Regardless of the status or style leading to your relationship stress -- whether you are a monogamist or a polyamorist, married or single* -- you've experienced both the balm and the devastation of relationships. Successful ones, however you would define them, seem to thrive on mature self-awareness and patient, honest communication with your partner(s). Good relationships have the power to mitigate loneliness, soothe emotional and physical stress, and promote security and longevity. But where self-awareness and/or communication aren't prioritized, neglect in relationships has been thought to contribute to greater isolation, stress, insecurity, and physical/emotional suffering for all, including those peripheral to the relationship.
My treatment experience with couples and other relationship systems experiencing stress bears out that negative habits and cycles of thought, mood, and behavior -- which include fear and defensiveness, high expectations, low curiosity, harsh judgments, and failure to repair after arguments -- are major culprits in crumbling connections. When fears are regarded with care and respect, when expectations of how things should be give way to curiosity about how they are, kindness and humor in negotiations take the place of sharp-tongued battles, honesty precludes deception, and repair becomes a joint effort based on strengths and resources.
To the extent that we can approach and understand our individual habits and cycles, shaped greatly by our families of origin and then in our teen and early adult years, we will be able to pause during arguments, find a calm space within, and recognize our honest experience, concerns, blind spots, and responsibility. Flowing naturally from that self-awareness and self-care is our extension of awareness and care to our partner(s); as long as they're not in attack mode, we can drop our guard and invite their honest sharing of experience and concerns. If we know how to self-regulate (i.e., calm our stressed body) during conflict and are willing for the work of repair after conflict, we will feel the benefits of meeting discord directly and develop confidence around doing so as needed.
Ideally, we would be able to say that we already care pretty well for ourselves and our loved ones during and after conflicts, that we do a good job of being there for our partner(s) as needed. But few of us had ideal conditions growing up in which to develop mature coping skills in relationship, and none of us is expert at self-awareness or communication, so all of us could do better. Self-awareness will forever develop with our personal mindful engagement, and yield ever more sensitive communication. Communication will forever improve with our practice of it in relationships, and yield greater honesty and trust. With honesty and trust in the room, all parties in relationship will be able to relax into deeper self-awareness and better communication, and the full cycle of constructive conflict and repair will occur.
Therapy provides a safe space and encouragement for subtle awareness and sensitivity in communication to develop. Through joint sessions we can better understand the old fears and habits each person brings to the troubled relationship -- not as faults to confess or feel ashamed of but as powerful indicators of the conditions each person and the relationship as a whole can and cannot abide. All these, our fears and whatever triggers and liberates them, are precious gifts to realize and offer in relationship, not burdens to avoid or angrily unload. The hard stuff is inextricably connected to the good stuff and so deserves respectful expression and holding every bit as much as the more approachable and appealing strengths and resources, likely still there yet shaky, that drew you to relationship in the first place.
*Where relationship stress leads to relationship loss, it's important to note that more singles than ever are enjoying the psychological, physical, and social benefits of their legitimate status.