Perhaps you care deeply about your partner, but the conflicts are wearing you out and you often feel separate and alone. No one suggested that intimacy would be so thorny and hard. How is it possible that this person you fell in love with causes so much turmoil in you?
You have probably been struggling to get them to change, alternately attacking and withdrawing, hoping this will make them treat you better. You may sometimes think that you just picked the wrong person, or that you are the problem and are just not capable of being so close to someone else.
You know by now that its impossible to force someone to change, and you may realize that distancing yourself doesn't work either. Its all-too-easy these days to end this relationship and get a new partner, but does this really solve the problem, or do you just start over with a new set of challenges?
Perhaps there is something about you or your partner that makes this process so difficult, but that's not a reason to quit. Besides, you like being connected to another person in this way, and being alone doesn't really work for most of us in the long run.
The difficulty you face is not really you or your partner. The problem is that our society has undergone a revolution in the way we view relationships and your expectations for equality, deep intimacy, and individuality have raced ahead of your ability to achieve them. You simply don't yet know how to share power, be vulnerable, have personal expression, and be genuinely connected to someone else.
Being part of a couple today is the most difficult thing anyone can do because no one ever taught us how to do it, and the rules have changed so dramatically in the course of just a few generations. It's essential that we learn new skills for responding to each other's emotions and needs, instead of simply fighting over who is right, so we can have the genuine and supportive relationship we want.
What you need are tools that enable you to understand and express your feelings and needs without blame and listen to those of your partner without judgment. There are skills that help you to establish healthy boundaries and negotiate directly and fairly with each other, so that each of your needs are met. There are ways to access empathy and express compassion, even when you feel threatened or disconnected. And, there is a way to stay connected with your partner, even when you disagree.
The Work of Being a Couple
Many of us find intimate relationships challenging. We want connection and independence, and are not willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of harmony. It no longer works to fit our relationship into a standard formula such as traditional marriage. And so, we find ourselves in unexplored territory, with no map or compass to give us direction. When conflicts arise, we often don’t know how to approach the situation so that our emotions and needs, and those of our partner, are addressed with care.
There is no longer a simple model to follow for a happy relationship, and many of our habitual ways of relating to a partner seem to result in increased conflict and more distance between us. The social structures that minimized tension by assigning specific roles, and designating one person as the decision maker, no longer work for many of us. We are entering a new paradigm of partnering that requires us to question our most basic assumptions, and find a new approach to intimacy.
The traditional format for marriage required that we sacrifice our individual feelings and needs for an outward appearance of unity. This formula kept marriages together at the cost of individual growth and creativity, and is no longer a priority for many of us. We want to be ourselves, and be connected with another person. We are looking for a partnership of two equals with a deeper love that allows us to flourish as individuals. And so, necessarily we are going to be faced with conflicts that were largely ignored or denied, just a generation ago. We don’t yet know how to be intimately connected to another, and be ourselves, at the same time.
The nature of a primary relationship is to expose parts of ourselves we have kept hidden, even from our own awareness. When these shadows surface unexpectedly they can be difficult to respond to, in ourselves, or in our partner. A predictable aspect of this process is that our hidden wounds often correspond to our partner’s wounds in a way that automatically hooks each other, and can result in extreme reactions. These reactions can escalate and create an immense downward spiral of attack and defense that can destroy the trust and love at the foundation of the relationship.
In the old paradigm of marriage, this kind of conflict is something to be avoided at all cost. We learned to deal with it through submission or withdrawal, or angry blame and criticism. In the new way of relationship, conflict is approached with care and recognized as a means to further personal growth and deepen intimacy. A constructive resolution of conflict is one where both people are able to meet their needs and have their emotions recognized.
A New Vision for Relationships
To maintain a primary intimate relationship today requires a new vision. Instead of a new model to fit ourselves into, this new way involves learning skills of constructive communication which enable us to address conflicts in a way that increases intimacy and strengthens our integrity. It may also include support from someone who can witness the uncomfortable places in your relationship without judgment, and offer a safe and supportive environment for you to bring these into the open and address them directly.
My work with couples is based on the simple idea that bringing these hidden wounds into awareness, and becoming familiar with the corresponding negative patterns between partners defuses their potential for destruction. Once we name a wound as individuals, or a pattern between us as a couple, it no longer can control us as it has in the past. By bringing these hidden forces out into the open, we can deal with them directly, and once we become aware of their negative effects, we can more easily choose to let go of them. I am trained in mediation and conflict resolution and teach communication skills in various formats. I worked for 10 years as a divorce and family mediator and learned first-hand some of the dynamics that force couples apart. I also have a background in meditation and spiritual exploration and have worked with couples and individuals trying to bring more awareness into their lives. I am committed to using my experience and skills to support couples in staying together, and strengthening relationships through consciously addressing our different needs, values, and emotions.
These sessions usually begin by focusing on a current issue in your relationship, from one partner's perspective. With direct coaching the person expressing the concern is encouraged to explore their basic feelings and needs, while the other partner is taught how to listen from a neutral place, and offer support. In the process of exploring specific conflicts, both of you learn how to express your emotions and needs in a way that makes it easier for your partner to hear and understand you. You also learn how to listen to your partner in order to understand them, without becoming defensive or arguing about who is right.
Many of us feel stuck in our relationships and want to learn a new way to be a couple that works. Learning how to use relationship skills can be difficult, and requires dedicated effort and patience. It is not as easy as fitting into a prescribed role. However, it enables you to have the personal autonomy and genuine connection you really want. Putting the time and effort into learning these skills results in a relationship where both of you can get your needs met, and you become allies instead of adversaries.