Regardless of the status or style leading to your relationship stress -- whether you're a monogamist or a polyamorist, married or single -- you've experienced both the balm and the devastation of relationships. Successful ones 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 communication aren't priorities, 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 individuals experiencing relationship stress bears out that negative habits and cycles of thought, mood, and behavior -- including 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 go 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). Where both parties can down-regulate and own their feelings and concerns, guard and reactivity are unnecessary and caring sharing of concerns can occur. If we know how to self-regulate (i.e., calm our stressed body) during conflict and are willing for the work of repair or separation after conflict, we will feel the benefits of meeting discord directly and develop confidence around doing so in all our relationships.
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 some of us didn't have the conditions growing up in which to develop genuine personal and interpersonal regard, and none of us is expert at self-awareness or sensitivity of others' needs, so all of us could do a little better. Self-awareness will develop with our personal mindful engagement and yield ever more constructive interpersonal dynamics. Communication will improve with our practice of it in relationships, and yield greater honesty and trust. With honesty and trust in the room, all parties in a relationship can venture more mature speech and behavior, 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 essentially precious gifts to realize and offer in a relationship, not burdens to avoid or unleash. The hard stuff is inextricably connected to the good stuff and so the vulnerabilities and pitfalls deserve the same consideration as the strengths and resources (still there in essence yet shaky) that drew you to relationship in the first place.