Where Couples Struggle The Most

9 March 2013
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Where Couples Struggle the Most


1. Common Values:

In order for a couple to establish and maintain a long-lasting, satisfying relationship it’s important that they not only share the same values, but that they understand what those values mean to each other.

For example, if the couple shares the value of family being important, that is a great start, however, how each demonstrates to the other that family comes first may look different.  One partner may believe that providing financial stability is their contribution to putting the family first while the other partner may believe that sitting down together – as a family – for dinner is how you express that your family comes first.

2. Relationship Goals and Life Priorities:

Very much like values, it’s important that couples are aligned with each other’s life priorities and that they discuss and formulate relationship goals together.  This doesn’t need to be a formal process so that it sucks any romance out of the relationship and starts to feel like a business conference – but the conversations need to happen somehow and the earlier in the relationship the better.  If more daters did a better job of using dating as an exploration process rather than as rush-to-find-a partner process,  discussions about values, relationship goals and life priorities would naturally arise and should be taken to heart.  That way – if they are to become non-negotiables in the future – the two people involved are in a position, before the relationship becomes too established and they are both “all in”, to make informed decisions, and walk away if necessary.

An example of what I mean by life priorities:  While both individuals may want children, the ability to travel and time to focus on their careers, where these desires fit into their list of personal priorities may differ.  The woman may feel that her biological clock is ticking while the man feels it’s important to focus on his career in order to be the provider he wants to be.  If a solution is not discussed or a compromise arranged, this can lead to tension in the relationship.  Similarly, if one partner wants to spend all disposable income on travelling and one partner would rather wait until the kids are a bit older to begin travelling, this can also create a disconnect.  As with values – the priorities may be the same, however, their importance to each individual may vary.  These are items that need to be addressed – along with values – early in the relationship, or established before the relationship even begins.

Once the couple is committed to each other and has, presumably established that their priorities are aligned, it’s a good idea to come up with relationship goals that may or may not be separate from individual goals.  All relationship-related interactions should keep those goals front and center and be the focus of any disagreements, so that everyone is working toward the same outcome.  My partner and I, for example, have three relationship goals:

  1. To grow old together
  2. To lead healthy lifestyles (so that we can live long enough to be “old”)
  3. To be successful – together – in business

Whenever we have an argument or disagreement, one of us tries (it’s not always easy in the heat of the moment) to redirect the other to the common goals to ensure that the disagreement is productive in keeping those goals the focus, rather than remaining entrenched or “stuck” in our respective positions.  At one time, we had our relationship goals printed and mounted to a few walls around the house.

3. Intimacy:

Most people I speak with, whether they say so directly or not, seem to have the impression that intimacy = sex.  It takes an emotionally intelligent, astute individual – and couple – to realize that intimacy extends beyond the bedroom.  A well-kept secret is that men fall in love because of the emotional connection they feel to a woman (a whole other topic), not because of the physical attraction.  While that may be what draws them in, in the first place, it is not what keeps them there.  So, intimacy is equally important to men and women.  Emotional intimacy can be created and maintained in many different ways – including romance (a subjective term), flirting (with and without your partner), stimulating conversation, physical affection without sex, compassion…and the list goes on.  How intimacy is created depends on the couple, the individual needs of both partners, and their ability to communicate that to each other (which requires self-awareness…if you, yourself, don’t know what you need then you can’t ask for it).

The heart of intimacy is a feeling of connectedness and as couples grow their careers, their families, their bank accounts, etc. and become more comfortable in their relationship, it’s easy to grow apart and to lose the initial connection that once bonded them.  Make time for each other and talk about intimacy as it relates to your relationship.  It is a large part of the foundation of any relationship and one of the easiest to send a rippling crack through that very foundation if not present, or worked on.

4. Finances, Sex, Parenting, In-Laws:

According to much research, widely-available evidence and clinical professionals, these are the items couples tend to fight about most.  You may have been misled to believe that I was going to get into each one individually, but I’m not.  Why?  Because, at the heart of each, is a common denominator and that common denominator is a lack of alignment.  When couples are aligned in their values, relationship goals and life priorities and when physical and emotional intimacy are present, these matters do not tend to rear their ugly heads as often as they do with couples who are not aligned and/or intimately connected.

When disputes arise – around any topic – it’s helpful for the couple to examine their own and their partner’s values, relationship goals, life priorities and their relationship’s level of intimacy, identify the gaps and begin resolving their issues from that point.  This is a good time to remember that being right or wrong is not the issue at hand and, rather, finding common ground and re-alignment is the goal.

With respect to in-laws, I do (embarrassedly) need to paraphrase advice I once heard Dr. Phil dispense, which I thought had a lot of merit to it.  Whatever the nature of the conflict is between you and your in-laws, it should always be the responsible of your partner to mediate with their own parents, and you with yours.  In other words, you should never be put in a position where you have to “battle it out” with your in-laws, and vice versa.   Doing it Dr. Phil’s way demonstrates unity and alleviates tension between spouses and their in-laws…perhaps at the expense of your partner…but that is, unfortunately, a reality of being in a healthy, committed relationship.

5.  Communication:

One of the learnings I’ve had in my current relationship is that there is a big difference between being articulate and being an effective communicator.  Just because you are able to articulate how you are feeling eloquently and clearly does not necessarily mean that it’s going to lead to effective communication.

Communication – in many people’s minds – means talking to each other.  A key success factor that is often lacking, and misunderstood, is the equal importance of listening…specifically “active listening”.  Active listening is a skill that few possess but that can easily be practiced and mastered.  For more information on Active Listening please check out this link:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_listening or Google the term and find a website that resonates with you.

  1. In my experience – both professionally and personally – effective, frequent and consistent communication is the cornerstone of all successful relationships.  Here are some tips for you and your partner to try, to improve or fix your communications with each other:
  2.  Learn about Active Listening together and make a plan of how/when/how often you’re going to practice it.  Because it can be an elaborate and labourious process, it is not realistic to expect to use it in every dialogue, but it can be particularly helpful when attempting to resolve conflict.
  3. Approach communication as a mechanism for problem-solving.  All too often, when in conflict, couples become so entrenched in their respective opinions and positions that they (mostly subconsciously) shift their focus from finding a solution to being right and/or proving their partner wrong.
  4. Remember that communication involves:  talking, listening and negotiating…not just talking.
  5. Try to keep the following Key Principles in mind when communicating with your partner:
  • Do not involve their character, or say anything that might lower or negatively affect their self-esteem
  • Encourage involvement from them in finding a solution, rather than playing the blame game
  • Demonstrate your involvement in finding a solution by offering your support toward them personally while trying to solve the problem at hand
  • Use “I” statements whenever possible.  As soon as you say “you”, it is only human nature for your partner’s back to go up
  • Try to avoid words like “always” and “never” or anything else that is absolute
  • Stay focused on the discussion at hand – try not to bring past or other topics into the equation
  • Demonstrate empathy, compassion and love – even if you’re angry
  • Be honest about your feelings, while keeping the above tips in mind, rather than saying what you think your partner wants to hear as an avoidance strategy or to appease them
  • When arguing, consider taking a 20 minute time-out and then revisiting the issue.  There is evidence that physiologically, the body requires 20 minutes to return to a state of calm…making resolution more likely.

When communication is used to resolve conflict, once the conflict is resolved (assuming you’ve tried some or all of the advice provided above), reconnect through physical intimacy…a kiss, a hug or – better yet – hot make-up sex.  It’s a good way of putting closure on the issue and moving forward in a positive manner.

Good luck, and please feel free to e-mail info@sittinginatree.com with any questions, comments or feedback.