Like strong houses, good relationships need a solid foundation.
So where to do couples get stuck in their relationships? In my long years of doing couple therapy, I’ve found that there are five key areas where couples struggle. If you are able to master these, you have a solid foundation for a successful relationship.
See how well you do in each of these areas.
1. Speak up.
This translates into several issues. Speaking up as opposed to biting your tongue and walking on eggshells. Speaking up to let your partner know what is bothering you, what you need. Speaking up to broadcast your emotions, letting your partner know your emotional state — irritable, depressed, anxious, etc. — both so that your partner doesn’t misread you, and so that they can know how to help. Speaking up to let the other person know what makes you tick — this is the foundation of intimacy.
Where couples fall down is when they do none or only some of the above. They bite their tongues, refrain from from letting their partner know what they need, avoid letting others know their emotional state and instead spray their emotions around the room, or hold back and simply not let the other person into their mental and emotional world.
Obviously, the key to speaking up is feeling safe; the lack of safety can come from your past relationships or your present one. If it’s the past, the challenge is to push against your anxiety in spite of your old wiring — baby steps are fine — to replace the past with healthier experiences. If your anxiety is rooted in the present relationship, you need to get this on the table. If you can’t say it, write it. If you can’t write it, go get some couple therapy to have a safe place to get things off your chest. And if no matter what you do, nothing changes, the safety never comes, it may be time to get out.
2. Be compassionate and positive.
Speaking up is about you. This is about the other guy. Here you’re not being a doormat, not allowing yourself to be emotionally abused, but instead you are able to empathize, put yourself in the other guy’s shoes, and not take everything as being all about you. This is what changes the climate, the doing onto others. And when you throw in looking for and talking about what is positive, the quality of the relationship can jump up even higher.
Where couples get stuck is that they not only overlook the positive, they each get into a trench-warfare or bunker mentality, where there’s too little to go around, where it’s every man and woman for him/herself, where the other guy is the enemy, and they have to be the one to make the first move if anything is to change for the better. The relationship turns into a perpetual blink contest, with building grudges and resentment, and no one budging.
3. Control your emotions.
This is not about being unemotional, not slapping on some superficial positiveness to avoid conflict, certainly not walking on eggshells and biting your tongue. It’s about talking about emotions, expressing them, but also being able to rein them in when the temperature in the room is getting too hot, when you are on the verge of saying things that could cause emotional damage. This isn’t just a good relationship skill, but a core life skill.
Where couples fall down on this, conversations go off the rails in nanoseconds and turn into a fight to the death, where there is emotional and even physical damage, where the climate is one of chaos or intimidation. Not good for you as a couple, certainly not good if there are children around.
4. Know your bottom line.
This has two meanings: One is knowing your bottom line in terms of what is important to you, your top priority, what’s important enough to fight for in everyday life. Without this clarity, either everything becomes a priority, leading to nagging and micromanaging, or nothing is, leading to a depressed passivity.
The other meaning of bottom lines is in terms of the bigger picture: What behaviors will you absolutely not tolerate, what’s your criteria for deciding that it’s time to leave? This becomes especially important for relationships that are struggling. Without a clear bottom line, there is the danger of staying trapped in an abusive relationship; you get so seduced into almost unconsciously always adapting and accommodating that you grow to accept a relationship that gives you little, that is slowly yet inevitably falling apart.
And this is where couples and individuals do fall down. When there are no priorities, battles are constant. When there are no bottom lines, years are lost in relationships that they hope will miraculously get better, but never do.
5. Solve problems.
This should be at the top of list, but I’m no longer surprised how many couples never get this on the list at all. Why? Because they have a big argument and make up, but avoid dealing with the problem again, because they are afraid of having another argument. Or they don’t argue, but actually never even talk about anything negative, because they fear any confrontation. In either case, problems are swept under the rug, emotional lumps that are constantly being walked around.
The results are that over time the number of safe, discussable topics grows ever smaller — the weather, the kids. Intimacy is lost, and the relationship is at best superficial and boring. By midlife, with so little to keep them tethered together, one or both are ready to walk out.
Problems are never going to go away, they are an inevitable part of life. But the only antidote to problems is to actively put them to rest through sane conversations and compromises. If you can’t do that for whatever reason, it’s time to get some help so you can.
That’s it, the big five. So how did you do? If you’re shaky on one or more of these, it may be time to do some thinking and planning to seal those cracks in the foundation of the relationship before they get worse.
Don’t keep doing what isn’t working; don’t just accept what you get.