to show up for couples counseling.

With the help of a well-trained and skilled couples counselor you and your partner CAN learn to navigate the rough patches.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman taught me that it is not WHETHER a couple fights that determines the success or failure of the relationship but HOW they fight.

Since my advanced training over the years with the Gottman Institute along with my training in Adlerian Couples Therapy and Imago Relationship Therapy, I have seen couples who thought their relationship was doomed bounce back with new skills and a new outlook on life and love within six 90 minutes sessions and I never stop being amazed by how this happens.  The fact is, when a couple is really wanting to improve the quality of their relationship there are tried and true methods for learning how to navigate the rough waters all relationships encounter at some point in time.

I would like to provide a few tips from my bag of tricks that I introduce to couples in my office for you and your partner to try. Keep in mind, this does not replace having a qualified therapist assist and facilitate the process of reprogramming your relationships destructive patterns; but it may just help you see a shift in a more positive direction.

1. Keep your eye on the prize. 

Ask yourself, “What is my goal here?” If your goal is influence your partner to pick up his dirty clothes and place them in the hamper, sniping at him about what a slob he is might not be the avenue you want to take. Research indicates that criticism is an ineffective way to motivate someone to change a behavior.

Before you open your mouth to express your disgust or displeasure about your partner’s behavior, consider what your goal is. Instead of sniping, try making a loving request, “Hey babe, I’d so love it if you would pick up your clothes and place them in the hamper.” When he complies, use some positive reinforcement, “Thank you love! I really appreciate it.”

And when he picks them up next time without you saying a word, swoop in with a kiss and bigger thank you to really reinforce that desired behavior. Trust me. You’ll attract far more flies with honey than with vinegar, as the saying goes.

This goes for more serious scenarios as well. The rule to follow is to hold your tongue until you’ve identified what the goal is in any given situation and monitor what you’re about to say by asking if this is going to work toward your goal or against it if you say what your frustrated self is burning to say.

2. Choose to be curious and know when to give space.

I challenge all of my couples clients to cultivate a habit of choosing curiosity over reactivity. If your partner is speaking to you sharply in a way that is out of character, instead of reacting and escalating to a yelling match, get curious. Ask yourself, “Hmmm… I wonder what is going on for her?”  and then carefully and softly inquire. “Hey hon, is everything okay? I noticed by your tone of voice you seem stressed or aggravated. Anything I can do to help?”  If she snaps back at you, lovingly give her some space but stay in a curious mind-set rather than taking it personally.

When your partner is emotionally “flooded” and the emotion part of the brain is all lit up, the rational, logical brain is not able to do it’s job so stay curious but give time and space.  Your job here is not to feel victimized. You’ll get a chance later, once she’s in a calmer state to let her know how you feel when she snaps at you.

3. Know when you are flooded and take a time out to soothe.

As I referenced above, when one part of the brain lights up with emotional response the logical, rational part of the brain shuts down temporarily. Once “flooded” it is essential to take a time out (with a  promise to return to the conversation) so that you can soothe yourself and return to being able to access an utilize the part of your brain that can sort out what is reasonable and right action.  This is probably the most important tip I can give any individual in any relationship. You can not address important matters in a way that is productive when you are flooded with emotion. When you take a time out try not to allow the flood of frustration, anger and hurt to turn a time out into a dramatic departure with slamming doors and alarming displays. Take full responsibility for the flood of emotional energy you are experiencing and take it outside. Move your body, breathe, give space and time to allow the emotion center of your brain to cool off. Then return to finish the dialogue when you can come from a calmer place.

4. Soft. Soft. Soft.

My final powerful tip for you is to practice softening. Soften your tone. Use softer words. Use soft touch. When your partner becomes rigid or angry, go soft. There is tremendous strength in softness despite what you initially may believe. A soft blade of grass will withstand a mighty wind-storm much more readily than a rigid tree branch. There is often a negative connotation to the word soft but I teach couples that in a relationship, when you consciously use the power of soft you create an atmosphere where your partner’s hard edges will naturally soften when you remain soft. Using harsh tone, harsh words and harsh criticism begets harshness in the relationship. Nothing lovely and good ever grew out of harshness.  This said, you should not allow yourself to be verbally or physically abused. You can be firm in setting boundaries and seeking help if there is abusive behavior in the relationship.

If you’d like to talk with me about relationship counseling, coaching or training please contact me. I’d be happy to help you or refer you to one of my skilled colleagues all over the country.

 

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