With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, our thoughts turn to the often-tricky area of romantic relationships. Along with the hearts and flowers come the inevitable difficulties, even in the best-suited couples. So let’s not ignore the potential problems that can arise, but instead, focus on how best to survive them.
Almost everyone lists relationship difficulties as among their top causes of stress. Although we have a need to be connected to others, our relationships commonly are a source of misery.
Stress triggered by relationships can show up as problems such as depression, difficulty sleeping, or high blood pressure. Understanding that stress can be caused by our relationships — and the unique ways we and our partner respond to it — enables us to avoid these symptoms, make the most of the relationship, and sail through the ups and downs.
However, all relationships are different so we have to figure some of it out for ourselves. If we are not aware of exactly how we are acting, we may experience relationships as distressing and painful without understanding why.
We often misunderstand relationship problems because much of the time, the causes arise from hidden patterns within us, not from others’ behavior or attitude. The problem is we often don’t notice the role that we play. Hence, many people are left in the dark over what it takes to create a happy, successful, long-term interpersonal relationship.
One useful approach to dealing with relationship problems involves these steps:
- Defining the problem, e.g. “My husband doesn’t pay me enough attention.”
- Identifying the patterns which are causing the problem to arise and continue, such as low self-esteem, for example.
- Thinking of ways we might be contributing to the problem, e.g. ignoring displays of affection.
- Taking action to disrupt the automatic behavior patterns, e.g. noticing small signs of caring.
- Seeking outside help. If the problem continues despite your best efforts, relationship counseling might help.
Some common negative relationship patterns include:
- Assuming we know how to make a relationship work. Many of us assume that our relationships should work just because we are good, nice people. The truth is often that to succeed in our relationships we must learn to recognize and deal with problems. Most people think that if they just find the right partner or if they feel strongly “in love” with another person, their relationship will succeed and they will live happily ever after. This common mistake is a hidden cause of stress. Instead of finding out what it really takes to succeed, we act like we already know. But it’s a life-long learning process.
- Trying to change people. Much of our relationship stress comes from our conscious or unconscious attempts to change or control other people. We try to get others to behave differently, and when they don’t change, we become frustrated and angry. If we keep trying to change them and fail, we just get more angry and disappointed, while they may become hostile. But if we try to change our partner into someone who thinks, feels, and acts just like us, we are judging them rather than respecting and appreciating their differences.
- Being critical and blaming. Of all the relationship-destroying patterns, the most damaging is the tendency to blame someone else when relationship difficulties occur. But this stops us from seeing the part we play and the fact that often we have the power to successfully resolve the problem.
- Ignoring others’ opinions. Another relationship-destroying pattern is invalidating others’ opinions and points of view. This stems from our basic tendency to want to be right most of the time. But while proving yourself right may allow you to feel temporarily satisfied, your partner often ends up feeling hurt and resentful.
- Comparing with other relationships. Avoid this tendency at all costs! Remember that even though other couples may look happier, we never know what really happens behind closed doors.
- Not dealing with anger and criticism. Instead of defending yourself or counterattacking, assume there may be an element of truth in the accusations or criticisms from others. Benjamin Franklin once said, “The sting of any criticism comes from the truth it contains.” This will also cause the person to stop being angry. Keep the focus only on what you did or didn’t do and ignore any generalizations or personal attacks.
Try to recognize when these patterns are triggered within you and resist the temptation to act upon them.
Tips on working towards a successful relationship:
- Make a deep commitment to the relationship. Be aware of the loss of freedom this involves, and the need to keep your promises.
- Accept the other person as they are, including all their faults, weaknesses and quirks.
- Communicate openly and honestly. Share your feelings and listen attentively.
- Take responsibility for your mistakes.
- Be open to negotiation and forgiveness — aim for a good compromise, and keep going till you get there.
- Use conflict positively to stimulate discussion. Try to let go of your need always to be right or in control.
- Give and receive support, trust and loyalty.
- Have fun together and be friends too!