“If you can create a teamwork attitude towards meeting your common needs, there is the potential to strengthen your connection and save your relationship,” explains psychologist Sandy Peace.
You’ve been dating (or been married) for a while, and everything’s going great! No fights. Sex often enough. Fun times. Then one day, out of the blue – BAM! – s/he drops the bomb that s/he’s not happy. WTF!?!
How do you react? Do start obsessing about all the ways you might have screwed up (and what you should have done instead?) Get angry at the lack of communication? Feel misled? Lose confidence? Wonder if the whole relationship is a sham? It’s a huge blow to the ego when this happens and your first reaction may be to withdraw or fix it. As hard as this is, it’s a great opportunity to build more honesty, openness, and trust in your relationship if you take a different approach.
First, know that it’s totally normal and understandable to be hurt and angry if this happens. It can rock your sense of yourself, your partner, and your relationship when you find out that things are not going as well for them as they are for you. A natural reaction might be to feel responsible for your partner’s dissatisfaction. When we feel blamed, we get defensive and angry – which leads us to blaming our partner and not being able to see our part in their dissatisfaction. Or, perhaps the reaction is feeling badly and a desire to “fix it” as soon as possible.
Before you respond, take a step back and identify your feelings and needs. Perhaps you’re feeling hurt because you have a need to feel competent and her dissatisfaction is proof of your incompetence. Rather than try to push the emotion away, acknowledge it! Emotions are a useful tool to help us identify our values and if we are living by them. So if you’re upset, if means you value your relationship and want to do what you can to make it a good one. Have some compassion for yourself and get re-grounded in your values before proceeding. This might take a moment, a day, or a week. The more you practice it, the quicker you’ll be able to get back to a place of confidence in yourself.
Now you’re ready to engage with your partner. Do with her what you’ve just done for yourself: listen for and identify her needs. It is crucial to not get defensive or jump into fix-it mode right away! If your partner’s dissatisfaction is coming out of the blue, s/he’s probably been sitting on it for some time, trying to reconcile the tension on her own. We are not taught how to identify our needs or express them to our partners. Many people of all genders are silent about their dissatisfaction in relationships for fear that voicing their needs will result in rejection. If you jump into fix-it mode before you’ve fully heard, understood, and empathized with your partner’s needs, it can invalidate their feelings and shut them down.
So when she says “you never help out around the house,” rather than getting angry and defensive, or promising you’ll help more, identify her feelings and needs. Perhaps she’s been busy at work, is feeling depleted, overwhelmed, and disconnected and has a need for support, rest, and spontaneity, but the demands of keeping up with housework and business have taken up all her time. She may not feel able to ask for help, or is not aware of how depleted she is until she’s reached a breaking point. Maybe it’s her belief that to keep peace in the relationship, only positive emotions can be expressed. If you can demonstrate understanding and acceptance, she can relax and feel secure in the fact that her needs will be taken into account as you discuss solutions.
When we get down to the needs level, we usually find we have the same needs – we just have different ideas about the best way to get them met. If you can create a teamwork attitude regarding getting your common needs met, there is the potential to strengthen your connection. As you start to discuss solutions, and get stuck on the details, remember to return to your common needs. Remaining as open to novel ideas and solutions, rather getting stuck on one way of doing things, is also crucial. With good teamwork, we often come up with options we could not have come up with on our own. And that leads to stronger partnerships.
Photo–Flickr/H Michael Karshis