The Key to Effective Relationship Therapy

As a relationship therapist, my job description includes destabilizing the status quo of relationships that aren’t working. No matter how much you want your relationship to change, change is uncomfortable. It involves trying new things, adjusting to new ways of being and relating, digging deep for empathy and generosity of spirit, and generally wading into the unknown. 

Relational therapy also involves a commitment to personal growth. That often requires quite a deep look at oneself, which can be surprising and unsettling. Usually people start therapy when they feel very frustrated and dissatisfied with their relationship. Often this shows up as a strong desire for change in one’s partner: “If only my partner would change this, that, and the other thing, our relationship would be great.” So then, it might come as a bit of a surprise when you arrive in my therapy room, that the first thing I want to discuss is what you might want to change in how you are showing up in your relationship. 

I start there because, in my opinion, this is the difference between relational therapy that does work, and relational therapy that does not work. If each partner is able to identify at least one or two things they are doing that aren’t working very well in their relationship, that is a good start. The next step is to find individually-motivated reasons why each partner would want to change those things. “Because my partner wants me to” isn’t as effective a motivator for change as (for instance) “because it is the kind of person I want to be.”

It is so easy to look for external changes to circumstances (my partner changed and our relationship got better) rather than internal ones, but here is the unfortunate (and hopeful!) truth:

You can’t be the same person you are in the current non-working relationship and expect to have a relationship that DOES work. You have to become the person you want to be in the relationship you want to have and then observe what happens next. Hopefully, you will find that the relationship transforms as well.

Balancing Novelty and Comfort in Romantic Relationships

We expect a lot from our partners. On the one hand, we develop relationships based on love and romance. We yearn for attraction, excitement, a spark. On the other hand, when we’re forging lifelong partnerships, we also seek stability, reliability, and a predictable, comfortable status quo with a lot of emotional safety. 

Naturally, different people prioritize different aspects of partnership. Some people are perfectly happy to sacrifice the thrill of the crush for the solidity of companionship. Others would rather focus on the magic spark. But most of us want a measure of each. 

It’s natural for human beings to seek both novelty and reliability, excitement and comfort. But it’s quite a balancing act in a long-term relationship. Consider: the thrill of the crush comes in part from multiple uncertainties, including “do they like me, or not?” But the comfort of a best friend comes from the abiding certainty of their lasting affection. How can our partners be both thrilling crushes and trusted friends? 

Part of the puzzle is simply the recognition that the early, head-over-heels infatuation phase of any romantic relationship must come to an end at some point. As magical as this phase is, we need to return to equilibrium at some point, if for no other reason, so we can get some sleep and accomplish some things that fell by the wayside while we fell in love.

The early phase of relationship includes focusing on ways in which we are similar, and stretching to be more alike. Together we create a sense of similarity and high regard that, ideally, can be the foundation for a lifelong relationship. It is also healthy for it to pass, and to give way to acknowledging our differences, reconnecting with ourselves and our individuality, and noticing there are things about our partner we don’t like.

It is easy to focus on the down side of differentiation, because as we notice and acknowledge our differences, we often disagree. This transition can be rough, and often includes significant disillusionment. But consider this: desire requires difference. 

If the romantic spark is fading in your relationship, or perhaps faded a long time ago, ask yourself if you might be overly emotionally entangled, or a little too safe, predictable, or known. 

In the right circumstances, asserting difference can be a powerful aphrodisiac. It allows partners to see each other in a new light, and desire one another anew. 

Every individual in every relationship has to find their own way to address this challenge. Here are a few ideas:

  • Have new conversations. Turn off devices and learn something new about one another over dinner or breakfast. I love Vertellis cards for this, but if you’re great at curious, creative, thought-inspiring questions, you don’t need any prompts. Not matter how long you’ve known one another, you don’t know all there is to know. Get creative, go deeper, and discover your ever-changing partner.
  • Do new things. Turn off devices and create some memories. What sounds like fun? Start with a brainstorming list of at least 30 ideas of things that sound like fun to one or the other of you; you don’t have to agree, just brainstorm. Try to include things that take a few minutes, as well as some that take a couple of weeks. Include things that don’t cost anything, as well as big ticket items. 
  • Read a book together. Ideally, this would be about something that interests both of you. Organic farming? International travel? Lifestyle choices? Get inspired, and learn something together.
  • In the same vein, take a class together.
  • Look for the spark within yourself, and then share that with your partner. We have a weird cultural belief that we need other people to light us up, turn us on, excite us. While other people and deep connections can certainly be amazing, you also have the capacity to light yourself up. Have you lost your own connection with excitement, fun, play, novelty, or pleasure? Ask yourself: “What do I do to light myself up?” and start doing it!

How to Understand the Stories That Shape Our Lives

We make sense of reality by means of story. It’s human nature. And the stories we tell ourselves deeply shape our lives. They determine how we see ourselves in relation to others and how we connect our disparate experiences into an overarching narrative.

There’s a term that therapists like to use: “making meaning.” It refers to the process by which we take our experiences and transform them into a narrative. Maybe you’ve noticed how two people can see the same situation in completely different ways. Have you ever had the experience of saying something you think is innocuous, only to have a friend interpret it as a veiled accusation or an attempted guilt-trip? Or the reverse—taken an innocent comment by a friend as a slight?

This is a result of “making meaning.” We are engaged in an ongoing, never-ending process of making educated guesses about what is going on in our lives—based on intuition, which is based on past experiences, which leads to making assumptions—about other people’s intentions and perceptions. And sometimes we may not even be aware of the assumptions we’re making—which can lead into some pretty messy territory!

Sometimes the narratives we tell ourselves can get in the way of our happiness. Have you ever had a running narrative in your head to the tune of “Nothing I do is quite good enough” or “Everybody is trying to hide something from me,” or “I’m always running behind, and if I stop working for second, everything will fall apart” or “Nobody will ever love me, because I’m too (insert negative self-judgement here)”? I think everyone has a few of these broken records playing in the back of their heads from time to time. Can you identify what yours sound like? Can you think of moments they’ve shaped how you interpret a situation?

It’s all too common for these kinds of harmful narratives to get in the way of our relationships. If you’re primed by your running narrative to think that people find you disappointing, for instance, consider how much damage could come from living through that narrative in your closest relationship—and consider the relief that could come from recognizing the narrative, checking your assumptions, and discovering that the reality of the situation is much less all-or-nothing.

Checking our assumptions is an essential relationship skill, and getting to a point where this can be a stress-free aspect of conversations with our partners will prevent or remedy a lot of suffering. If we want to avoid being controlled by narratives that may not be accurate, we need to ask nuanced questions and really listen to the answers. We also might benefit from honing our ability to bravely share the fears and vulnerabilities that underlie the assumptions we make. Here are some steps:

  1. Pause. The best thing to do in a charged moment is the exact opposite of what you instinctively want to do. Instead of charging forward with your anger, defensiveness, or anxiety, pause. You have plenty of time to address what’s going on. There’s no hurry. Breathe. Notice what you’re feeling, in body and mind.
  2. Identify our narrative themes. What fears return to you again and again? When you feel anxious, lonely, angry, or sad, what stories run through your mind? Can you think of times you have interpreted a perhaps innocuous situation negatively, and can you identify what you were thinking at the time? Once you identify your narratives, they become less automatic. You can start to set them apart from your immediate experience, notice them, and question them.
  3. Reframe the situation. Describe what you’re noticing, as neutrally as possible. Don’t catastrophize or draw connections to the past. Notice the assumptions you’re making, and make an effort to think of at least one or two alternative explanations. “My partner pointed out the dishes in the sink. This set off a narrative in my head that they’re mad at me, and I’m a big disappointment to them, but another possibility is that they are reminding me that the dishes are not yet done and people are coming over for dinner later, and is true that I agreed to do the dishes; it might not be coming from a critical place, it might be coming from a helpful place. Or maybe they are looking for a way to re-open the discussion of who should do the dishes. Or maybe they are not really thinking, and it was an expression of their own mood, not really anything about me at all.”
  4. Check your assumptions with your partner. Once you’ve paused, identified your narrative, and reframed the situation, you may already feel better. But if you’re feeling unsettled, it’s a good idea to check in with your partner. You might say something like, “Darling, what you said just now brought up some feelings for me; what did you actually mean when you said it?” Or perhaps, “What’s going on for you right now about (fill in the blank with the current topic)?” You’re likely to find that the situation is much more nuanced and less negative than you may have assumed, and your partner may be able to provide you with a fresh understanding of the experience. Even if it turns out your partner was criticizing you, at least you can have a reality-based conversation about it rather than relying on assumptions and mind-reading.

It’s important to remember that the goal of this process is to check your negative assumptions, not to avoid meaning-making altogether. At the end of the day, meaning-making is pretty unavoidable—and it’s not a bad thing. Meaning-making is also how we find joy, fulfillment, and compassion in our lives. It also helps us avoid potentially dangerous or difficult situations. However, if we can reframe our negative narratives, we can open up doors to better ones—ones that allow us to view ourselves and our partners with more compassion, appreciate the the joys of everyday existence, and see ourselves as participants in the scheme of life. Our narratives quite literally give our lives meaning. Shape them with care.