4 Steps to Getting a Relationship Unstuck
A guide to changing your outlook and reconnecting with each other.
Posted May 01, 2015
Excepting abuse or addiction, the vast majority of couples’ difficulties with one another are two-sided.
Partners typically come into therapy well-armed with anecdotes and lists of grievances about each other, but rarely with insights into how their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors need to change to make their relationship grow. But lasting solutions emerge from the inside out—self-focus is the key.
For example, "Jillian" reports:
“I have been trying to make this relationship better but I cannot seem to make anything work. I know that what I am doing is in the best interest of the relationship but my partner is not doing their part. I would take responsibility for my part in the problems if I felt I was at fault. The thing is, I don’t. I can’t be critical of myself for being disappointed in what my partner hasn’t been able to do! That wouldn’t make any sense.”
What should she do? Here's a plan that can work for anyone stuck in frustration like she describes:
Identify your role in the situation, and your responsibility.
Jillian is right: It wouldn’t make sense for her to blame herself for being disappointed. What she can fault, however, is her inability to articulate the ways she perpetuates the disappointing relationship. She can go on about what her partner should do to make the relationship more fulfilling, but her own “to do list” is blank.
Step away from the default response.
Jillian insists, “If you were in a relationship with someone like my husband, you would do the same things that I do.” She cannot imagine anyone reacting or responding differently than she does. That, in itself, is a problem. And by "problem," I mean it is a challenge that can be turned into an opportunity. This could be the point of entry for Jillian to begin working with herself (and this is where couples therapy could begin for her). She cannot imagine any responses to her partner other than the ones that she comes by naturally or “automatically”—without thinking, without reflecting. She cannot fan out her options and choose how she responds. This means that she is stuck with her first response—and stuck conducting her relationship on automatic pilot.
One of the first goals of couples therapy is to move the dialogue away from un-thought-out responses and into exchanges in which each partner considers the impact of how they will respond beforehand. I have refined this practice into a method I call "three-dimensional communication."
Renew optimism that things can improve.
Jillian says, “If you were around my husband, he’d find a way to make you angry and feel helpless about making things better, I guarantee that.” Until Jillian discovers what she needs to feel less helpless and less overwhelmed, she will remain stuck with the way things are between them.
Her belief in the insurmountability of their problems must be shaken and replaced with energy and confidence in her ability to make the relationship better. For that to happen, she needs to see feeling helpless and overwhelmed as a challenge to overcome, not simply the way it is and will continue to be.
Her husband will not provide the initiative for her to center herself in an optimistic perspective. Even if he wanted to, it’s not within his locus of control. But it is within hers. Without an optimistic perspective, one that supports her resilience and allows her to work through feelings of helplessness and despair, she is not likely to feel emboldened to make herself vulnerable to her partner or to form an empathic link with him.
This is a trade secret that many clients who come in for couples work do not realize: Much of the work in couples work is done within partners as individuals. Self-focus is a prerequisite for improving your relationship. In order to withstand the anxiety and stress that negotiating their differences requires, partners must master specific ways to regain their own equanimity as they pursue greater communication and understanding of their partner.
I have heard Jillian’s perspective from many partners, male and female, gay and straight. To a therapist, such declarations resonate like the predictable plot of a sitcom or soap opera. They telegraph that the scene is going to resolve with frustration and futility. If you feel 100 percent confidence in how you are conducting your relationship and feel 100 percent certain that your partner is wholly to blame for the difficulties you are encountering (and the situation does not revolve around abuse, addiction, or related concerns), then the first thing that must shift is your perspective.
I welcome comments. Agree with what I’ve said? Let me know. Disagree? I’m just as interested in hearing about that. Want to learn more about this perspective? Pick up a copy of I’m Not a Mind Reader: Using Three Dimensional Communication to Make a Better Relationship (Health Communications Inc, May 2015) from Amazon for the in-depth presentation.