On the month of Valentines, I thought it was appropriate to discuss one of the hottest topics in my therapy practice. Over 70% of my clients identify their current relationship as their most significant stressor. Some want to try and make it work, while others need help figuring out how to leave. We work together to identify their relational stressors and find strategies to assist them in addressing their concerns.
When I ask my clients to describe the stressors in their relationships, they can usually identify a number of “problems.” Money, family, sex, jobs and household responsibilities top the list. When I ask them to elaborate, these terms gain more meaning. Clients share fears about not having enough money to achieve lifelong goals like homeownership, travel and retirement as well as the spending/saving habits of their partner. Family stressors include internal concerns like parenting and external concerns like in-laws. Sessions regarding sexual concerns can range from absence of sex in the relationship, sexual dysfunction, sexual addiction or even extramarital affairs. On occasion clients also identify unmet desires or fantasies which are troubling them. On the job front, most clients express some dissatisfaction at their job, or note that their partner is unhappy/stressed at work, which is having an impact on their life at home. The most common complaint that I have heard in session is a lack of equity in household responsibilities. While each of these issues may seem manageable on their own, there is a recurrent theme of dysfunction when it comes to how these concerns are addressed. After each client presents their perceived issues, I ask them if they have been able to communicate their wants, needs and feelings to their partner. The answer is usually somewhere in the range of “I have tried” to “no, we will just end up arguing.”
Intimate relationships engage us on so many levels: emotional, physical, financial, sexual, spiritual, and social; so it is crucial to work on your communication skills. In order to achieve relational balance it is necessary to have open and honest dialogue with your partner. You need to be comfortable expressing your thoughts and feelings and not be in fear of experiencing conflict. Often we are struggling with our own internal conflicts (Dialectical Tensions) of whether to be autonomous or maintain connection to our partner, to be open and risk hurt feelings/embarrassment or be closed and keep things to ourselves, or even whether we want to keeps things status quo or try something different in our relationships.
Relational communication can be divided into two basic categories: instrumental and emotional. Instrumental communication is how we get things done in the relationship. This includes making plans, assigning household tasks, organizing things, communicating dates, times, etc. Emotional communication is how we communicate our feelings to the other. So much of the challenge in communication applies to the uncertainty of how others will receive our communication. Will they be happy, sad, angry, or apathetic? Will they even listen? Many clients report that they avoid most important communication with their partner due to this uncertainty which can lead to anxiety and fear of conflict.
There are five styles of conflict management but not all of these would be effective in addressing relational conflict. Because our intimate relationships are ones of significant value it is necessary to utilize conflict management strategies that promote positive feelings and mutual respect. It is for that reason, we should NOT be utilizing Avoidance or Competitive strategies. Instead, I recommend focusing on Compromise and Collaboration. Compromise looks to split the difference between opposing views and achieve a middle ground. This strategy promotes feelings of equity as both sides are heard and given equal importance. Collaboration goes a step further by focusing on common interests and long term goals with both partners working to generate multiple solutions, evaluate them and come to an agreement on what works best. On occasion, it is also effective to use Accommodation when the conflict is minor and needs to be resolved quickly. One partner will give in to the other’s request so that harmony may be achieved. This should not be used as the only strategy as it may lead to one person feeling taken advantage of.
• Be Realistic in your expectations, recognize that NO one person can fulfill all our social and emotional needs.
• Acknowledge that your partner cannot read your mind-you must share your thoughts and feelings.
• Accept that conflict can be positive and when managed constructively it will lead to stronger relationships.
• Use positivity in your voice and body when communicating.
• Offer assurances-remind your partner of how important they are to you.
• Engage in shared activities (fun and play) as well as sharing of responsibilities.
• Develop supportive social networks that want your relationship to be successful.