The Frustrating, Sometimes Terrifying, Totally Overwhelming but Totally Worth It Work of Being in a Relationship

Just like everyone else, when I am out in social situations I often get asked about what I do for a living. (Side note: Did you know this is largely a Westernized conversation starter?)   When people find out I am a therapist I either get the wide-eyed "I'm so not talking to you anymore" look - or I get the "Oooh!" look, followed by questions about my work.  Some questions I cannot answer because of confidentiality, but others, I can and am happy to answer.  One of the most common questions I get is about the types of cases I see, and most often, they're asking about couples.  Something along the lines of, "What brings couples into therapy the most?"  And the follow-up I often get is, "What would you say are some of the most important 'take-home' messages you give to couples?"

In other words, "Is my relationship normal, and what advice can you quickly give me about it?"  ;)

I most often get asked about my couples' counseling work - more than family work, kids or teens, writing/speaking, etc.  Couples are the hot topic.  Throughout the evolution of the human being, there has always been coupling - yet, it seems to consistently confuse us and create more conflict than almost anything else in our lives - and I lump myself into that group of 'we' as well.

Psychological systems' theory would say that is because the energy between two individuals is the most intense relational energy we experience -  many, many counseling theories and techniques have been developed over the decades just to examine and help with the things we do in response to this intensity.  When we feel the intensity of a one-to-one relationship we do any number of things, like bring in a third-party (how often do you complain about a problem to anyone but the person you have a problem with?), we engage in fight-flight-freeze (also known as arguing, leaving the room, or going silent), or if the relationship is overwhelmingly intense, we cut-off (i.e. divorce, disown, run away...).  So if any one-to-one relationship can be uncomfortably intense, imagine a romantic relationship - not only is it one-to-one, but it also includes sex, co-habiting, parenting, and blending values/families/beliefs.  In a nutshell, a romantic relationship, especially a long-term one, can easily be the most complicated relationship in our life.

Is it any wonder, then, that I get asked questions about couples all the time?  Not really.  Let's see if I can answer some of those questions in a real life, take-home kinda way.

From my experience (my blog posts are always from my experience, fyi...take what fits, leave the rest), couples come into counseling  when they've hit the end of their rope.  Actually, Gottman's research shows that couples wait about 6 years after a problem begins, before asking for help.  When they do come in, what I hear most is, "We need to work on our communication."  I always smile a little inside when I hear this because, in my mind, what I'm being given is the enormous task of helping a couple figure out their entire relationship.  Relationships are ALL about communication - communication is the blanket term for just about everything.  Money issues, sex, parenting, conflict, bonding,'s all about relating to each other and communicating to each other, verbally and non-verbally.   During the therapy, as we comb through the relationship, what I often discover is that I am being asked to side with one of the partners and help the other one "see the light", in a way.

It is one of the hardest things that a romantic relationship asks you to do - let go of being right.  Let go of "your way".  Let go of how things "should" go.  The more you are able to do that, the less resentment, criticism, and unfairness you will feel, and the more able to really hear you partner you will be.  I suppose that's the first 'take-home' message - let go!

The second 'take-home' is be kind.  It may sound overly simplistic - but most of our greatest relationship issues arise from an inability to be kind to each other.  I use the word 'ability' because I believe being kind to your partner is a skill you must develop, it doesn't just happen.  It is something you have to choose to do - because it is so much easier to be critical, to be defensive, to give the silent treatment, to roll your eyes and walk away - so you have to make a conscious choice to be kind, every single day.  When I get asked about the most succinct advice I can give to couples, this is what I say.

The fact that being kind has to be a conscious decision means you have to actually pay attention to your relationship and how you behave in it, which is not always easy.  As we get older it becomes more and more difficult to pay attention to a partner - children, work, in-laws, illness, money...those can all be very worthwhile distractions.  But at the core of it all is you and your partner, you two are the foundation and therefore deserve plenty of attention - if you don't work, everything else is affected.  Yes, you have to figure out how the bills will get paid and who is getting up with the baby in the middle of the night, and you have to deal with some of the great joys and terrible griefs of living - but it is possible for all those things to be sorted out with kindness - it's not easy, in fact, at times it can feel downright inconceivable, but it is possible.

Why go through all the effort of letting go and being kind?  Because the very things that make a long-term romantic relationship so complex, intense, and conflictual, are also the things that make a long-term relationship intimate, fun, and full of some of the most rewarding love you'll experience in a lifetime.

So, what do you think?  What other words of wisdom are out there for couples?  What have you been told, and what have you told others?