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Relationships

Does Your Relationship Need a Reset?

4 steps to bringing a little of the mystery back.

Africa Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

As close, long-term relationships evolve over time, they change in fundamental ways. Some changes are for the better, as you and your partner become more familiar with each other and grow in your depth of communication. In fact, it’s possible that you hardly need to speak any more as you go about your daily routines.

For some partners, as this evolution occurs, they find that they commonly have experiences that validate their closeness: They’re able to finish each other’s sentences and know their partner's exact preferences for everything from beer to pop music. They know how to fold each other’s clothes when putting the laundry away and how their partner would vote in an upcoming election. In other words, close partners often become able to read each other’s minds. They may even pride themselves on this evidence of the high quality of their relationship.

As laudable as these experiences are, however, they may contain a hidden trap: When you and your partner become so predictable, you may lose the ability to communicate without realizing it. What if your partner has a conversation with a neighbor about that upcoming local election and comes to a completely different conclusion about how to vote? Perhaps your partner decides it’s time to switch microbreweries based on having sampled a new brand at lunch. People change, in large and small ways, and relationships need to change to keep up. Those qualities of a relationship that you take for granted may place it in jeopardy without your realizing it.

Even relationships with excellent ongoing communication can benefit from an occasional look in the mirror: Are your assumptions about your partner’s preferences really all that on target any more? Do you feel that you’re not exactly the same person you were a few years ago, and that this is affecting your relationship? The process of examining where you and your partner are at this moment can prove both challenging and rewarding.

You may be wondering how to go about this. We can take some pointers from a recent study carried out at the Family Institute at Northwestern University by Lynn Knoblech-Fedders and colleagues (2015). The particular model of therapy the team uses seems well-suited to providing guidance in resetting your own relationship buttons. Called integrative problem-centered metaframeworks (IPCM), this approach to therapy attempts to promote better functioning both in the individuals and the couple itself.

Couples seeking therapy from the institute served as participants in an investigation of IPCM’s effectiveness. The sample of 125 heterosexual married adults, all in their early to mid-thirties, completed several measures of relationship and individual adjustment both prior to and after the IPCM intervention. The measures assessed relationship with partner (“We enjoy doing things together”), and individual problems and strengths (“When I get upset, I find healthy ways to make myself feel better”). Because they studied couples over time using both sets of measures, they could evaluate the effectiveness of IPCM in individuals as well as relationships.

IPCM turned out to have a positive impact on relationship adjustment, but an even larger effect on individual adjustment. However, there were male and female sides to the equation. For men, it appeared that changes in relationship adjustment had to happen before they would experience changes in their own individual adjustment. The largest changes for both men and women happened within the first four sessions of treatment and stabilized after that.

Let’s return to the question of how you can make IPCM work in your own relationship. Remember that the couples in the Northwestern study were in distress at the start of therapy. You might not be in distress yourself, but just feel that things may need some refreshing. Don't worry that these steps will create problems that don’t exist; if things are fine as is, this analysis will help them remain so.

  1. Questioning. Are there problems you’re not aware of or have been keeping from your partner? Even if your relationship seems on an even keel, what might be improved?
  2. Planning. If you feel that you could improve your relationship, even in small ways, brainstorm some ways it could be better. These could be small-scale changes that they still might have a large impact on your overall well-being and that of your relationship.
  3. Talking. Set aside some time to talk through the possible changes you could enact. It’s particularly important to figure out what’s keeping you from changing and then to try to get those constraints out of the way.
  4. Giving feedback. After deciding on a course of action, ask yourself how it’s going. Do you feel that you’re discovering new ways of communicating that you didn’t think possible? How do you feel about some of the changes you and your partner have made? Should you continue along this new path or go back to your prior way of relating?

IPCM is a logical, systematic approach not that different from what you might use in your workplace or community group when you engage in a planning exercise. This method also leaves you a great deal of flexibility to apply to large-scale (“You don’t understand me”) problems or smaller ("Please don’t make the coffee so strong anymore”). You might also find that you need some outside help. If so, these steps will help you pinpoint the problem areas and make any counseling you engage in that much more effective.

Taking stock of the current state of affairs for you, your partner, and your relationship may give it that extra "oomph" to keep it going longer and in ways that are more fulfilling than ever.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Reference

Knobloch-Fedders, L. M., Pinsof, W. M., & Haase, C. M. (2015). Treatment response in couple therapy: Relationship adjustment and individual functioning change processes. Journal Of Family Psychology, 29(5), 657-666. doi:10.1037/fam0000131

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015

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