by Annie Gurton, Imago Relationship Therapist from Sydney’s Northern Beaches

The most common complaint that I see with my couples clients is a breakdown of communication.It’s not unusual for a relationship to reach a point where not only is very little said other than the essentials for living together (‘Pass the salt’), but there is virtually no touch either. Sometimes there is absolutely no touching. It’s a sad state of affairs, and upsetting and unsatisfactory for the two people involved.

So improving interactions is frequently the priority for the couples that I see. Out of that often comes a deeper understanding and appreciation for the other, and a deeper commitment to each other as well as knowledge about what it takes to make a relationship work.

interactionsimage via pinterest

Every relationship is different, obviously. And everyone’s background and previous life experiences are different, but what couples have in common is that at one stage they had feelings for each other, an attraction. For some it was extremely powerful and overwhelming, for others less so but still meaningful. Improving interactions between you often starts with re-igniting old patterns, and developing a way of talking which allows the other to listen and listening so the other will talk.

When things begin to feel unsafe in the relationship, partners will retreat into a place where they feel safe which means that they will stop saying anything that may provoke or cause an unwanted reaction from the other. Its easy to see how a fear of causing hurt or anger in your partner can lead to a pattern of not really talking about anything important at all. Imago Relationship Therapy provides an excellent way to get you talking in such a way that you feel safe in expressing your deepest hopes, wants and fears. From that both can see why the other may have behaved as they did, said what they said, thought what they could not express.

I had a couple last week who were recently married, and surprised that now they were married small issues and frustrations were arising. ‘We thought that once we were married all that would go away,’ they said. Expecting romantic love to lead happy ever after is a myth, and always far from the truth. There are inevitably niggles and disputes, and recognising them as normal and healthy is a big step forward.

This couple had to do some work in explaining to the other, with guidance from me, what it was that was causing them to feel anger, and from there we worked into exploring what each was needing from the other but not getting.

This couple now has a time in their day for an Appreciation of each other. They each say, ‘One thing I appreciate that you did today is …’ and the other mirrors or repeats that back, and the first continues, ‘and when you did that it made me feel …’ and the second mirrors that. Then they swop.   Appreciations are a powerful way of beginning the connection process. Although they are a good way to express your gratitude for the other and let them know what you are feeling, the goal is not to flatter the other; the goal is to get into the habit of listening to each other and letting the other feel heard.

The Appreciation exercise is simple but it is not always easy. It’s challenging to listen to your partner more closely, to let go of whatever you wanted to say in reply and try and cross a bridge into their world so you can really imagine what they are feeling. Even once you get the chance to express yourself, you need to be careful not to overload your partner so that they put up defences and stop listening to you. And remember that your partner is not you, and will have different responses and ideas, and thats fine. It’s your differences that drew you together,

Another exercise couples sometimes do is ‘Misses and Wishes’. Knowing that the conflict you are experiencing is normal, and is actually growth trying to happen, means that this exercise helps you to identify whats really going on underneath the surface in your relationship, and to help you to encourage it instead of trying to repress it.

First:   Write down all the things you loved about your relationship when you first met, and now you miss.

Second:   Write down something you’ve been longing to feel in your relationship – something you’ve probably never felt before.

Then:   take turns sharing items from each list. As you do, memories are likely to come up and share those too. Cuddle while you do this and share memories that emerge, mirroring each other and jointly remembering stuff that used to happen that made you feel good.

Lastly:  Make a list of all the things you want to re-create in your relationship and put it on the front of the fridge. It may be something small like being more affectionate with each other, or it may be something big like a second honeymoon.

And remember:   By stretching to give your partner what they need, you will grow new skills which will enrich you both.

I recommend that my couples give each other spontaneous surprises. The joy that can be taken from a simple surprise – from knowing that your partner was thinking about you – is often way out of proportion from the surprise itself. It may be flowers or chocolates, or an action like doing something around the house, or saying something complimentary. Think of what you used to do and haven’t done for a while. Surprises are powerful aids that can help couples to re-connect.

Relationships are places where we learn and heal, and you are on a long journey with someone special who you trust and want to grow with.   But we need to let go of any feeling that we must be right, that the other is wrong, that the other must be a mind-reader to know what we are feeling or wanting. And we need to learn about the underlying dynamics of all relationships and yours in particular, to be able to feed it is the most appropriate way.

It takes courage and sheer stubbornness to take a relationship that has lost its ‘click’, connection and joy, and recreate something that nourishes and sustains us and makes us happy. But it can be done.