This summer, my boyfriend and I traveled to Europe. We had 5 glorious, romantic days in Paris, and then once we arrived in Barcelona, we got the rude awakening of coming down off of Cloud 9 and were faced with some relationship challenges. They were nothing major – your basic communication fumbles that get heightened with two sensitive people, but they existed and grew a life of their own until we were able to put them to rest.
We have been together almost two years, and are both in the mental health profession (me, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist; him a PhD in Psychology with an expertise in positive psych and anger management). You might think that we, of all couples, would possess all the tools in the world for a perfect, problem-free relationship. Well, most of the time that is true, however, much to our chagrin, we are human after all. And with that humanity comes real emotions, feelings, and experiences that despite our awareness and ability to communicate with compassion, we can sometimes still end up with hurt feelings, misunderstandings and patterns that can easily resurface from our previous marriages and even our childhood.
While on vacation and working on our relationship, I had the realization that Love Isn’t Enough. Dammit! That awareness hit me upside the head with a reality that both made me a bit sad and equally motivated to continue to practice the tools to create and maintain a fulfilling, long-lasting and loving relationship.
In moments of conflict, miscommunication, frustration, anger, disappointment, sadness, negative emotional cycles, or patterns of getting stuck, coming back to your foundation of love and appreciation is super important. But what is vital to move out from that conflicted stage is how you are willing to step towards one another when the challenges arise. It’s easy to focus on love and all things positive when life is flowing with ease. But when we are caught in a downward spiral, and it feels impossible to get out from within the strength of its force, the ability to reach out to your partner physically, emotionally, or energetically, is difficult but necessary.
What to do in difficult times?
Famed marriage researcher John Gottman refers to this process as repair attempts, which is defined as an action or statement that attempts to prevent negativity from escalating out of control. Examples of 6 categories of repair attempts that Gottman outlines are:
- I feel
- Get to yes
- I need to calm down
- Stop action
- I appreciate
Phrases within these categories are like speed bumps to help slow down reactions and allow us to respond with kindness, compassion, and intention. Easier said than done, I know! But creating the space for mending is crucial to get us out of those spiraling negative cycles.
Focus on resolving the issues
Further challenges can arise when you or your partner are feeling so stuck that you don’t feel like welcoming your partner’s repair attempts. But naming that awareness may be one of the ways to help overcome that hurdle. Being able to say to your partner, “This isn’t easy; I feel very stuck in reaching towards you right now, but I know that I’ll be grateful in the long run that I did,” takes courage and vulnerability. But I also know that staying stuck can be even more difficult. And like any skill, it gets less effective and you need to strengthen the tools for more effective relationship dynamics.
Our repair attempts made while in Barcelona is what allowed us to get unstuck and continue to enjoy our vacation. At times, the attempts looked differently: it was an ability to name what we were feeling; reach out to hold hands; ask for space to help clear our mind; honor that this was a difficult process; offer for a hug; apologize for our part of the miscommunication; clarify our position; acknowledge how this triggered an old wound… The attempts kept coming until we were able to feel understood, validated and heard, and therefore back to “normal.” There isn’t one magic repair that was going to make it all better, but I was proud of us for continuing the process.
It can be very easy for couples to shut down because the vulnerability and openness required to repair can often feel overwhelming, and therefore keep them in a negative space. And if prior attempts have failed, there can be a hesitancy to try and try again. But, really…what option is there, but to keep trying? Because alas, love isn’t enough!