By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
When relationships get into real trouble, partners find that they then need to protect themselves from their greatest confidante; the person whom they’ve allowed themselves to be most open with. Because this person knows their vulnerabilities well, they feel especially unsafe and they begin to see their partner as the bad guy. If only he (or she) would change, we’d be happy again. They often hide behind emotional walls. They are also likely to take to heart the adage: The best defense is a good offense.
These same “partners” frequently pretend to be on the same team as they make it through the daily routine. They address mundane decisions, such as what to have for dinner, whether it’s necessary to bring the car in for maintenance, or who will take the children where. For some, there is a lot of yelling; for others, there is a deafening and chilly silence. In both cases, the greater their tolerance for this disharmony, the more the hostility will mount before they decide they need to take action to change something.
If this describes your relationship, the following tips might help you to feel like a couple again:
Focus on your feelings. In talking with your partner, briefly state what has happened or what he or she has done, but then elaborate on how you feel. By directing your attention there, you will be helping your partner to understand your distress; and you will not be attacking them. The result is that your partner is less likely to be on the defense and is more likely to hear what you have to say.
Acknowledge your contribution to the problem. You know everything your partner does wrong and have probably made those things abundantly clear. But have you acknowledged your part? I mean, aside from giving lip service to the idea that “it takes two to tango.” By letting your partner know that you are willing to concede your failings, you open the door to him or her acknowledging their weaknesses, too. Once the two of you can talk openly about your own issues, you will be in a much better position to help each other with your respective struggles and to work as a team to overcome them. (If you open up at various times and your partner repeatedly uses this against you, you need to address this, see a couple’s therapist, or seriously consider whether this is a relationship you can repair.)
Redefine the “bad guy.” Rather than looking to blame each other, make a conscious effort to understand what is going on for your partner. For instance, if you know that your spouse had a bad day at work, it can help you to attribute their snapping to the day’s stresses rather than to them.
Think about the consequences of your actions. While you might have good reason to defend yourself or judge your partner, consider what you say or do before acting. If you really want to improve your relationship, you need to act in ways that will help support the two of you working together, not just hammer home your point.
Keep in mind that if you have waited too long, you may need a therapist to bridge the gap between you. Even with that, you can wait so long that your relationship may still be doomed. So, the time to start repairing your relationship is now, with or without professional help. If you see your partner as a bad guy, remind yourself of the importance of addressing the problems. Then do what you can to return you both to being teammates.
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