- When an ailing parent is healthy again and no longer requires your daily care.
- When the job search is over and the dream job comes through, relieving financial concerns.
- When your child who has struggled with learning differences finally enters a school designed for their specific needs so that you do not need to be their entire support system.
When these types of situations require your attention, it can put a strain on the healthiest of relationships. But often life’s stresses just serve as a magnifying glass for relationship issues that were less visible—and easier to gloss over—in better times.
Look, situations like these ARE stressful, and they do put a strain on a relationship, and this is an important thing to recognize.
Because, when we acknowledge that there are additional stressors in our lives and allow ourselves to feel all the feelings that come up, we are able to face reality, as well as face the not-so-good-feeling thoughts. By doing that, we are less likely to project that stress out onto others around us, and more likely to engage them as allies.
In reality, we are not always able to do that and we end up projecting our pain onto others, and consequently, we add to their pain. So facing the truth that life stressors sometimes inadvertently cause us to hurt each other is a valuable thing to understand, and vital to accepting where we are, allowing us to take responsibility for our actions in that state.
But what if your relationship problems are not because of the stress?
The deeper problem arises when we take this understanding about stress and how it can add tension to relationships, and use it to distract us from a larger pattern in the relationship.
For instance, when our children are young, we often tell ourselves that we will be happy again once the kids are bigger. We think that the reason we aren’t happy is because of all the challenges of raising young children. It is physically and mentally exhausting to provide 24-hour care. With young children, you are never off-duty. We tell ourselves, “When the kids are older, I will have more time for my spouse. We will get along better, and things will be back to normal.”
What we aren’t yet recognizing is that our “back to normal” isn’t actually as great as we think it is. Life stressors (like caring for small children), impact a relationship, increasing the opportunity for both conflict and connection. The difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one is the way in which we engage these conflicts and turn them into connection or disconnection.
In healthy relationships, we discuss feelings and thoughts that are coming up around life stressors. We lean on each other when things get tough and treat each other as allies.
In unhealthy relationships, we withhold our thoughts and feelings and project them onto our partners resulting in blame and criticism. We stop seeing each other as allies and start seeing our partner (and what our partner is doing) as the source of our unhappiness.
Unhealthy couples also do not shift out of blame and criticism very often or at all. We just keep finding evidence of how our partner is not on our side building a bigger and bigger wall and increasing disconnection.
Why do some of us fall into and stay in the unhealthy zone?
This most likely goes back to our preconceived ideas about our roles as parents and spouses. These are often unspoken, assumed concepts. Healthy couples notice these differences and discuss them, coming to an agreement about how they want to fulfill their roles.
When we are part of an unhealthy couple, we avoid the issue and cast blame rather than tuning into our and our partner’s wants and needs. We assume that we are right and that the other person needs to change in order for us to feel better. The attention is outward.
So, how do unhealthy couples shift into the healthy and thriving zone?
It is simple. One person makes a choice.
The choice is to turn their attention away from their partner and back onto themselves. This is essential because of the universal truth that the only person or thing over which we have control is ourselves. It is an utter and complete waste of time to focus our attention on someone else changing.
Shifting attention back to ourselves allows us to answer these important questions:
How am I feeling?
Am I having sad, angry, fearful, joyful, creative/sexual feelings (or some combination) about this issue? Be honest with yourself and identify how you really feel, not how you think you should feel. If you are able to identify a feeling, notice if there is any judgment about it like “I shouldn’t be angry. I should be grateful.” If there is judgment present, you are probably resisting your true feelings. It is only when we acknowledge and accept our true feelings that we can allow them to move all the way through and free us from their grip.
What thoughts and beliefs are generating those feelings?
Tune into the judgments and stories rolling around in your head regarding this issue. Are you thinking your partner or yourself should or should not be acting or do something a certain way? Do you judge their behavior as mean, insensitive, demanding, unappreciative, etc? Do you tell yourself that your partner doesn’t do anything around the house, or help with the kids, or help with the bills, or plan dates, etc.—leaving it all up to you? Do you think you are right about your judgments and stories?
Do I want to continue to feeling the way I am feeling?
Your immediate response is probably, “Of course I don’t!” Though on the surface you may not want to, the results would indicate that you are committed (probably unconsciously) to feeling this way. This question is designed to reorient your attention from your judgments about your partner, and back to yourself to emphasize that you are choosing to feel the way you are feeling. You are choosing by staying stuck in certain behavior and thought patterns.
Am I willing to shift?
If I do not want to continue to feel this way, am I willing to commit to feeling my feelings fully, then drop or change my thoughts around this issue? The answer to this question indicates your willingness or lack of willingness to, first, take responsibility for the way you are showing up, and second, change the way that you relate to your partner.
The last question is the most important one in this process. Am I willing to shift?
If you are not willing to shift, at this point in time, you are committed to being “right” rather than resolving the issue. Perfect! It is not good or bad to be willing (or not willing), but it is vitally important to know in which place you are standing right now.
Either way, you are 100% responsible for where you are. If you are willing, your next step is to get curious with yourself and your partner. If you are not willing, at least you are really clear that you are choosing pain over freedom. Then you get to wonder about that.
If you are experiencing pain in your relationship and thinking it will get better when life gets easier, you have a choice: You can free yourself from the pain now. You can choose right now to change your relationship by changing your thinking.
All you need is willingness and curiosity.
The key here is that the attention is on you and your choices. You either choose pain or freedom, disconnection or connection, fear or love, unhealthy or healthy. But you do get to choose.