Relationships Are Tough
If you are a human being (which is quite likely if you are reading this), then chances are that at some point you have struggled in an intimate relationship. You may have asked yourself questions like, “Why doesn’t he/she listen to me?” and “Why don’t I feel loved, appreciated, or acknowledged the way I want to?”
The truth is that intimate relationships are hard, they challenge us in almost every way. There is no way around this.
Everyone encounters major obstacles along the course of their relationship that cause them to question if it is the right relationship for them or even if relationships are worth the struggle, period.
Though certain obstacles in relationship are grounds for ending the relationship, most can be worked through. What often ends up happening however, is that couples get blocked by these “workable” obstacles and end up stuck in a destructive and hurtful cycle.
It Shouldn’t Have to Be Hard All the Time!
Relationships are hard at times, but they should not be hard all the time. Relationships can and should primarily be wonderful sources of inspiration, joy, creativity, and opportunities for growth and learning. In fact, if you are spending more than 10% of your time in conflict in your relationship then you are most likely stuck in workable conflicts, and it might be time to seek out support.
If you feel you are stuck in this type of habitual and destructive cycle, the question you might be asking is, “How then can we learn to move through these ‘workable conflicts’ skillfully and come out on the other side as a stronger and happier couple?”
The Core Issues
As a psychotherapist, two of the most common complaints I hear from couples are “I don’t feel heard” and “I don’t feel loved/appreciated.” Though not necessarily spoken in these exact words, I find that if I listen carefully, that underneath the seemingly countless complaints and accusations that struggling couples throw around, are these two core issues.
Take a moment and think about a time when you were struggling in an intimate relationship—perhaps you are right now. Once you have a time, place, person, and issue in mind, ask yourself,
“If I felt truly loved, heard, and appreciated, would the issue still be there?”
Close your eyes and notice your body’s reaction to this statement. Are there any places of tension that have perhaps let go a bit and relaxed? Simply notice.
If you noticed a change, then underneath the surface conflict was most likely one of these two core issues; or perhaps it was explicitly one of them. If you did not notice a change, it may be unrelated. However, it’s hard to deny that if you felt truly loved, heard, and appreciated in your relationship that it would likely be easier to work through the issue at hand.
How Do I Work With These Issues?
In my practice I have found two things to be invaluable in helping both individuals in a couple to feel heard, loved, and appreciated. They are Non-Violent Communication (NVC) and The 5 Love Languages. If there is love in the relationship, then regularly practicing these approaches tends to drastically increase each partner’s felt sense of being truly heard and loved. If a foundation of these essential qualities is established, other obstacles that arise, that perhaps once felt too big to address, suddenly become workable. Some of them even fade away on their own.
NVC, created by Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D, was designed to aid in high conflict situations by removing the attack and defend cycle (violence) that often takes over and impedes resolution. Over the past 20 years NVC has been used the world over to aid in peace talks between warring nations, in restorative justice cases, and in couples therapy—which let’s face it, can often resemble warring nations.
NVC has four simple steps (we’ll use relationship examples):
- Make an Observation: “When you come home and go right to watching T.V. without saying ‘Hi’ and connecting . .
- State Impact/feeling: “I feel hurt, angry and lonely.”
- State a Need/s: “I need to feel a sense of appreciation and of my own value.”
- Make a Specific Request: “When you get home after work I would like us to spend at least 15 minutes connecting and talking about our day.”
After these four steps the other individual in the couple then summarizes what they heard and checks to see if they heard the statements accurately. After this, they can respond to the request and then do their own NVC if necessary, using the same four steps.
Though the steps are simple, they are not necessarily easy. Especially in the heat of the moment when emotions are running high and old wounds/arguments are being triggered. For both individuals in a couple to be able to use NVC in the heat of the moment, without it feeling stilted or forced, and without using it to simply mask the attack/defense underneath, takes some serious practice. It also takes a skilled teacher to point out the subtleties of the practice and steer you back on course when you’ve strayed. For example, “’I feel like you don’t care’ is not a feeling, it’s an accusation, how about trying, ‘I don’t feel cared for and that hurts’?”
If there is no violence, i.e.—no attack— in your communication, then it is much less likely to bring up a defensive response in your partner. When there is no defensive reaction in you, you can actually hear what the other individual is saying, because there are no thick walls guarding the fortress from an attack. Once both individuals in a couple become skilled at using NVC and trust is built that even in the midst of a conflict both are making their best effort to communicate non-violently, relationship magic can happen! Things that used to trigger huge arguments that lead to days of conflict and weeks of repair, are suddenly workable because both people feel heard. Once a couple begins to experience the little successes of conflicts moving from gridlock into resolution, and coming out the other side stronger and closer, the practice really starts takes off, and the relationship can deepen.
When both people feel heard and conflict isn’t a big scary thing, it frees up energy to experience more of the joy, love, and freedom a healthy relationship can provide.
When a couple or individual reaches a state of mastery with NVC they are able to fill themselves up so completely with love and understanding that even in a severe conflict there is actually no room for violence. Though most of us are not there, it is something quite incredible to strive for. In the meantime, practicing NVC is still very helpful.
The Languages of Love
In 1995 Gary Chapman wrote a book called The Five Love Languages, in which he described five distinct ways that people give and receive love, some of which are more present or dominant then others within each of us. These love languages include:
- Giving Gifts, e.g.—flowers on the dinning table.languages include:
- Quality Time, e.g.—a date night or weekend together.
- Words of Affirmation/Acknowledgement, e.g.—“I love you, thank you for being so caring.”
- Acts of Service, e.g.—cleaning the kitchen without being asked.
- Physical Touch, e.g.—cuddling while watching a movie, holding hand, massage, etc.
Central to this theory is the idea that the way you best receive love may not be the way your partner does, however it is the way that you tend to give it. Say for example your top love language is physical touch, and when you spend time with your partner you are very physically affectionate with them. However, your partner says they don’t feel loved and wishes you would make more of an effort around the house. Perhaps your partner’s primary love language is Acts of Service, and no matter how physically affectionate and giving you are, they will not feel loved unless you help clean the house and drive the kids to school more often, for example. When both partners are feeling unloved they tend to unconsciously give even more in the way they best receive love, hoping that it will be reciprocated. However, if there is no understanding of how your partner receives love then this will not help.
Your Love Languages
Take a moment and think about the times you have felt most loved and cared for in your life. What was happening? Did someone unexpectedly give you a gift, did someone tell you what a great job you were doing? Simply look at your life and take note of the ways in which you best receive love. After a few minutes take a look at the five love languages and rate them in order of how you best receive love, 1 being the best. Now take a moment and think about your current or past partner, and take a guess at what their love language ranking might be. It will likely be different from yours. If you are in communication with this person, it might be a fun and illuminating exercise to have them go through this same process and compare notes.
The “Aha” Moment
When couples first truly understand this concept, there is often a wonderful “aha” moment, where something that was operating under the surface suddenly becomes visible. Some individuals even feel a little silly that they had assumed that their partner would want to receive love in the same way they did. However,
when couples become clear on what each other’s top two or three love languages are and how to actually give love in that way—which might feel a bit unfamiliar at first—things can begin to shift very quickly.
When both partners not only know that the other person loves them but can actually feel it experientially on a daily basis, then when obstacles and conflicts arise, they are much less likely to experience fear. With less fear there is less reactivity and more room for heartfelt, sincere, and honest communication. And with these key ingredients plus the power of NVC even more becomes workable, leading again to more time spent in joy, love, and appreciation, and less in conflict.
This Can Help Your Relationship Right Now
I encourage you to examine your relationship using this potentially new information and to practice some of the principles of NVC and the Love Languages. If you are in a relationship currently, I would recommend that both of you read this article and decide together what you would like to practice. Remember to look for even the smallest signs of success.
If you run into trouble practicing these skill together, it is important to remember that ultimately there is no replacing a skilled couples therapist in helping you to overcome your relationship difficulties; especially a therapist trained in NVC and familiar with The Five Love Languages. If you are currently in a high conflict situation that has been going on for some time I would recommend that you find a couples therapist that is the right fit for you as soon as possible.
Thank you for reading and I wish you all the best in implementing these keys to happiness in your relationship and experiencing the sweet fruits of your effort.