If you’re in a committed relationship, you will undoubtedly come across challenging times. Unfortunately, we’re often ill-equipped to handle them, and sometimes the tools we think are best employed to handle the situation, only make it worse. It’s easy to be a good person when things are going well, but what kind of person are you when the shit hits the fan, when your relationship is falling apart in front of your eyes – do you shrink smaller and hope things get better, or do you rise to the challenge and put those pieces back together with sweat, tears and deep conviction? I’m not going to recommend some quick fix plant extract to save your relationship, I’m going to tell you the reality of what it takes, which is simply this – hard fucking work and a desire to make yourself a better person. Are you ready?
My relationship with my partner has been wrought with challenges. I’m Australian, he’s American, and therein lies our first decade of things to fight about. Dealing with extremely different value and belief systems, long distance relationships, moving in together immediately, moving across the world for each other, leaving our support networks behind, serious visa and immigration concerns, being forced to get married – the list is endless. Between the two of us, we have employed every different unhealthy tool to save our relationship – blame, control, defensiveness – you name it, we’ve tried it. We’ve both spent many nights feeling empty, defeated, hopeless, wounded and heartbroken. But still, I can say, he is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Why?
Because here’s the deal. Relationships are either a catalyst to making you a better person, or an excuse for your insecurities. Our desire should not be to perfect our imperfections, but to simply become whole, and relationships allow us to do that. I have grown more as a person in the two and a half years we have been together, than in my whole life. My parameters for life have expanded significantly, I know and trust myself more deeply, I’m more secure, more patient, more understanding, more compassionate – a better person. Challenges in relationships show you what you’re made of, and then give you the opportunity to change it if you don’t like what you see, which is often the disappointing reality.
I can’t simply tell you these things, unfortunately – you’ll have to learn them for yourself. But what I can do, is provide you with a different framework in which to understand your relationship, and maybe minimise your pain by sharing mine and the things I’ve learned in the process. Here are my 8 excruciating steps to saving your relationship:
1. Lean into the Discomfort
When things are going wrong, it seems much easier to simply pretend the issues don’t exist, or throw small issues completely out of proportion and use them as an excuse for why you should break up. These are two opposite ends of the same coping mechanism, which we employ because we believe that leaning calmly and gently into the discomfort or tension the relationship is creating will be too painful for us to bear. Here’s the thing, the very discomfort and tension you so are afraid of bearing is what makes you grow and evolve as a human. The coping mechanism does not. Did you think growth would be painless and easy?
2. Look to Yourself First
The very first thing I learned was this: every issue you have with your relationship is actually an issue you have with yourself. While yes, it’s true that your partner does not listen to you, it’s truer that you actually do not listen to yourself. In my first session, my coach* got me to ask myself this question: When is my partner an external representation of something in myself? And the answer was: in every issue I have with this relationship.
You are the creator of your life, in every way. If you’re in a committed relationship with a person, you’ve invited them into your life for a reason and that reason is usually what you’re trying to figure out, consciously or subconsciously. But here’s the thing, you cannot figure that out if you’re constantly looking to them with blame or to change, so you must look to yourself first.
3. Stop Minimizing, Denying and Blaming
Minimizing, denying and blaming are all very unhealthy forms of communication and they shouldn’t have a place in any loving relationship, but they often do – they certainly did in mine! We’re taught to operate in this way by our culture but then expected to know they’re unhealthy for a relationship. We minimise our partners ideas if they don’t line up with ours, we deny our partners the validity of their own experiences and we blame them for the problems we have in our relationship. Sometimes, we even blame them for our own insecurities. “If only you wouldn’t be so affectionate, I wouldn’t be so jealous.”
4. Stop trying to Change Each other
When I first got together with my partner, there was absolutely things I wanted to change about him, and him to me, too. He didn’t like the fact that I was so outspoken, I didn’t like the fact he was “over-confident”. And so we both tried to fit each other’s beautiful round souls, into perfectly square boxes and what ensued was a train-wreck. Duh! Ask yourself this question: Do I want my partner to be the most incredible version of their unique and beautiful soul, and will I do everything in my power to help that happen? If your answer is no, then it’s your job to get yourself there. Instead of trying to change each other, just focus on loving each other.
5. Keep Your Team Together
If one member of the team has a problem, the whole team has a problem, and you sort it out together. It’s you two against the problem; not you two against each other, over the problem. As a team, you can solve just about anything, but if you’re letting things get in between you, then even something as light as a feather could make your relationship crumble. Protect your team, like you’d protect your house against an intruder, even though the intruder is often your partner.
6. Listen to Your Partner – they seek to FEEL heard
There is a difference between you listening, and your partner feeling heard. Unfortunately, it does not matter if you are listening, all that matters is that they feel heard. The quicker you can get your head around this, the better.
7. Heal Your Past
How much does your past inform your present, consciously or subconsciously? More so than you’d probably think. When past hurts from the relationship have not been healed, they will manifest and cause new issues. Beyond that, how much are issues created in past relationships or in your childhood still unhealed and causing issues?
8. Be the better person
I saved the best and hardest for last. The most difficult thing about solving problems in relationships is when one person is on board but the other is not. It’s hard to be the better person when your partner is triggered and caught in a cycle that’s spitting out hurtful things to you. It’s hard to be the better person when your partner doesn’t even think there’s an issue in the first place. But someone has to be, so it might as well be you.
I will leave you with one of my favourite quotes by Andrea Gibson, which I believe sums up the process of evolving in relationships perfectly. It goes like this, “I said to the sun, “Tell me about the big bang” and the sun said, “It hurts to become”.
*If you’re having similar issues in your relationship, I would strongly suggest finding yourself a coach. Good coaches are hard to come by, and I don’t know what I’d have done without mine. If you’re on the lookout for someone, I strongly suggest contacting Rebecca Fresco on firstname.lastname@example.org – she is really the inspiration behind this article.