How To Keep A Relationship Healthy Under Pressure
Highlights from my podcast interview with Nicola Foster, relationship and intimacy therapist and coach. She’s created a phenomenal guide called “Relationship Survival Guide for Lovers in Lockdown”. It’s all about how to keep a relationship working especially under pressure of coronavirus and lockdown. This was recorded under COVID-19 lockdown. You can listen to the full interview here.
What are the biggest issues partners are facing at the moment?
1. Irritability with a partner/ their idiosyncrasies
Nobody has ever really been faced with so much time together, day in and day out without the popping out and seeing a friend and getting a coffee. Usually that’s such a great antidote to when you get frustrated with someone, just a change of scenery and then coming back and you see them afresh.
2. Not taking enough time alone
Relationship therapist, Esther Perel, talks about desire happening, connection happening in the space between. It’s that mystery, that little bit of space that allows people to feel wanting for each other and that bit of space is very small now. She has a book entitled Mating in Captivity: How to keep desire and passion alive in long-term relationships.
We’ve already been smiling and laughing in this interview. I think that’s one of the keys – finding the bits of humor. I know people have said to me they feel guilty having fun because we’re all aware of this. There are a lot of people experiencing loss, there’s a lot of grief in the collective spirit and personally many of us know people who are losing family members. It can be hard in that situation to feel it’s okay to have a giggle. But that can really help to just do something silly and creative with your partner.
It’s important to be aware and thoughtful about other people’s experience but also look after yourself. If you’re not having some time to rest, laugh and enjoy, then you’re not going to be available to be supportive to your partner when they’re down or hurting.
It’s important to look after ourselves when we’re talking about looking after our relationship. I started the guide with this little pyramid and I did a base of self-care. It just struck me, how can we be connected with someone else and available to listen to someone else and expect them to listen to us, if we’re not listening to ourselves.
If we’re over-tired and have not given ourselves any self-care, then the chances of things getting a bit fraught are higher. A lot of people I’m speaking to are not finding that they’re quieter at this time. There are a lot of people who are busier with responsibilities for caring, trying to support other family members or friends, perhaps different sorts of work duties or having to take on different tasks shopping etc. They’re busy and self-care is hard to prioritize. I remember hearing about meditation. They say that if you haven’t got time to meditate for half an hour, then you need to meditate for an hour. When you haven’t got the time is when you really have to double down and attempt to make sure that you get some time for you.
Giving somebody the space to be how they are without taking it personally, or thinking that it’s to do with us, or that we could be doing more to make it better and just simply being there without needing to fix it. That’s so key for all relationships, whether that’s intimate relationships or parenting and families. If we can just let the other person know, I can see that you’re really struggling, and I’m here if you need me. Without trying to make it better or make it go away. We are all going to be on this roller coaster whether it’s by the day, the hour, sometimes by the minute.
In my guide, I talked about a daily check-in which is used a lot in couples therapy, particularly if a couple doesn’t tend to talk about things that are worrying them, are difficult or that they would like to change about the other person. Sometimes people squash down the difficult things for fear of upsetting the other person. That can work for a certain amount of time but it’s a bit like an elastic band. You’re going to pull it and pull it and pull it and then it’s going to snap because it’s hard squashing down those feelings.
The idea of a daily check-in or a daily temperature reading, as it’s called in the guide, is to create either daily or every other day a regular space to come together and share things like pieces of information that you want to communicate and haven’t gotten around to, but particularly appreciation. That’s where I start in every bit of couples therapy – appreciation. It’s so easy to notice the difficult parts like the irritations, the frustrations and we get tend to get out of a habit of saying what we appreciate and what we are enjoying. That’s really important if that’s been missing, to get that back in regularly.
Another think I think is really helpful is to make requests. It’s so different. The quality of someone saying something like, you know it drives me crazy, you’re always leaving your dishes in the sink and instead, when you left your dirty dishes in the sink again, my request is that neither of us leave the dishes in the sink, as it’s really frustrating. It’s like making a request for change without having to kind of blame the other person or complain or when there’s a lot of blaming going on, it can just spiral down. But most people are really happy to listen to a request and the beauty of a request is if it isn’t something you can agree to, then you can say something and discuss it.
One of the really tough situations in lockdown is people suddenly having to work together in the same house when before they had separate work places. One of the things that really resonated me with the book “The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work by John M. Gottman” is the bids for attention. That’s when we say something like, “Oh, aren’t the roses looking lovely?” We ask that thinking that the rose is lovely and wanting to tell our partner that, but actually it’s a bid to be in connection with them and to have some kind of communication with them. The Gottman research shows that when those bids are consistently ignored and they’re just met with silence, it’s a predictor of divorce. It’s a predictor that connection isn’t really being made.
The Four Relationship Horsemen
These are from the Gottman book and if they’re happening regularly in your relationship, take it as a sign you need to take action.
It’s rife. You see it and hear it in your friends’ conversations. It’s so tempting to get together with your girlfriends and to have a bit of criticizing your partner. But actually, when you’ve chosen this person in your life, then it’s really helpful to actually remember all the qualities you chose them for and getting stuck into kind of criticizing them, it can be so damaging.
Gottman talks a lot in that book about eye rolling and again that being a predictor and I think we’ve all been there. Being at a party with a couple when one of them starts eye rolling when the other one is talking, it’s horrible isn’t it? We feel it. I think if you ever noticed you started doing it, that’s the time to get some help, to talk about it because it’s painful and it’s going to erode the love between you.
Defensiveness is very damaging. When there is a difficulty we need to be able to air it, listen to it and try and learn from it. When we get into just batting it off and defending, it’s quite a child place to be, isn’t it? A complaint is also a bid for connection. When relationships really get in trouble, is when there aren’t any bids for connection, so those complaints are actually a good sign. What could we look at and what could we change?
This is the ultimate problem when those opportunities to connect are simply met with a brick wall. If you’re not familiar with that concept, it’s just that we’re ignoring the other person and not giving them connection. Like not saying when you’re going to come back if you go out, not saying where you are. It’s actually somewhat abusive if somebody that you’re in an intimate relationship with simply stonewalls you and stops talking to you. Stonewalling is very painful. It’s our essence that’s being met with a brick wall. If that happens over and over again, the image I’m seeing in my mind is a flower wilting. We need that energy between us to keep growing, keep staying in connection, full of vibrancy and having life and energy in the relationship.
The Two Types of Couples Where Conflict Is Concerned
1. The couples for whom conflict comes relatively easy.
For these couples, it’s about learning when to step away and learning that actually nothing changes if you just keep staying stuck in that pattern. It’s about learning to step away and being able to keep those conflict situations to a minimum and try and stop them and then tackle some of the issues when things are less heated when you’ve come back to feeling more resilient. A lot of that is personal work for the individuals. If I’m working with a couple in that situation, then I’ll work with them both to look at how do they manage their own anger and how did they come back into equilibrium and calm down. It’s helping clients to come back to themselves and learn techniques to calm and suit their own systems so that they can then have calmer discussions.
2. The couples who never argue.
Actually being able to bring out some of our feelings is good. It’s really useful to express frustration, irritation, anger, but as what I call clean anger. To be able to name feelings like just saying, I’m really frustrated. Can I tell you about it? Would you listen to me? Rather than what a lot of people do is just pretend it’s not there or put on a smile or make things nice again. Because they can’t bear the idea that there would be any conflict at all and that’s just as unhealthy in the long run.
Remember this is your intimate partner. We take on many roles. Under lockdown we’ve been together 24/7 and so we’re often becoming quite identified with the work mate role, the friend role, the confidante role, the chef and restaurant diner role, all of these very practical things. I think it’s important to remember this is our intimate partner and that we find spaces with each other to share intimacy. What might that look like for us? How to have rich conversations about what a really nourishing intimate evening would look like for each of us, for example. What would we like to enjoy and explore? I think one of the problems that a lot of couples face is that they get into tried and tested patterns of this is what intimacy is for us and this is what sex is for us and it all gets a bit into a rut.
Expand what might be possible. Get creative, have a look online at different resources. I mentioned a set of cards called “Pillow Talk” from The School of Life which I think is really fun. Just having really brave, curious conversations about what you could do for the other one that they might really enjoy. It might be sensual massage. It might be reading something together, watching something together, but getting creative about what could be enjoyable. I would definitely recommend that and asking for what you need and remembering to take time daily for hugging and really keeping the physical bond close. When working with clients before lockdown, I would often encourage them to really pay attention to arriving back at home after being out and leaving, and really tuning in and being present for a hello and a goodbye.
David Schnarch is another great relationship writer who wrote the book, Passionate Marriage. He talks about a technique called “Hug ‘til Relaxed”, where you hug for long enough to let your nervous system get relaxed. Data does show that people have more physical intimacy when they have more physical intimacy! To actually be connected and have the body feel like it’s having a relationship as well.
It’s so natural to feel and notice the difficulties and to not always appreciate what we have got or feel guilty for feeling annoyed. We often feel we should feel something different to what we’re feeling and a lot of my work with people is to just make space to accept that sometimes we’re going to feel guilty. Sometimes we’re going to feel irritated.
Just be self-compassionate about going through a whole range of feelings ourselves and not letting those feelings overrun us and take over, knowing that they will change. Then coming back to appreciation that this person is a resource that we can lean on and they can lean on us, and that is really supportive at this time. It’s a whole mixed bag of things and I hope the guide helps people to not make themselves too wrong. If we get into difficulties, we can learn skills around common conflict or communicating more skillfully and learn to forgive ourselves if we mess up.
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