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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

Keeping Romance Alive - Commitment, communication and compassion

Jan 29, 2010 08:24PM
By Lisa Moore

Ah, the bliss of romance and courtship. We put on a wonderful show wining and dining our dates, dancing ‘til dawn and extolling their numerous virtues. But once the deal is sealed it’s easy to shift into mediocrity, assuming a marriage or long term relationship can thrive on the fireworks that lit up our hearts while dating. Feeling bewildered and disappointed, we wonder what happened to our dream relationship.

Once a relationship leaves the cheering grandstands and hunkers down in the trenches of the daily grind, constant diligence is required to keep it vibrant. If all of our energies go into work, childrearing, running a household and paying bills without proper attention to our mate, our romantic relationship will suffer. Relationships need daily encouragement and infusions of excitement to be sustainable. We never lose the need to be adored and honored by our mate.

Kate B. and her husband, Steve, enjoyed a lively and romantic two-year courtship before they married. They took romantic weekend excursions, surprised each other with meaningful gifts and spent hours talking, laughing and dreaming about their future. But after four years of marriage and the birth of twins, they barely have the time or energy to connect each day.

“As the provider, Steve is very consumed with his career goals and I am overwhelmed with childcare,” says Kate. “We are continually exhausted and tension and resentment have set in. We have been seeing a counselor to restore the connection we once had.”

Assuming that the good times will continue to roll without mutual respect and constant communication sets couples up for disappointment. Proper skills to effectively resolve conflict can help prevent marital meltdown.

Dr. John Gottman, founder of The Gottman Institute, an organization that helps couples restore relationships, videotaped over 3,000 couples to determine what makes relationships fail or thrive. He discovered that when discussing a problem, an unhappy couple begins by criticizing a partner's behavior. Next, an attack is made on the partner's character or personality, followed by expressions of contempt — a very dangerous factor. By nature, the attacked partner goes on the defensive, starting a counterattack. A fight typically ensues and the problem is not properly addressed or solved.

Conversely, happy couples use five times more positive behaviors when arguing, Gottman found. For example, they use humor to release tension and affectionate expressions to keep the discussion calm.

Gottman’s research indicated that most couples fight about four issues: Money –not having enough or upset or how their partner spends it, Sex-one person desires it more often or on different terms than the other, Work- varying expectations about who does what outside of the home and Children- disagreement on how to raise and discipline the kids.

To keep a difficult conversation from sliding into negativity, a few important communication techniques can help calmly resolve issues.

Use “I” messages instead of “you” messages. (“I’m concerned about our financial situation. Can we set a time to discuss this?”) "You" statements are demanding, controlling and critical, but "I" statements are self-revealing and invite understanding and genuine listening. Setting time to discuss problems insures a mutual commitment to focus on a problem.

Listen intently to your partner and offer empathetic responses. (“I understand that you feel taken for granted because you do most of the housework. I will help reduce your burden.”) Convey that you care and acknowledge the issue through your partner’s eyes.

Develop a solution that is acceptable to both of you. This reinforces shared decision making. Discuss obstacles that could thwart your solution and come up with strategies to work through them. For example, if you agree to put the children to bed three evenings a week, but discover you have to work late one night, what will you do?

Provide positive feedback to encourage your partner to stick with your joint solutions. (“I appreciate you putting the children to bed. I don’t feel like I have sole responsibility for their care.”)

Tammy Starling, a Charlotte-based psychotherapist, notes that many couples she sees have simple differences in perspectives, personalities, preferences or the individual style of each person. They struggle to identify and communicate the needs they each have in these and other areas of the relationship.

“This becomes a huge problem because we can’t read the other’s mind to know what he or she wants or needs from. Requests cannot be made unless the needs are identified and broken down into specifics for negotiating,” says Starling, who has been in private practice for 16 years.

Starling recommends a few tips to help couples maintain balance, integrity and emotional availability in a relationship.

CONNECT DAILY with each other around more than just the day-to-day logistics. Create the time and space to hear what is important/meaningful/sad/fascinating/frustrating/exciting to your partner even if it is brief. Keep this emotional connection going.

SUPPORT YOUR PARTNER in his/her interests and find something meaningful to the two of you that you can regularly invest energy in such as a charity, church program or community program. Co-create a vision together of how you want to make a difference in the world even in small ways.

BUILD WARMTH between the two of you as often as possible. Show affection, hug, kiss, be supportive and helpful, give genuine compliments and encouragement to each other.

DISCUSS WITHIN 24 HOURS small or large disappointments/frustrations/hurts that occur and create a loving space to hear and respond to each other.

LEARN THE LOVE LANGUAGE of both you and your partner and practice how to communicate in your partner’s love language. (From The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman) This helps communicate love and support in ways that are truly instinctive for his/her receptivity.

SCHEDULE AN ANNUAL CHECKUP with each other around the relationship and make an event of it every year – a trip, weekend away or even a few therapy sessions. Take an honest look at the relationship and each person’s strengths/needs, challenges and breakthroughs. Negotiate any requests of each other and honor and celebrate each other fully. Co-create a vision that includes each of your desires for the direction of the relationship and what you are called to be doing together.

Starling stresses that relationships can only make dramatic turnarounds with the huge ongoing commitment of each person to the process of healing and restoring the relationship. She considers it a miracle when the process is given the time and patience to unfold and has also witnessed many transformations.

“I have also seen couples with a great deal of love for each other simply decide that one or both of them did not want to work as hard as might be necessary to stay together,” she adds.

Restoring a relationship involves exploring all the unresolved issues underneath whatever has caused the immediate crisis. Though painful, the experience can be very life-giving and rewarding if each person is willing to be stretched to go there for the sake of the relationship.

“Relationships sculpt us in a million ways that none of us can ever imagine or predict as we enter into them. We grow, we change, we transform directly out of relating to this other very fascinating and also very different human being with whom we are choosing to so closely relate and partner,” says Starling. “We almost have to be as much in love with the sculpting/transforming quality of the relationship as we are in love with the other person in order to ride all the waves.”

After a few months of therapy, Kate is smiling again. “By learning to tune into each other’s needs and expressing ourselves in a non-blaming way, our relationship is stronger than ever. We are aligned in our commitment to do the necessary work to make our marriage as strong as it can be. I am now confident and hopeful about our future.”

Tammy Starling, M.Ed., LPC can be reached at or (704) 372-4010.

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