I once asked a friend who had been with her partner for many years, how did she make it work?  She said “every day, we make a choice to stay together and always put effort into our relationship.” Back then, I was single and still believing the fantasy that finding “the one” meant that I would live happily ever after. I wondered why she said they needed to choose to be together? If you were happy every day, wouldn’t it be an obvious choice? Yet, after finding the love of my life, getting married, having kids, and being together past the honeymoon phase, I’m finally starting to understand what she meant.

As it turns out, falling in love is not the answer to all problems in life. After years together, regular life sets back in and who you were, before the being extremely in love phase, starts to reappear. If you’re a person predisposed to depression, you’re still that same person even when you have a partner. If you can’t sit still and need to fill every waking moment to distract yourself from things deep inside that are causing discomfort, that will continue once the days of laying around snuggling are no longer on the to-do list.  If you’re a work-a-holic, alcoholic, prone to anxiety, filled with quiet rage, insecure, jealous, negative, (the list goes on and on) that part of you will eventually show up again.  And the hardest thing about dealing with it is typically it shows up at the same time as your partners issues showing up.

What I’ve seen in many of my couples clients is that one person’s issue is the very thing that triggers the other person’s issue. This makes it very challenging to heal in the relationship. Instead, the two issues become more like two caged up dragons released from inside of each person to blow fiery words and destructive actions all over, taking down everything built by love.  Humans are flawed. Most people have deep rooted issues from life before partnerships were created that eventually make an appearance, causing destruction in the relationship. Just like individuals need time for self care and healing, so do relationships, even if it’s only been a few years together.

What is not talked about in terms of falling in love is the amount of effort and nurturing required to keep your relationship healthy and supported. Turns out that maintaining love until the end of your time is not as easy as you think it’s going to be when you’re single. This is why there is a whole field of psychology dedicated to marriage, families, relationships, and how to make them work. Below are helpful tips from just a few of the experts in the Marriage and Family Therapy field.

Let go of whatever your caregiver did to disappoint or hurt you.

Harville Hendrix, founder of Imago Relationships and author of the book Getting the Love You Want, believes that people select their mates by seeking “Imago matches,” who are individuals whom resemble their parents. People do this with the unconscious purpose of revisiting unfinished or unresolved issues from childhood. By taking time to resolve these childhood issues, partners can find a safe, passionate, and committed conscious relationship with each other. Without taking the time to resolve the issues, individuals continue to project past hurts onto their partner, expecting the partner to heal those wounds. It’s up to each person in the relationship to locate their past hurts or disappointments from their childhood and work towards healing it themselves.

Know how you attach.

By looking in to the past, couples begin to understand how their early attachment style is showing up with their partners today.  Through the research Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby did on attachment, four main types were created: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant.   Emotionally Focused Therapy, created by Sue Johnson, focuses on understanding these types and the importance of rebuilding a safe emotional connection between partners which creates a stronger and healthier attachment bond.  In her book Hold Me Tight, she presents seven conversations that help couples identify negative and destructive remarks, and how to locate each others raw spots.  She also speaks about the importance of forgiveness for maintain the bond and connection.

Discover your triggers and figure out their alternatives.

If destructive emotions are at the heart of all issues in a relationship, tools for getting control of them are key to building a better relationship. By using mindfulness and distress tolerance, the book The High-Conflict Couple by Alan Fruzzetti teaches couples how to deescalate angry situations before it ruins the relationship. The author explains that identifying triggers, and alternatives to those triggers, helps people to respond to each other in a more respectful way.  To learn more about meditation and how it can help, visit Liberation Institute’s Urban Retreat Center (1227A Folsom) on Thursday nights from 7-9p for Meditation Heart Camp Therapy Group. (https://www.liberationinstitute.org/events)

“I statements” and “Active listening” are not the only answers.

While these tools may help improve communication between two people, they do not always improve the relationship. In the book The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work written by John Gottman who started the Gottman Institute, he debunks myths like this and others, reminding its readers that “avoiding conflict will ruin your marriage” and “reciprocity is what keeps a marriage good” are simply not true. He shares that happily married couples may still have conflict and that keeping tabs on what the other person has done for you lately can be damaging because it stops one person from doing something nice for the other since the other person hasn’t done it first. He shares that most if not all marriages have arguments that cannot be resolved, and it’s okay.

We all have unresolved issues from childhood or past relationships that live inside of us like caged dragons. Ignoring them will not make them simply go away. If we take the time to become aware of when our triggers have unlocked the cage and let the dragon out, we can stop it from destroying everything. Self-awareness gives us the space to think before we react. It’s that very space where peace and tranquility in the relationship lives and if we can figure out how to pause before our emotions speak, then we can find a way to stay in that place with our partner even when upset or in conflict.  By understanding that no two people are alike, we can remind ourselves that sometimes, partners are simply never going to agree. And it’s okay. There is no need to continue telling the other person how you feel with I statements, and actively listening to their frustrated and repetitive response. If we take the time and put in a little extra effort in our relationships, we can renew our bond, strengthen our attachment and create a better relationship with our partner.

Elizabeth Hoke, MFT
Assistant Director
Liberation Institute