Tackle Relationship Goals like your Career Goals
Are you in a career that is growing or even thriving because you put effort into it? Think about how you became successful in this area of your life. Most people who decide a relationship is important enough to get married would say that relationship is one of their most important values. When we do not act in accordance with our values we do not feel good about ourselves, which is what usually pushes couples or individuals to see a therapist. The ironic thing is a lot of couples are very successful in other areas of their life, but have not thought about applying those same ingredients for success to their relationship.
Sure, in the first 18-24 months of the relationship you do not need to apply much effort. The relationship is easy because our brain is flooded with neurochemicals that cause us to “lust” over one another; this phase of the relationship is referred to as the limerence phase. In this phase of the relationship communication, desire, and getting along can be fairly easy. Then we have engagements and weddings that keep us flying high. Once all the dust settles and our brain shifts over to secreting neurochemicals of attachment, we all of a sudden find ourselves having to work at a relationship that we likely did not have to put much effort into until this point. If the couple has decided to have kids, this reality hits sooner and harder. We start to shift into autopilot, which might mean we act out ingrained schemas we already have for marriage. Schemas are internal frameworks we have acquired through our past that contributes to our understanding of what something means or represents: meaning a lot of us start to play out the kind of marriage we saw our parents have. Did we learn by watching our parents talk or treat each other a certain way? Did we watch them neglect each other or engage in novel activities to spark that lustful feeling again? Besides the marriage our parents modeled for us, where do we learn how to keep a relationship or marriage strong, in school, a class? Doubtful. Sometimes we see a relationship at a distance that we want to be like, maybe grandparents, a friend’s marriage, a couple on TV, but we do not often see the ingredients that make it successful. Further, neglect, while often overlooked in a relationship because it is not thought to be as harmful as abuse, can inflict deeper psychological wounds than some forms of abuse. If we feel neglected emotionally or sexually in our relationship, and especially if we experienced parental neglect, this could send very damaging messages like our needs do not matter, or we do not matter. Because the trauma of neglect is invisible, the signs are usually more subtle like silence or detachment/avoidance- less visible is the trauma (or overwhelming experience) of not having that connection in the relationship.
Couples often postpone therapy until they are at their wit's end, frozen from neglect or almost done with the relationship. A lot of times it is not a lack of ability or wanting the relationship to work, it’s that the couple did not have the tools and knowledge to consciously apply effort and work at it. They somewhere acquired an unrealistic expectation (maybe from watching those idealized relationships from afar) that if they just loved each other enough it would work. Instead, it is almost like they unknowingly have been working at letting the relationship deteriorate, while effort is poured into kids, work, the house, fitness and health goals. Yet when I ask a spouse, “What do you want to be able to say to your kids, your grandkids, or yourself at the end of your life about one of the most important, longest, relationships you have had?” All of a sudden things snap into perspective and we feel a sense of urgency to work at it, fearful of the response being, “uh well I kind of tried, I was busy, I had a lot going on, we just kind of drifted apart I guess.”
If you value your marriage, then work at it. If you don’t know where to start, ask for help. You need to be aware of your standards in a relationship, monitor it, and cultivate willpower and motivation to keep it strong- just like you did to be successful in your career. In my next blog I will flush out these 4 components in more detail, which by the way can be applied to other life goals for success.
I like to explain to my clients why talking about current or past stressful situations or traumas can be helpful. Many people might think, "I don't want to talk about it; it was in the past and it was uncomfortable so let's just move forward." I agree, and I understand this logic. And yet HOW we do this can have a big impact on our well-being and our relationships, especially in intimate relationships or with children if you have them.
I should also clarify that most people only think of traumatic events as related to situations as severe as war or being physically attacked when that is not the case; it is all about perspective. To a child, a teacher getting down to eye level and yelling at them in front of the whole classroom could be a traumatic event that could continue to effect them if left unprocessed. When we experience a traumatic event our fight or flight system turns on. Memories are being built up during the traumatic event in the hippocampal region of the brain, but our stress hormones kill the cells in the hippocampus, which does not allow for a verbal story of the event to form. This can be why it is difficult to put words to what happened to us; why the child when asked what was wrong that day by his mother in the example above just starts to cry and does not verbally say what happened, or when he does it is disjointed and does not make logical sense. The left side of our brain attaches words to our experience, and the right side of our brain attaches feelings. In the case of a traumatic event the two sides of the brain are not integrated until we DO something by attaching our feelings to a coherent story.
When asked to talk through what happened by a therapist with whom you feel safe and can help you regulate your emotions by staying in the present moment, you are integrating the emotional right side of your brain with the left side that puts words in a linear sequence to form a coherent story. By re-telling the story at a time when you are safe, you are creating a new, integrated memory that does not feel as scary or unresolved, with an added benefit of the memory not being as intrusive as it once was.
Why is it so important that we are able to do this? Amazingly we are finding through research in interpersonal neurobiology that we can have really hard or awful things happen to us in our life, but what matters is our ability to make sense of what happened. When we are able to do this we promote secure attachments with those around us, specifically our children. When we do not make sense of traumatic experiences that happened to us we continue to carry anxiety and might become triggered not knowing why, ultimately passing this pattern of insecure attachment on to our children.
So the past does not really stay in the past until we make sense of it. And actually when we don't make sense of it, it creeps into our current romantic relationships, marriages, friendships, and we might even pass on insecurities to our children. The good news is that all we have to do is process what happened and this could result in increased emotional regulation, less anxiety in relationships, and an even stronger ability to handle future stressful situations that may come our way.