HIH: Ask A Therapist - Relationship Advice
This week we are bringing you answers to some of your questions about love and relationships. We hope you find these helpful. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @soutientherapy, or visit us a www.soutiencounselling.ca for more.
Q: I recently got married and things have been going great. However, I can’t help but shake what people say about marriages turning sour after years and I’m afraid of that. What warning signs should I look out for so that I can prepare?
A: This question is a great example of how it is not conflict itself that becomes problematic in relationships, but how we handle the conflict. Some warning signs to look out for when conflict becomes a problem include:
Criticism: Attacking your partner’s personality/character instead of focusing on the isolated behavior that is bothering you. An example of this is saying, “You forgot to turn on the dishwasher? You always do this. You are so irresponsible.” The better way to handle this situation would be to share your particular complaint: “I’m frustrated that you forgot to turn on the dishwasher.” It is best to explain your point of view so that your partner may better understand you.
Contempt: Tearing down your partner or insulting them. Contempt is an open sign of disrespect. Examples include: rolling your eyes, sneering, and use of sarcasm to put your partner down. Instead, start with assuming that your partner had positive intent and then let yourself be proven wrong. Innocent until proven guilty.
Defensiveness: When your defenses come on you will experience a great deal of tension and be unable to tune into what your partner is saying exactly. Examples of defensiveness include: making excuses, denying responsibility and meeting one complaint with another. The antidote to rely on when you start to feel defensive is to accept responsibility for your actions. This opens up the conversation and promotes problem solving. Remember, the goal is to heal, not to further divide.
Stonewalling: This term is used to describe people who in times of conflict simply refuse to respond and, therefore, pull themselves out of the relationship rather than working conflict out. Partners often resort to stonewalling when they are feeling overwhelmed and don’t know how to respond. They might even know exactly how they feel, but are subconsciously afraid of saying the words out loud, instead opt to keep it in and sit in silence. The best way to not get caught up in this cycle is to learn self-soothing techniques so you can take care of yourself during a conflict, and create a calm environment for your partner and you to have an honest conversation.
Q: My previous partner cheated on me and completely betrayed my trust. I am dating again but find it hard to develop a trusting relationship. What do I do?
A. It is important to know that developing trust after you have been hurt will take time. Trusting someone is a process, and it’s important to not rush ourselves. There are many ways to mend broken trust:
Allow some time for healing; don’t rush into another relationship right away. This can be premature and can set you up for further disappointment.
Acknowledge and validate the pain you are in. We have a tendency to suppress what we are feeling and carry on. But in reality, the more we stifle our emotions, the harder they bounce back. So take some time to process the hurt and pain.
Be willing to be vulnerable again, despite your past experiences. Don’t make a new relationship pay the price for the hurt caused from a previous one. If we become overly conscious of getting hurt again, we not only close ourselves from the love, but also create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our overly cautious actions can inhibit us from creating a loving and trusting relationship.
Create boundaries with your new partner, and know that it is okay to assert your needs. We often want our partners to ‘just know’ what we want, but the reality is that in order to get what we want we need to learn how to ask for it. This leaves little to no room for disappointment.
Seek support from a trusted friend, or a therapist.
Q: My girlfriend often complains that I’m not a good listener. The problem is, I don’t really know how to be but I’m willing to try. Are there suggestions you can make so I can help my girlfriend feel heard?
A: A major step to building intimacy is to be a responsive when your partner tells you their thoughts and feelings. The next time your partner shares something with you, keep the followings goals in mind:
Be understanding. Ask clarifying questions and summarize what your partner has said so far and repeat it back to them. This allows the speaker to hear their own words out loud but also gives them an opportunity to correct you if you misunderstood.
Be validating. Ensure that your partner knows that they are accepted, respected, and valued. Let your partner know that you “get” them by using phrases such as: “I can see why that would be important to you”, “I understand why you did that”, “I imagine you must have felt _____”.
Be curious. Try to understand what your partner is saying. Ask open-ended questions that further the conversation, people like talking about themselves, give your partner the time and attention they need to process their emotions.
Be caring. Make it obvious to your partner that they are loved, supported, and that you are there for them. In order to communicate care: be affectionate in your words and behavior, let your partner know that you will be an ally for them in their situation, express support, and share their excitement.
Be silent. Yes, it is important to reflect with empathy, ask open-ended questions, but often it is just as important to shut-up and listen. Regardless of your intentions, give your partner space to open up, avoid talking over them.