A little musing on relationships

by Bernadette Healy


Learn to be open and honest with each other

In order for relationships to improve, dialogue and change has to be possible – some people are capable of this and others are not.

It is necessary to engage regularly in an open and truthful conversation with each other about the important and personal issues that underlie relationships, particularly values, needs and priorities. This means specifically asking each other:

  • What really matters to you?
  • Are there any hurts being carried from old wounds in the relationship?
  • What are your needs in our relationship?

Think about what patterns you have formed.

Talk about the patterns. Consider how your family of origin may be shaping the way that you are relating to your partner and share this with each other.  For example, if you grew up not feeling heard or understood, you will likely doubt that a different kind of communication is possible and may be unable to trust that you can be open without being hurt or attacked. If you haven’t processed this early experience sufficiently, you may find that you are attracted to someone who leaves you feeling similarly.

Where the primary need is not about the relationship, the possibility of change is unlikely

Where one person is primarily committed to satisfying a need that is external to the relationship to the extent that they are routinely unavailable to participate and contribute in a fully present way with their partner, any meaningful shift in the relationship dynamic is impossible.

Be on the lookout for trends in you and your partner leading parallel existences.

If you are feeling left out of the household, ask what decisions are being made and what you have missed.

Where partners are uninterested in what really matters to one another

Another scenario is that the partner of someone who is passionately interested in their professional domain is unwilling to make themselves available to show interest in this aspect of their partner’s life – perhaps due to unexpressed resentment about the consequences of this passion on them and the relationship.  This needs to be talked about before the resentment builds otherwise one partner is likely to feel lonely as their passion is not understood and the other perhaps self-righteous – a risk-filled combination.

All relationships need to move past romantic beginnings

Consider where your relationship is in terms of development. For example it is very common for one or other partner to continue to expect the excitement and passion of the early stages of a romantic relationship to extend indefinitely. Many relationships suffer serious fault lines around the failure to move beyond the romantic beginning. Practice talking openly about sexual needs and wants including waning interest, disparity in sexual appetite and contextualize the discussion within the frame of the relationship as a whole, rather than separating out sexual needs as if they are a separate item.

Make some time to meet with your partner to open up a new conversation.  

Establish some ground rules and etiquette for example:

  • timing of the conversation,
  • action if interruption occurs,
  • taking turns,
  • not raising voice,
  • resisting urge to use blaming language such as accusatory statements or summations or caustic beginnings[1]

Caustic beginnings are fights between partners which leave no room for collaboration or constructive problem solving.  Use of opening phrases with you always… and you’re such an … or opening questions such as: what is up with you? or what is it with you? – are not about trying to resolve issues but more likely to incite reaction and to inflict hurt.

Rather than the voicing of a complaint or resolution of a problem, such beginnings quickly lead to escalation and to meanness and character assassination.

If you are on the receipt of caustic comments the following framework can help get the conversation back to a more constructive place:

When you said x, I felt y and what I would prefer is a and the benefits would be b.

That is, when you said … just then (for example, you always…), I felt…(for example disappointed, angry, hurt…) and what I would prefer is … (for example, for you to speak about a specific situation and to tell me what the problem was as you saw it, how you felt and what behaviour you would prefer from me in future) and the benefit would be (for example, that I don’t shut down or become defensive or bite back or leave etc and then we will be more likely to engage in a conversation).

If you find yourselves stuck in an exchange of ‘you don’t understand what I mean’, try taking it in turns to make statements to each other followed by a series of clarifying questions from the partner until they receive three ‘yesses’ in a row[2] to signify that your statement was understood exactly as you intended.  Make sure you both have a turn.

Talk about the responsibility of nurturing the relationship.  Are you able to stand back and consider the relationship as something separate from each of you, as an entity deserving of respect and one for which you are both responsible?  Is the relationship an equal priority for both of you?

Remind each other of what drew you to each other.  Remember together the loving beginnings.  Talk about what mattered then and continue the discussion to the present situation.

[1] Reivich, K. & Dr A. Shatte (2002). The resilience factor: 7 keys to finding your inner strength and overcoming life’s hurdles. New York: 3 Rivers Press.
[2] Adapted from Satir, V., J. Stachowiak & H.A. Taschman (1994). Helping families to change. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Pub. Inc.