As a couples therapist, I feel like I have seen it all. I’ve had the privilege of sitting with couples during the most joyous times of their lives (like the birth of a new child), and the most painful (like the ending of their relationship). I’ve seen couples that escalate quickly into fighting, and couples that barely say a word to one another for fear of “rocking the boat”. But after thousands of hours and a front row seat into the inner workings of couple’s lives, I have found concepts that I think are paramount when considering our closest relationships.
The Relationship as a Mutual System of Dependence
Couples should view the relationship not simply as two separate individuals coming together to share their lives, but rather as an interdependent system in which they both react to one another. Any change on the part of one partner incurs a change on the other. Essentially, both partners act like a seesaw trying to balance one another out. Doing so implies that both partners must work together to maintain the right balance so they don’t tip their partner too high or too low. Because the balance can be difficult to achieve, they must learn to utilize their experiences (separately and together) as a way of growing together. Otherwise, they find themselves growing apart.
Repairing Ruptures is Essential
Even the best relationships have ruptures from time to time. A rupture is a break in the emotional bond between two partners. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if the couple knows how to make the necessary repairs. There will be times when the couple sees things differently and can’t get on the same page, times when their personality differences rub one another wrong, and times when they don’t feel heard or understood by each other. When these events occur, this is an opportunity for the couple to dig deep and learn more about themselves and each other by repairing the bond. When couples learn how to make repairs, they go from feeling scared and unsafe in the relationship to possessing a collective confidence in their ability to get through difficult times together.
Empathy Is Like Oxygen
Empathy is a necessity in relationships. True empathy means you can see the world through your partner’s eyes. You can take on their perspective and feel your way into their experience of the relationship. Empathy is the bridge between two people in separate bodies. But empathy does not mean that you give up your perspective, or that your view is not valid. Rather, it means that you are able to see multiple perspectives at once. Empathy is so important that I liken it to oxygen for the relationship. With the presence of empathy, the couple can breathe deeper; and without it, the couple feels like they are suffocating. Empathy is so necessary, that most ruptures occur because of empathic failures. One of the quickest ways to improve a relationship is to work on your individual sense of empathy for your partner.
Know Your Relationship Wounds
Learning to balance the seesaw of your relationship is dependent on knowing how to balance yourself. Learning your trigger points, and ways you protect yourself from painful feelings or closeness with your partner, is achieved through the work of self-reflection. If you have ever said things to yourself like, “I guess I’m not lovable,” or “I will never let my guard down again,” or “I don’t trust others’ intentions,” or “I can’t let myself be vulnerable or someone will take advantage of me,” then you may have old wounds that shape your relationship and prevent you from getting the love you want.
No doubt there are more than four things that are important in relationships. But when I reflect on countless hours spent with couples, these stand out as some of the most important. Helping partners understand their emotionally reactive cycles, creating a safe space to explore their old wounds, and building empathy for one another so they learn how to repair ruptures quicker and stay connected longer, encapsulate some of the most important work I do.
Thank you for the privilege.
- Tom Philp, LPC, CEO
Stonebridge Couples Therapy