PUTTING RELATIONSHIP NEEDS FIRST

As a couples therapist, I tend to think a lot about why relationships have problems. Why do we struggle so with the one person we love the most? It doesn’t help that the very way we, as a culture, participate in relationships changes over time. Relationships do not serve the exact same purpose that they served in 1950. Or 1960 or 1980. And yet people often go into relationship as if nothing has changed.

What is the outcome of this? From what I have observed, relationships suffer. And when relationships suffer, so do the individuals who are in the relationships.

There must be a way out of this! Fortunately, there is, though it can be difficult to act on. Before we get into the way out, let’s first look at what has changed, and why these changes are not necessarily bad news.

CONFLICT IS INEVITABLE, AND THAT IS NOT A BAD THING: They say that “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. What? Isn’t a relationship supposed to take you away from pain and suffering and give you peace and happiness “until death do we part”? Well, it all depends on what stories you were told about relationships and marriage, but if you are like most of us, very few of the stories we are told actually do us any good when it comes to actually being in a relationship. Where do we get these stories from?

Up until the late 60’s or so, the purpose of marriage was fairly clear-cut in society: to settle down and raise a family with someone you love. However, this was a change from what came before it. Earlier versions of marriage prioritized the protection of property or the strengthening of a family name over settling down or falling in love. Couples raised families to pass on the family name and property, if there was any, and they often married because that was the best way to survive life. Couples had kids so there were extra working hands, even if there was no property to hand down.

Today, though those templates continue to exist in the world, they have been largely superseded by the needs of “modern” couples. Those needs are a combination of needs from the past, as well as current expectations, which can vary from couple to couple. To put it bluntly, marriage and relationship has changed more than most of us want to admit, and they continue to evolve as I write this.

So what are the needs of modern couples? And why should they come before the needs of the individuals? Who gets to decide what these relationship needs are, and how they will be met? And what happens when they are neglected or de-prioritized?

Well, what happens is these couples often end up in my office , wondering how to get their relationship “back on track”. But before we can even start doing that, I have to first find out what their track even looks like. You know what? They often don’t know themselves.

WHY SHOULD YOU PUT THE RELATIONSHIP NEEDS FIRST? When couples get together, they often imagine a relationship based on either what is familiar from their own family, or from what they have seen in the outside world or in the media. While there is nothing wrong with this frame of reference, it is often not “thick enough” to hold all the complexities that show up in the actual relationship.

When the relationship we have no longer matches the relationship we imagined, it becomes less of a safe place and more of a threat. What we know about the brain when it senses a threat is that it focuses attention on how to protect the homeland–in other words, we care more about our own well-being than another’s. We take care of our individual needs and abandon the needs of our partner and the relationship. We do this to survive.

While this strategy works fine if we are facing an actual threat, it works against us when the “threat” is our partner being upset about something we did or said. Abandoning the relationship to focus on our needs gives our partner the message that we will not be there for them when the going gets tough, which in turn reinforces the relationship not being a safe place.  Just think about it–if the captain of the ship abandons the ship, not only is the ship doomed, but so are all the passengers!

So what to do? I suggest leaning into the relationship. This is not the same thing as agreeing with your partner’s accusations of allowing yourself to be abused. Instead it means that you remember that when one of you is in trouble, both of you are in trouble, and both of you are required to return the relationship to safety.

This is not my idea. I heard about it from Stan Tatkin, the renowned author and couples therapist up in Agoura Hills, CA. I took a workshop where he talked about how the needs of the relationship must always come first, before the needs of the individual. By making this commitment and choice, a couple can more successfully navigate disagreements and conflicts, because they will recognize that when the relationship (both of them) does well, each of them (as individuals) also do well.

There is a saying that when the relationship wins, both partners win, but when one individual wins and the other loses, everybody loses. This is because when you go for the individual need over the relationship need, it is the same as cutting off your nose to spite your face! You are one half of the relationship, so why would you abandon part of yourself? If one part of you is hurting, don’t you attend to it?

Couples who prioritize the relationship needs over individual needs experience more connection and safety in their relationships. So let’s explore how to actually do this in your relationship when push comes to shove.

HOW TO DO THIS SUCCESSFULLY: First and foremost, don’t wait until push comes to shove! Although it is possible for a couple to come back from a severe breach in trust or connection, it can be more difficult for those who do not have a strong shared foundation in their relationship. What does this foundation look like?

John Gottman’s work over the last several decades has highlighted the importance for couples to act as a team. This does not mean giving up your individuality–on the contrary–being part of a secure team often helps one to thrive in their individual lives. Gottman calls the process of creating a relationship team the Sound Relationship House, where the first floor is about getting to know your partner’s inner world.

When a couple has a strong first floor of their Relationship House, they can move up floors in order to create shared meaning and explore each others’ dreams.

But individual dreams are not the only dreams that need to be attended to. Successful couples work to build shared dreams and shared purpose. Dr. Stan Tatkin writes and talks about this in his work, as I wrote earlier. In order to do this, couples need to actually come up with shared dreams and purpose, because they don’t create themselves, unless you part of a community that gives them to you!

In my therapy office, when couples tell me that they want to build a stronger relationship, I will sometimes reply provocatively by asking, “Why?” The goal of that question is to find out what is the “purpose” of them being together.  Couples get together mostly because of mutual attraction initially, but beyond sex, what is the reason for creating a relationship with this person?

Shared dreams and purpose come from a couples shared values–what is important to you? Some of these things are non-negotiable, and some are negotiable, but when committed to together, they create a shared dream that is worth fighting for. This dream is what will influence couples to resist the pull to criticize, withdraw, shutdown, or attack when conflict arises. This dream will be the motivation to strengthen your connection to one another.

A shared dream comes with needs to keep it alive, and when these needs come first, there is a better chance that in any conflict, the relationship will win rather than one individual or the  other.

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Sometimes it can feel like being in a relationship involves too much to keep track of. But the good news is that when you make a habit of keeping track of it, it becomes the air you breathe. The effort you put in is a conscious choice, but it begins to feel natural and vital, especially when you reap the benefits of these efforts.

Putting the needs of the relationship first ensures that you have a partner working with you to protect and nurture the relationship–you are not a lone ranger. As you both work to support and prioritize the relationship, you may find that the relationship in turn supports you in your individual development. Having something bigger than you–the two of you–gives you something to defend without turning against your partner. When you put the relationship needs first, you will both be fighting for the relationship, yourself, and each other. It is a win-win!

DOES YOUR RELATIONSHIP MAKE YOU A BETTER PERSON?

Do you like who you are in your relationship?

I ask this question because, despite what many think, relationships rarely end because we fall out of love with the person we are with–more often breakups happen because we don’t love who we are in the relationship. What makes us fall out of love with ourselves at times in our lives? For our purposes I want to focus on the words, thoughts, and actions that can work against our values. 

When we engage in behaviors that don’t align with how we prefer to be in the world, we become unsettled, and the easiest way out is to look for someone to blame for this unpleasantness. Guess who usually gets the blame? When something happens in the world that keeps us close to our partners for long periods of time, unsettled feelings can get triggered and magnetized. What do we do with them? How do we talk to our partners about what we are feeling without projecting blame? When do we know if talking will help, or if we should just break up?

Believe it or not, the most helpful approach to answering these questions begins with looking at yourself, not your partner. This is because our responses and reactions tell us a lot about how we experience the world, and if we are not satisfied with the results of that perspective, then we have an opportunity to change it. There is a greater chance for success with changing the self than there is with changing someone else! The challenge is that changing the self is hard and sometimes more painful than trying to get someone else to change, but it is the only way I know that works for the long run. So let’s look at how we determine where the change needs to happen: in us or in the state of our relationship…

FOR BETTER OR WORSE: As I wrote above, we often break up because we no longer love who we are in our relationship, meaning that we don’t like how we are responding to what we don’t like in the other. When we say that we promise to stay together “for better or worse”, we are actually talking about the future state of the other, the relationship, and ourselves.

In the courtship phase it is easy to imagine sticking with someone for the long run because the version of that person in the moment is quite enjoyable. This makes it easy for us to show up as caring and kind to the other–we are our best self. We love our relationship most when we feel like a better version of ourselves in it–not so much when we feel like a worse version! 

What factors into these opposing experiences of the self? It is not difficult to be a better version of ourselves when the relationship is humming along nicely. Not so easy when going through a rough patch. Why is this? Often it is because rough patches trigger our fears, vulnerabilities, and in worst case scenarios, our negative beliefs about ourselves. When this happens, our better self, the one who acts lovingly toward our partner, disappears, and our priority shifts to protecting ourselves at any cost. We stop loving and instead attack, defend, or retreat, intent on survival. 

How do you have access to your better self regardless of what is going on in your relationship?

THE FUNERAL EXERCISE: The ability to have consistent access to our better self is dependent on these key steps:

    • a strong and appealing vision of our better self and how our relationship would benefit from us showing up as that
    • awareness of the cost of leaving our better self, both to us and to our partner
    • ability to self-regulate ourselves and/or be co-regulated by our partner
    • ideally, a partner who is willing and enthusiastic about teaming up with you to support you being your better self

You might be wondering how you even figure out what your better self looks like. Let me tell you a story…

Many years ago I participated in a series of workshops that could be categorized as “self-actualization” workshops. It was the 90’s! I remember that one night the group of participants were gathered, and we embarked on an exercise that is sometimes called “The Funeral Exercise”. Over the course of the evening, we all had the opportunity to lay on the floor of the room and pretend that we were dead and buried. We were then instructed to imagine that our loved ones were above us, attending our funeral, and we were told to think about what they might be saying about us and the life we lived. 

This exercise changed my life, because at the time the conversations I imagined happening above my buried body were not flattering! There was a lot of “He was so closed off” and “He lived so carefully”, and I remember imagining that my mother was there, crying because I had kept her at arm’s distance. In other words, I realized that I was not living my best life, I was not being my better self. I was letting fear influence me to protect myself from being hurt, which resulted in me keeping out love along the way. 

Today, I no longer prefer protecting myself to feeling alive and in relationship to others. 

After the workshop, things did not turn around immediately in my life, but they did begin to shift. And what helps to bring my better self to relationships more consistently today is the desire to live a life that is a celebration while I am living it, and celebrated after it is over. The motivation to do this is simple: I want to feel more love and less pain. I realized that by avoiding pain at all cost, I was also avoiding love, which then reinforced the pain. A very vicious cycle.

TURNING PAIN INTO MOVEMENT: What is the turning point for most people–that time when they decide to make changes in how they are living live and relating to others? In the popular play A Christmas Carol, the change happens overnight for the main character, but we can’t all have the benefit of a set of ghostly visits to spark us into action! I have observed that turning points often come when the pain becomes unbearable–when the balance between what we gain and what we lose is tipped toward loss. 

This is the time that most people seek out therapy. How can therapy help? Ideally, it does not give you the answers, it instead leads to better questions. These questions hopefully influence your relationship to yourself, others, and your values. This process can also increase awareness in one’s own choices, bringing recognition that we are making choices more often than we think! 

Mindfulness, as this awareness if often called, invites us to live intentionally rather than reactional. Intentional living has a greater chance of leading you to your better self, since you can not only accept or reject painful choices, you can also adjust your response to pain by being aware of how you are thinking about it. This is what is known as taking accountability not for what life is, but for how you experience it–becoming the author of your own life. 

(Read more about becoming the author of your life HERE.)

Our better selves don’t just fall into our laps–we realize them by first identifying what that will look and feel like, and then surrounding ourselves with those who support our movement in that direction. This is why it is critical to choose a partner who supports your vision of your better self–a partner who even inspires that vision. 

Peter Pearson, Ph.D. of the Couples Institute says that we have been measuring success in relationships all wrong. He says that rather than defining success by the amount of positive change in our partners, we should define it by the amount of positive change in ourselves. Meaning: Are you a better person today in your relationship than you were yesterday? 

This is a powerful question, because it requires that you accept accountability for your life, and that you take responsibility for whether you are enjoying it or not. It does not mean that you can’t seek change in others, just that you realize the path to that change is through influence, not demands. We influence our partner to be better by being better ourselves. If this does not happen, then there may be other issues at play, but at least we won’t blame the other for how our life is turning out. It is more likely that at our funeral our loved ones will celebrate who we have been instead of mourning who we could have been. 

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Philosophers have been exploring what makes a good life for centuries now, and fortunately we have the benefit of their musings, but it takes more than reading a book to have a good life. We have to live it. The motivation to do so comes from imagining what it would feel like to live a good life–we are driven by our emotions, not our thoughts–thoughts may spark feelings but they rarely motivate on their own (try “thinking” your way to exercise!). 

The reason to live a good life, your better life, is pretty simple: it feels good! A better life is not about being “good”, it is about being better, and you get to decide what that looks like for you. Rather than figuring this out on your own, you can use your relationships as a guide–noticing what works and what doesn’t with others and exploring how each of those feel to you. (For example, we may not hold “honesty” as an element of our better self until we are lied to and we experience the pain of that.)

And every evening before you go to sleep, you can ask yourself, “Was I better today than I was yesterday?” If not, you can adjust course tomorrow, ensuring that your focus is on changing what you actually have control over. When you are a better version of yourself, you will naturally become a better partner, which will aid them in being a better person, and so it goes. Now that is a cycle I can get behind!

THE MAGIC PILL: ACTION

When I think of how to describe the times we are currently living in, I let my clients guide me. And what I am hearing these days is that, when looking around, it is like looking through a clear pane of glass: you see “everyone else”, but you also see yourself reflected. This description resonates with me because the key distinction in whether or not one is able to create change in their life is whether or not they are willing to see the world through a pane of glass, or more specifically, how they look in the world.

12-Step meetings have long had attendees recite the following after every meeting:

Grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Why is this mantra repeated time and time again by those who seek change in their own lives? Because in those few lines are the exact instructions of how to change! They also let us know what does not create change, and moving from one state to the other is the point of this article.

How do we change the world? How do we change our world, our relationships, ourselves? Does change require that everyone change? What if I am the only one who changes?

Let’s dive in…

WHAT YOU CAN’T CONTROL: Without exception, couples come into my office pointing the finger at one another, inviting me to side with them and agree that the other is the problem. “If only my partner would change, things would be better!” In order to connect the couple, I first need to see if they are willing to be a team, working against the problem instead of each other.

I start with this task because I have learned that we cannot make anyone change, we can only influence them to change. The other side of that is coin is allowing ourselves to be influenced to change by our partners. Both of these ideas help us with the first part of the serenity mantra: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change”.

This is easier said than done! But it is doable, and is the only way I know of to move your life and relationships from where they is to where you want them to be.

Why are we so committed to trying to change what we cannot control? Because it feels easier than taking a good hard look at ourselves, and our contribution to the problem(s). I remember years ago when I wanted to move out of Los Angeles because I thought that everyone here was horrible, and my best friend had the courage to ask me, “What if it is you?” I was furious with him at the time, but soon realized that while it was not only me, it was certainly partly me that was making my time here so difficult. Over time I succeeded in changing the way I respond to and think about the city (both under my control), and my outward experience of it changed for the better. I focused on what I had the power to control.

WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL: What we can control is a lot, truthfully, but it does take work. You know this if you have ever fallen for an easy weight loss system–the ones that promise that you can “eat like normal” on their program and still lose weight. While you may lose some pounds, they rarely stay off after stopping the program because what has not changed is how you eat and why you eat, which are key determinants of our weight.

It is much harder to look at the underlying negative thoughts that fuel our need to comfort ourselves with food, because this may mean facing problematic and painful relationships from our past. However, doing this work with a caring witness (such as a therapist), can result in lasting change and freedom from negative thinking. These things are under our control.

In short, we have control over our responses. This aligns with the second part of the serenity mantra: “the courage to change the things I can”. It does take courage to do this, because it can be painful and frightening, but the reward can be worth it. Taking control over our responses includes changing the way we interpret and think about things, which in turn affects how we feel about things. In other words, our response to what is happening. And when we change our response, we then have the power to influence others to change.

This is the magic pill. 

THE MAGIC PILL: The third part of the serenity mantra asks for “the wisdom to know the difference”, and that is no small ask! Knowing the difference between what we can and can’t control is not only the magic pill for change, but also the key to avoiding suffering. Focusing on what we can control can interrupt complaining and give us the power to take action, and action is what brings about change. This change does not always happen to everyone involved. I tell my couples clients that if you change as an individual in relationship, one of two things will happen: either your partner will adjust to the change or they will leave you. Either way, movement has occurred, which is often better than remaining stuck in a painful rut!

The bad news about action is that it difficult to do something different, and there are no guarantees that the outcome will match your preferences. The good news is that we can still choose to take it, even if it is hard, and be open to the result, knowing that we can always choose again. Sometimes, we might need a little extra support with this, either from others or even from medication, especially if we are strongly affected by either depression or anxiety (both can lead to inaction).

Action can take two forms: external or internal, and both are valid. External action is when we make adjustments to our behavior or response, or when we stop accepting invitations to fights or dysfunctional patterns. Internal action is when we change how we think about what is going on, often allowing us to move from victim to survivor (responsive rather than reactive). Victor Frankel writes about this in his important book, Man’s Search For Meaning, where changing his mind, or internal action, literally saved his life.

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A body in motion wants to stay in motion, while a body at rest wants to stay at rest. In other words, taking action from a state of inaction is difficult–but it is not impossible–it just takes a force to get it going. As a culture, many have become very comfortable, which is not a bad thing, but it has deterred us at times from taking necessary risks or making uncomfortable choices. Just because action is a magic pill does not mean it is easy to swallow. What helps it go down is support from others, and having a clear idea of who we would rather be in relationship to the ourselves and others.

With individuals, therapy can help to identify and confront ways of thinking that contribute to unhealthy choices. Changing the way you think can positively shift the way you experience what is going on around you. With couples, I encourage them to support each other by sharing the changes they are embracing themselves while acknowledging and appreciating the changes we see in the other. This is what working as a team looks like, and it can change your relationship into a refuge rather than a battleground. I know of no other way that gets you closer to a life of peace and love.

HOW TO ALIGN GOALS

Seeing eye to eye can be tough at times!

Falling in love can be like a dream, in that we often feel as though we have found our “other half” or “lost self” because it seems as though we share every single goal with our new partner. I remember when I was in my twenties I would meet someone and not be able to imagine ever having a conflict because the pairing felt so well matched. Of course, in time conflict did occur, and when this happens it can feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under us!

I often tell the couples I work with that when things like this happen, it is only bad news if you don’t know what to do with it. In other words, conflict and differences do not have to be deal-breakers, they can in fact bring you closer together if you talk about them respectfully and with curiosity. The truth is that there is nobody who is exactly like us in every way–there are always going to be differences.

But what happens when goals aren’t aligned? Not sharing a like of action movies is very different from not sharing a like of children! What if one of you wants to move out of the city? Or change careers? How about when one person becomes religious or leaves the religion you shared when you got together? These issues are not just “preferences”, they are often linked to what is most important to us. How do you navigate these shifts in core values?

It can be challenging, but it is not impossible, and it all depends on knowing how to talk to one another. Guess what, we usually don’t know how. I often will work with couples for weeks or months to help them discuss divergent goals and values, but here are a few key points that can help you right out of the gate. 

BE CURIOUS RATHER THAN JUDGEMENTAL: Curiosity is your best friend in a relationship, especially when it comes to discussing differences! Our brain is wired to feel threatened by differences, so successful conversations require making conscious choices about how we listen to one another. If one of you wants to travel the world and the other prefers to focus on building a home together in one place, it helps to dig a little beneath the conflict. Curiosity pushes judgement aside because it goes beneath the surface difference to the shared humanity underneath. Willing compromises and solutions to problems are possible from a place of shared perspective and understanding.

We are meaning-assigning creatures, and in today’s world where our roles in society are increasingly up to us to decide, it can be difficult to build an identity or know where we stand in relation to others. Some people set goals as a way to ease that process, and it can work, but it can get messy when our identity and values are linked to what we do. Differences in goals can feel like a personal attack on what we value, but they rarely are–they are just differences that have yet to be explored and understood. 

How couples talk about this is critical, as it can divide them or connect them, depending on how they do it. What should they be curious about in these conversations? 

FIND COMMON AREAS AND OVERLAPS: Underneath every goal is a desire for a certain experience or feeling, and exploring these can help to reveal areas of commonality and overlap. This is important because commonality and overlap can connect you to one another and weaken the fear that your differences are deal-breakers. 

In my experience with couples, there is always commonality, because we are all human! Goals, no matter how different, tend to work toward similar meanings and feelings: feeling valued, purposeful, creative, stimulated, etc. If couples can see past the surface look of the goal, they will often discover shared meaning. (If they don’t, then that is also useful information to have as you make decisions about the future of the relationship!)

This is why constructive conversations about goals look for areas of overlap rather than areas of difference. In order to have these conversations, it helps to give your partner the benefit of the doubt and to hold the idea that they are with you, and not against you. The way we approach conversations if influenced by how we think about conversations!

WORK TOWARD COMPROMISE AND DECIDE WHAT YOU CAN GIVE UP: I want to address the concept of compromise briefly, as it comes up in so many discussions with couples. Most people have half the concept of compromise down: you give up something you want in order to get something. But there is another half that is necessary if you want the compromise to result in connection instead of resentment, and that is that the compromise must be willing.

A willing compromise does not mean that you have to agree with the other or even like the compromise, it just means that you do it willingly. This is the key to avoiding resentment and contempt down the line–and the good news is that it is not that hard to do because we do it all the time! Have you ever gone to work on a day when you wanted to stay in bed? If you have, you probably thought you were just “sucking it up”, but in fact you were making a willing compromise with your work. On the other hand, if you spent the day at work bitter and fuming, there is a good chance that you went to work unwillingly!

Willing compromises are a key ingredient to successful relationships and problem-solving. Without them a couple will tend to see the other as a competitor and a threat, resulting in disconnection and resentment.

REGULAR CHECK-INS: Finally, I want to mention the value of doing regular check-ins with your partner. I have trouble understanding why couples expect a relationship to move along smoothly without checking in with each other from time to time–can you imagine running a successful business that way? We regularly meet with our business partners, our doctors, even our friends to discuss “how things are going” and to review goals and progress, and yet when we think of doing this with our partner we are resistant because it can feel “unromantic”.

Romance and passion are often the end results of efforts made along the way–they are usually spontaneous only during the courtship phase. You can make your check-in into a ritual you both look forward to, and a way to practice healthy communication and mutual understanding. I usually recommend doing check-ins once a week, on the same day and at the same time if possible so that it becomes tradition, and they don’t have to last more than fifteen minutes. Here are some things to discuss during check-ins:

  1. Review progress on ongoing goals and projects.
  2. Review the upcoming week of each partner and ask if there is anything each needs to be aware of in the others week.
  3. Ask if the other needs support in any way during the upcoming week, and make a request for support if you need it.
  4. Talk about sex: what is working and what is not–any new ideas or questions–is everyone happy with the sexual relationship?
  5. Finally, find out if the other is bothered by anything recent and needs to talk about it, or let them know if you need to talk and be listened to. It is good to finish this off by sharing what you appreciate about each other or by commenting on something they did well or that made you feel loved.

Remember that check-ins are not about “being right” or arguing–they are a tool that can strengthen your relationship and connect you to each other. A small investment that can lead to a big reward!

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I hope for the day when we are less threatened by one another’s differences and instead more curious about them. I also hope for the day when we recognize our many shared values–when it comes down to it most of us want the same thing: to feel loved and safe. How we get there may be by different roads, but by knowing how to talk about goals, we may find that our roads are more parellel than we thought. You don’t have to be on the same road to be moving in the same direction with your relationship!