I remember sending a “Dear John” letter home from a mission trip to my boyfriend in high school. At the moment, it seemed like the right thing to do. He had not been supportive of me going on the mission trip, and it made things difficult. You see, I grew up believing the relationship myth that says: “If a relationship is hard, it’s not meant to be.”
I guess I should not be surprised that I’m hearing that from multiple couples during this time when most people are working from home. I think most people enjoyed working from home the first week, and possibly the second week too. However, when we are not accustomed to being together all day every day, and we are forced to stay indoors with one another, challenges are more likely to arise.
It’s not only happening with couples, it’s happening in many households with family members. Calls to CPS (Child Protective Services) and APS (Adult Protective Services) are at an all-time high. Sad to say, many do not “cope well“ with cabin fever.
I have some great news (that may sound strange when you first read it). I hope you will stick with me, and allow me to explain. Here’s the news flash: “No relationship is without challenges. And when things get difficult, you are likely facing the greatest opportunity for growth, healing and intimacy!“
Sounds totally contrary to the myth that I grew up with. That myth that says: “If things get hard, it’s simply not meant to be.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
When I learned this, I spent a lot of time pondering what could’ve been/might’ve been had I not broken up with my high school boyfriend because of my belief in the myth. Of course I do not know the answer to that. But my great hope is to share some things that prevent you from making decisions right now that would cause you regret, or wondering what might could’ve been/might’ve been down the road.
No one enjoys moments of conflict or difficulty. Yet if they provide us some of the greatest opportunities for intimacy, healing and growth, I feel certain you would want to embrace that opportunity.
I hope you will read all the way through because I would like to share some things that will help you capitalize on opportunities that might be very helpful to you in this difficult time of being “sheltered in place” (at home). I’ve enjoyed hearing what my clients have renamed the situation. Things like:
- Imprisoned in my own home
- Locked away from life
- Stuck with people I don’t even like that much
- Held captive against my will
- Held like a jailbird with no bond
I hope it doesn’t feel quite that dramatic where you are, but regardless, close quarters often create challenges.
So what on earth can I do to turn what we are experiencing in our relationship to a great opportunity? I’m so glad you asked. I will share some steps along with research that I hope will be very helpful to you!
1. Make a commitment to complete these steps daily for one week. You have nothing to lose by faithfully following them for the next week. When I share these things with my clients, I tell them that they may not necessarily feel comfortable, or natural.
I usually hear comments similar to this: “If these things are so effective why haven’t I ever heard of them before?” And that is a very fair comment. One that all of us use when we are challenged to do something new and or uncomfortable.
I normally share some humor with them before explaining the more serious response. I normally say, “Because Oprah and her team have not heard about me yet.“ That always gets a good laugh!
Then I tell them that research says that the smartest people in the world only know about 1% of what there is to know. And even if we doubled that research to 2%, it is highly likely that Terence Tao, Marilyn Vos Savant and Christopher Hirata (the three smartest people in the world currently) have never heard of these steps.
Yet hundreds and hundreds of couples turn frustration, stress, and difficulties into intimacy, healing and growth regularly using these steps.
I hope you will read this through and give it an honest effort.
2. Begin and end each day with sharing a gratitude for one another. Do so regardless of the state of your union at the moment. Research reveals that when we express and/or hear gratitude, it brings our brain waves and heart rates into sync.
Research also shows that a number of beneficial things occur to us when expressing or receiving gratitude:
- It abates some of the stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in our systems. Why is that important? Because when things are difficult, our bodies produce an abundance of stress hormones which have negative health and mental health effects
- It causes our brains to release oxytocin, which is a hormone that creates positive feelings and a desire to bond and connect
- It causes us to become more resourceful in finding solutions to challenges
- It decreases depression, which is often present in difficult times
- It decreases anxiety which most people experience when in the midst of conflict
- It creates a sense of optimism
Whatever difficulties you may be experiencing, I think you would have to agree that all of those benefits could be helpful.
You may be thinking, “Well that’s all fine and dandy, but I don’t feel like expressing gratitude right now.” That is totally understandable. But don’t miss this! Do it anyway! Research shows that the more difficult it is to express or receive gratitude, that the benefits listed increase exponentially.
It takes a lot of relationship maturity to do this. I totally get it. I’m only asking you to commit for one week. Even if it’s difficult, I know you can and will do it!
3. Write three things you love about your partner first thing in the morning. Whether you do it on your phone, in a journal, or on the back of a napkin… Write them and say them out loud.
Again, I know you may not see how doing this could help. But I promise you, even if you have to think back a few years, there are three things inside of you that you love about your partner.
Why write them down. Why say them out loud? First of all writing them down sets your reticular activating system (RAS) to searching your history for things that are positive. Our RAS is our brain’s search engine. But it not only searches our history, but it sets the search forward as well. It not only pulls up the experiences from the past that you love, but it sets your brain to searching for experiences throughout the day … of things you love about your partner.
Why is this important? Because if our RAS, or our search engine,
is rehearsing the difficulties or challenges, it will also look for the same thing going forward. What does that mean? It means that your partner may do 20 caring and loving things today, and two things that were not loving and caring, and you will miss all of the 20 things, and hone in on the two. Certainly that’s not a fair score card for your partner.
Secondly, when we say things out loud the base of our brain (often referred to as our mamillion brain) hears them and takes them in as positives about ourselves. Why? Because that part of our brain does not understand time or direction. So when you say, “I love him because he is a great parent, “ your brain hears: “I am a great parent“. So not only are you setting your RAS to look for positive things in your partner, you are also encouraging yourself.
4. Capture the opportunity in your frustration. You can be assured that frustration will happen. Left to our own natural tendencies, when we become frustrated we will either stuff it, or blurt out critical or hurtful things. Neither of those is helpful.
When you find yourself frustrated, whether it’s something quite small, or something major, step back from the situation and ask yourself what it is that you would like to hear, see or experience that would resolve the frustration.
When we are able to identify the desire that we have in the moment of frustration, and learn to express it in a healthy and functional way, there is opportunity for great healing and growth.
I encourage people to deliver a positive, specific, behavior change request that begins with, “would you be willing ….?” Most of us are much more aware of what we do not want than we are of what we truly desire. Stating what you don’t want not only sets the stage for hurt feelings and arguments, but it does nothing to resolve your desire, or get it met.
For example, one of my clients was feeling quite frustrated because his partner (who was also frustrated) was speaking in a harsh tone. I had taught them this concept in the previous session, and he got the first part right, but went for what he didn’t want rather than what he did want.
He said “Would you be willing (and that part was great) to stop speaking to me in harsh tones?” That turned into a semantic argument about the definition of harsh. He asked me to help him, and after delving into his desire, he changed the request to, “Would you be willing to speak to me like we are two people on the same team attempting to do the best we can?“ Because she was not present for this session, I asked him to call her and give it a try. Her immediate response was, “Of course! I would love to do that.” It was a great response, and the reward of the response will likely help in the future when he’s trying to ask for something positive and specific instead of addressing what he does not like.
Yes it’s a difficult concept for many of us. We turn on the news and hear negative things. In school we got our papers back with no green checkmarks on things we did well, but instead, big red “X”’s on things we got wrong. We automatically go to the negative if we are not cautious. It only takes a few times for it to become a new pattern. I know you can and will handle frustrations this way.
5. Identify and share your top three needs. You have extra time together that you don’t normally have. Take some time to do this exercise together.
We all have four basic needs that must be met in order to survive. The four needs are:
- Support (Love, connection)
- Safety (Security)
- Significant (Knowing we are important)
- Surprise (Adventure, or variety)
Meeting the top three needs of your partner is one of the most powerful ways to reduce tension and increase closeness and intimacy.
The only difference for us as individuals is what priority those four needs fall in. I would encourage each of you to prioritize your top three of those four. Communicate them with one another.
Then take it a step further. Give your partner at least three ways that they could meet each of your top three needs. Exchange those with one another, and spend a few minutes daily making sure that each of the top three needs of your partner are met.
It is amazing how quickly challenges are diminished, as closeness and intimacy are boosted.
6. Identify and meet thriving needs together. We all have three more needs, and they are our thriving needs. They are:
- Spiritual growth
- Self improvement
- Sharing and helping others
I would encourage you, while you have time together, to decide one way that you can come together and meet one of those needs daily. For example, you could create a post together to publish on social media that encourages other couples. That would fall in the category of “sharing and helping others.” You might even share one thing from this list that you are doing that is helping you through this time. And assure them they can them as well.
When our needs to thrive are met (and by the way It’s a double blessing when you can do it together), it is amazing how much stress it relieves, and how much joy you begin to experience together.
7. Laugh together. Laughter heals. Research shows that laughter heals us physically, laughter heals rift in relationships, and laughter heals bad attitudes.
A research project conducted at the University of North Carolina revealed that not only does laughter help a relationship, but the more laughter a couple experiences together, the higher the quality of the relationship.
Spend a few minutes a day laughing together. Find a funny movie to watch, rehearse funny times that you’ve experience together, or you can find plenty of funny things to watch on YouTube.
8. Dream together about how your relationship will emerge from this season. Dream about who you want to be as a couple when this is over. Although some of the economic effects will go on for some time, you will return to work. You will not be held a prisoner in your own home any longer. Plenty of couples and families will emerge bruise, battered, and hopeless. You don’t have to be one of those couples or families.
Several research projects over the past few years have shown that couples who spend time dreaming together deactivate emotional reactivity to stress and conflict.
Spend some time dreaming together about questions such as this:
- When all of this is over, what do we want to be able to say that we did to enrich our relationship?
- When all of this is over what good reports about our relationship do we want to be able to share?
- When all of this is over, what can we say about who we became during this time because we harnessed the time together for making positive changes and growing closer?
Yes, relationships are hard work. And when difficulties arise, we could focus on how bad things are. OR … we could focus on the beautiful opportunity before us. Perhaps when the heat goes up, the relationship is being refined into something more valuable.
It takes 150 degrees of heat to make tin
500 degrees of heat to make bronze
1130 degrees of heat to make silver
1400 degrees of heat to make gold
The more things heat up, the more opportunity there is to turn the relationship into something even more valuable!
Often when I assign these things, couples are so busy working, transporting kids to soccer, running errands, getting to doctor and dentist appointments, that it’s hard to fit it in. But they find value even in the little bit of time they have to devote to these things.
How much more benefit can be realized if you will take this time to do some things that may seem a little unnatural to turn your relationship to something even better than it ever was? And if things are heating up … seize the opportunity to turn it to gold!
You could be one of the couples who will say some powerful things like, “Yes, COVID-19 came with challenges, BUT …
- We’ve become closer than we’ve ever been
- We have modeled taking a difficult situation and turning it to good for our children, friends and neighbors
- And we have enjoyed some of the sweetest moments that we’ve had in a long time
- We have emerged as overcomers!
The value of that? PRICELESS!