Level-Up Relationship Series
Updated: Aug 28, 2022
During elections, I find myself reflecting on the way that they tend to highlight polarization among people. A vote often comes down to two choices: yes or no. On a ballot, there is no room for middle ground.
Polarization happens a lot in relationships, too. When people meet, they often focus their conversation around what they have in common in order to create a connection. Over time, they feel more comfortable expressing themselves in a more authentic and vulnerable way, hoping to develop a deeper relationship.
Because the relationship initially developed based on similarities, relationship problems can arise as they start to discover differences (and because no two people are exactly the same, there will be differences). For some people this can feel threatening, and they may worry that a relationship founded on similarities cannot tolerate any differences.
Here is where people can end up stuck and may miss the opportunity to take the next step in building a deeper and more secure relationship. Their anxious need to eliminate all differences in order to preserve the relationship actually ends up weakening the relationship.
In this series, I’ll be posting tips on how to move toward a next-level relationship. If you find your relationship stuck in a pattern of conflict around differences, consider talking with a therapist who can help you explore personalized solutions for taming relationship anxiety and work toward building that deep form of peace and security that comes from a next-level relationship.
Ask, Don't Assume
One way to prevent unnecessary conflict is to remember to ask, don't assume. Asking helps reduce a common pitfall in relationships...mind reading.
Many miscommunications happen because we assume we know what our partner is thinking, but it turns out that people are about as good at mind reading as fish are at climbing trees. Get good at asking questions about your partner's thoughts and emotions.
In addition to increasing positive communication and feeling cared about, this helps partners with another common relationship challenge. We often assume incorrectly, shading our partner's actions with our own emotions.
Research finds that when successful couples observe a positive behavior in their partner, they attribute it as part of their partner's personality (an internal trait). Unhappy couples are more likely to attribute that same positive behavior to an external circumstance. Similarly, happier couples will attribute a negative behavior as due to an external circumstance whereas unhappy couples assume it to be because of their partner's personality. Ester Perel explains it this way: When I am late, it is because of traffic, but when my partner is late, it is because he is lazy and bad at managing his time.
Bottom line: the filter you use to view your partner matters. It shapes your thoughts, which shapes your attitude and behavior toward your partner.
If you would like help in improving communication in your relationships, consider reaching out to a therapist who can give you tailored information and coach your interactions in real time.
Find Your Power
Another place that relationships get stuck is when we need the other person to change before we can make a change. When we are waiting on another, we are handing over our power to them. To take your power back, find the places you have control.
For example, you can’t control what another person does, but you can control your response to their behavior. Spend time considering what you won’t tolerate anymore and what you will do if the behavior occurs. This is called setting a boundary.
Boundaries are often misunderstood. Boundaries are about what YOU will do, not what you want others to change. Boundaries are not about punishing others; they are about protecting what’s important to you.
Consider a situation where you would like someone to speak to you with more respect. When you feel disrespected, explain the problem and what you need for the situation to improve. This might sound like, “When you call me that name, I feel disrespected. You are welcome to have this discussion with me when you can do so without name-calling.” Then you might plan to leave the room to avoid further negative interactions and give your partner time to consider a new approach. By setting this boundary, you are working to protect the relationship.
There are three steps to setting a good boundary:
Know specifically what you won’t allow in your space (i.e. name-calling),
Communicate your need AND the consequence for crossing the boundary (i.e. I need you to not call me names, so I will leave the conversation if that occurs), and
Enforce the boundary (repeat your need and consequence over and over, if necessary, and then be sure to follow through or your words will lose their power).
Done correctly, setting boundaries is a loving act. Boundaries protect the relationship by not allowing harm to creep in.
Drop the Rope
All of us bring our own childhood experiences into our adult life. We don’t notice it as much until we partner, and then having children further amplifies the ways our childhood families influenced us.
Ever been in a situation like this?
Perhaps Father came from a highly structured family and starts to sense that the household is too chaotic. He makes new rules to add more structure and discipline.
This unbalances the status quo for Mother. In a natural response to restore balance, she moves her parenting style toward giving the children more freedom in an effort to even out what she senses Father is doing.
Father feels unsettled by Mother’s move, and in an effort to reach a balance in parenting, he moves toward even more rigidity.
Mother feels unsettled and moves even further toward the opposite.
The couple continues pulling on each other in order to calm their anxieties and find a sense of balance. Mother would not naturally have gone to such a lax parenting style, but she felt a need to balance out Father. Father also finds himself too far in the other extreme, but feeling anxiety over needing to control the situation, he leans even further into the only solution he knows – adding more structure. They continue to pull at each other, trying to change the other one to be more like them. They might even end up feeling like they’ve moved to opposite ends of the spectrum. At that point, people may start to focus more on the differences than on the similarities they share (in this case they both want the best for their children).
Here is where couples are tempted to make the mistake of labeling the other, deciding that their actions define who they are as a person. Father is “too strict or harsh” and Mother is “too lenient or soft.”
Successful couples recognize that the problem is what they should fight, not their spouse. Instead of labeling the other and trying to counterbalance them, the couple needs to walk toward each other by being able to talk about what’s bothering them. It can be helpful to follow the format:
“I feel __(emotion)__
and I need __(action)__.”
For this couple, that might look like Father saying “I feel worried (emotion) that the children are not learning enough about responsibility (situation), and I would like for us to look at ways we can work together to teach them responsibility (action).” Mother might respond with the worry that they are being too hard on the children. At this point the couple can move away from pulling at each other and look at how they will know if their children are learning responsibility and talk about how to get to that goal.
Think back to the common goals and beliefs that brought you together. When we get over-focused on the differences that create space between us, we can miss how close we fall in the continuum of the larger picture. Then explore how each of you can support the values that are important in your relationship from the stance of individuals who don’t have to become copies of each other just to be in relationship together.
If you find that you both are stuck in place from pulling at the rope, consider asking a therapist to help you put that energy into fighting the problem that's hiding underneath instead of into fighting each other.