As a couples therapist, I often hear from couples “We are pretty good. We just feel stuck.” Couples fight about the same things over and over again. They just can’t seem to break the perpetual arguments that come up over and over again. So they come to counseling oftentimes frustrated and misunderstood.
When couples come to me feeling stuck, often times they are exhausted and want to change but don’t know how. The desire is there, they just don’t have the skills to make a change happen. They want to communicate better, argue better, love better, and be understood by their partner.
When starting with a couple, I often tell them my goal is to set them up for success. I want to help them process their emotions so they can show up for each other even when it’s hard. No relationship is void of conflict. Learning how to have conflict without hurting each other is key to getting “unstuck”.
You can set your own relationship up for success by paying attention to these things three important and simple (although easier said than done) tips.
Relationship Success Tip #1
Be intentional with timing
Being intentional about when and how you talk about conflictual topics is huge in setting your relationship up for success. Take a minute to consider when you are and/or your partner at their best. Then choose to have difficult conversations at those times.
Timing matters. Is your partner a morning person or are they more of a night person? Maybe 11 pm as you are laying in bed about to turn the light out isn’t the best time to discuss your concerns about the in-laws coming to visit. Or maybe it is. Choosing a time when you AND your partner will be in a good physical and mental space to hear each other is important.
Relationship Success Tip #2
Slow down for more self-awareness
So we slow things down. In slowing down the interaction, partners begin to see the emotions hiding under the surface. Each partner begins to gain awareness around their own thoughts and feelings. This awareness of emotion enables them to communicate their needs more skillfully.
Big emotions can hijack an interaction and take control in a way that is impulsive, without consideration of a partner. This is when we see the behaviors that famous couples therapist John Gottman calls, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This creates distance in the relationship.
Sometimes all it takes is a brief pause or time-out to allow partners to gain self-awareness of your own feelings. With a fuller awareness of oneself, you can better express what you need from your partner.* This opens up communication so each partner can feel heard.
*If self-awareness of your own emotions is a particular challenge, this is often a place where people seek individual therapy in order to support relationship goals*
Relationship Success Tip #3
Curiosity saves relationships
Lastly, stay curious. Stay curious about knowing your partner and their world. Staying curious about the small things and the big things. When your partner is sharing a big emotion with you, stay curious. Ask questions to better understand what (and why!) they are sharing. Do not listen to respond, listen to understand.
Setting up your relationship for success does not happen by accident. It takes effort. If you are in a relationship and are feeling stuck it is ok to ask for help. Reach out to a couples counselor who can help you and your partner identify cycles of communication and underlying emotions impacting your relationship’s success.
About the Author
Kelli Carter, LGPC is a therapist at Montgomery Counseling Center, in Rockville, Maryland. Kelli is has completed Training in Level 1 Gottman’s Method. She explores how to build relationships with others and with yourself in order to help you in your daily life. She aims to help clients gain more self-awareness and give resources to be grow in healthy relationships with others. Kelli is currently accepting new clients at Montgomery County Counseling Center.