24 Nov Three Suggestions for Improving Your Relationship by Sarah Frank, LMFT, ATR-BC
In even the most long-lasting, loving, and successful partnerships there come times of conflict. Conflict is naturally occurring in any interpersonal system involving two or more people and, when it comes to romantic relationships, it can create especially prominent barriers and threats to the sense of security a partnership is supposed to embody. Recent studies on adult attachment theory have shown that we look to our partners in much the same way an infant looks to its caregiver for safety, nurturance, and support to go out into the world confidently.
However, instead of one person being entirely dependent on the other, the goal is to have mutual interdependence. There are numerous books, podcasts, and presentations on the subject that I regularly recommend to couples and individuals I work with. For the sake of keeping things simple and digestible, though, I would like to touch on a few specific practices I find essential to creating a safe and open space for communication. And communication is crucial to growing and maintaining healthy relationships.
The first suggestion I have is to develop an individual mindfulness practice. Mindfulness essentially boils down to being present in the present moment. This may seem like a very simple concept but it actually requires much focus and intention, at least initially. With the advancement of scientific research and imaging we can actually see physical proof of not only increased blood flow and oxygenation but also lasting neurological changes through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of people who practice mindfulness through meditation.
When we are mindful in a moment of conflict with our partner we are able to take conscious interest in our partner’s viewpoint, thoughts, and feelings. This can have an effect of lowering our defenses and thus leaving more room for empathy and compassion, which seem to fly out the window at the onset of an argument. When we are able to consciously center ourselves and quiet the noise of a bustling world, we are in a more advantageous position to approach a conflict and problem-solve without becoming reactionary.
When it comes to communication, there are two main aspects that require equal attention, one of which is active listening. You may think you are listening to your partner during a conflict and somehow still not really hear everything they are trying to communicate. Active listening is a practice that involves fully concentrating on what another person is saying using visual observation, maintaining eye contact, and checking for clarification. Sometimes it helps to rephrase what you heard in your own words as a question to check for accuracy. Imagine someone doing this for you as you are trying to share your thoughts or experience; kind of validating isn’t it? Another important factor in active listening is being able to consciously set aside your belief that you are right when you go into a conversation (or argument) thinking you are 100% right you are not likely to take in any knew information and more apt to come across as inflexible which generally raises defenses in the other person. Again, not very conducive to getting a point across or reaching a solution.
The other component of healthy communication is what you are saying and how you express it. It may feel risky to say how you are really feeling. You might be worried about how you come across or fear making yourself vulnerable for criticism. Erring on the side of caution you may avoid some discomfort (initially), but then what happens to those unexpressed feelings?
Chances are they probably won’t just dissolve in your morning coffee. Waiting to express these feelings if you are in a very heated or emotionally flooded state may prevent potential injury to the other person but it is important to reattempt as soon as you feel able to communicate them more calmly and clearly. To help with these situations I recommend taking an explicitly announced pause or break (“hey honey, I want to continue this but I need a few minutes to calm down, okay?”). This can take some practice and works best if discussed first when not in an active disagreement. It can become a helpful tool that promotes both self-awareness and empathy.
These suggestions are by no means a complete solution for relational conflict and it might be helpful to seek professional counseling in order to have the space, time, and professional guidance to work through difficulties in depth and set healthier habits in motion. Remember, in relationships we not only learn about our partners but also ourselves. Struggles can be opportunities for growth if we choose to remain teachable.