How Romantic Relationships Can Thrive

Peter Douglas, LCSW-R February 15, 2021

We all know romantic relationships are hard, but the question is why? Here is a comprehensive guide to better understand why conflict arises in your relationship and how to build a stronger connection with your partner.

We all know romantic relationships are hard, but the question is why? 

As our own experiences can attest, there are various reasons why relationships are so challenging. I want to address the recurring themes that I have observed throughout my work with couples: mismatched perception, lack of awareness, and misunderstanding of how relationships flow. 

Mismatched Perception

When I talk about the concept of perception, I'm referring to how we ingest and interpret data around us with our five senses through the lens of personal experiences. In addition to the combination of sensory awareness and lived experience, personal interest will also affect perception. For example, if you are a computer geek, your perception of how much money is fair to spend on computer equipment will differ from someone who is more of a Luddite. 

We construct these assumptions based upon our perceived reality, and they affect relationships in a myriad of ways. Most notably: we may not always understand someone else's perception, and/or we assume their perception is the same as our own. You will both perceive the same event differently, and neither one is more "correct" or "accurate" than the other. Simply put: your reality is not universal; your partner will have their own. 

This place of mismatched perception is often where disagreements and miscommunication occur. You can save yourself from numerous arguments if you remember that you and your partner have different ideas that rest on the foundation of your personal perception. And again, no one is more right than the other.

Lack of Awareness

This brings me to the concept of awareness. You have each been imprinted with different experiences that affect how you attach to another and communicate love. It is necessary to bear this in mind as you navigate a relationship with your beloved. 

You have a choice to become conscious of yourself and your partner. Choosing to create space wherein you can truly communicate emotionally and form connections takes courage to embrace your partner, to listen, to understand (or at least try to understand) when their world is painful or scary and does not fit your reality of the world or yourself.

How Do We Fall in Love author Jeanette Winterson sums this up quite nicely when she writes: 

You don't fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall like falling through space. It's like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else's planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colors people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signaled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump. Away you go, falling into someone else's orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.) And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favorite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don't want to be without. That's it. P.S. You have to be brave.

You must be brave to explore a new world. At the same time, falling in love is not the same as staying in love. Stephen R. Covey reminds us "Love is a verb," which means love requires action on our part. However, many people believe that the way they feel in the beginning stages of love (euphoric, passionate, etc) will endure throughout the relationship. This is a misunderstanding. It is difficult to know how to act when those feelings ebb, and suddenly we think there is something wrong with the relationship. Developing a deeper understanding of the flow of relationships can help.

The Stages of Relationships

Every relationship cycles constantly through three stages: harmony, disillusion, and repair. A couple could go through those stages 10 times in one afternoon, or they could spend years in one stage. No matter how rapidly or slowly a relationship moves through the stages, it is important to remember: ALL THE STAGES ARE NORMAL.

Harmony is often found in the beginning phase of a relationship; it is closeness, rhythm, and a feeling of a soul connection. Disillusion is when imperfections are getting under your skin, and you start thinking, "I've made a horrible mistake in getting together with this person." 

Terry Real, founder of the Relational Life Institute and a couple's therapist for more than 30 years, jokingly says this is the stage where married couples experience "normal marital hatred." Disillusionment is normal, albeit painful. How do you get out of disillusionment and into the next stage, repair? That requires communication and relational skills. The trouble is most people did not learn those skills. 

According to Real, we do not live in a relationship-cherishing culture which teaches us how to be in relationships. Instead, we live under the rule of patriarchy, which devalues intimacy and the very traits that nourish it: vulnerability, connection, and interdependence. "You cannot be faithful to the model you were raised in and be intimate at the same time," he said at the Radiant Intimacy gathering in 2019. "The traditional gender roles of men and women are not built for intimacy. They're built for production, consumption, and stability. Intimacy is a new demand and a great one."

How do you build intimacy? It takes practice. Erich Fromm, the author of The Art of Loving, said our society continually casts love as something that happens to us passively and by chance, something we fall into, rather than a skill attained through deliberate practice; intimacy requires work on our part to build. 

How to Build Intimacy

A practice you can implement to build intimacy is what psychotherapist Virginia Satir calls "Temperature Reading." The Temperature Reading is a way to set aside time (daily or a couple of times a week) to make contact and reconnect with your partner. 

Satir notes intimacy cannot take place between people when they are engaged more in efforts to hide themselves than to reveal themselves — something the Temperature Reading seeks to rectify. It is a container where each person can say what they think and feel and ask for what they want. The practice addresses the overt and covert issues present in couple relationships. 

She recommends taking 10-15 minutes to cover each of the five categories of a Temperature Reading and identify or flag issues, emotions, or conflicts that will need more than the allotted time to address, flagging those items for discussion outside of the Temperature Reading.

The categories of a Temperature Reading are the following:

  1. Appreciations
  2. Complaints with recommendations, worries, concerns, and irritations
  3. Puzzles, confusions, questions, rumors, gossip
  4. New information
  5. Hopes and wishes

Conducting a Temperature Reading

To start a Temperature Reading, it is important to get centered in whatever way works for you— breathing, meditating, journaling, etc. Then retreat to a quiet corner somewhere in your home or outside in a private setting, where you will not be interrupted. 

Face your partner and be within a physical distance that feels safe but still close; generally, this is about 18 inches. Have a journal or piece of paper handy to record any flagged issues or concerns to address later. Decide who will go first and begin with appreciations. You will each have a chance to share. 

  1. Appreciations: Appreciations allow each partner to say what feels good to them, the things they like about their partner, and specific things their partner has said or done that they enjoyed. Phrases include, "I like it when you____," or "It felt good when you____." The person receiving the appreciation acknowledges it by telling the giver their understanding of what they shared. They validate the appreciation by sharing how they understand the giver's perspective and how they appreciate them sharing it. Integrate the appreciation by thinking about how sharing these benefits you both as a couple. Share that with your partner. Once the giver has finished sharing all their appreciations, switch roles.
  2. Complaints with recommendations, worries, concerns, and irritations: This part of the Temperature Reading is not to air grievances to mount an attack. Instead, the goal is to improve the relationship. A complaint with a recommendation includes the awareness of how things could be better. "I didn't like it when you did ____. Next time could you ____?" Prompts for this include, "What do you suggest to improve the situation? Can you come up with three possibilities?" The person hearing the complaint acknowledges the sharer's experience and why they are sharing it. They validate the complaint and integrate the information. Shared in this way, expressing complaints offers the opportunity to discover new possibilities to make things better in your relationship with creative solutions. Once one person has shared, then the other person has a turn.
  3. Puzzles, confusions, questions, rumors, gossip: Every relationship has some degree of puzzles, confusions, questions, gossip, and rumors. This part of the Temperature Reading provides the opportunity to integrate new information. Examples of phrases in this part of the Temperature Reading are, "I am trying to figure out______," "I am puzzled by_______," "I have a question about_____," "I heard _____ and wanted to check it out with you." The person hearing the confusion reflects back the puzzle: "I hear you are puzzled about ________. Is this an accurate statement about your puzzle? If not, please correct me." Keep at this until both of you agree on the puzzle. The important thing is to come to some shared understanding of the presenting confusion as this allows you to understand your partner better and become closer to them.
  4. New information: This section is where new information or announcements are shared that are relevant to the couple's daily life. For example: If you were planning on going out of town, but something came up that will change this plan, this is where that information is shared. You may need more time to plan logistics after new information is shared, and if that is the case, flag the item and come back to it later.
  5. Hopes and wishes: Everybody has hopes, wishes, and dreams. Sharing these allows each person to be heard while building closeness. Furthermore, it provides the opportunity for support as each of you strive for your aspirations.
  6. Closing: Once you have completed the Temperature Reading, discuss what could be improved. Or perhaps share how it felt to conduct the Temperature Reading. Schedule the next one and designate who will start the next Temperature Reading. Satir also recommends looking at your partner and then closing your eyes. Assess how you feel about yourself and your partner now. What comes up for you? What would you like to do or say? Become aware of all your thoughts and feelings, open your eyes, and make a commitment to your partner for the next Temperature Reading.
  7. Flagged items: Now that your Temperature Reading has closed, look at your list of flagged items. Review the list and designate how much time you will spend on each issue. Either discuss those now or schedule another time to review them. If there are no flagged items, the Temperature Reading is finished, and you can bring the process to an end with whatever feels good to you: a hug, a kiss, a handshake, etc.

Emotionally Focused Couple's Therapy

Another way to build intimacy is through emotionally focused couple's therapy (EFT). Extensive research shows EFT can create a more secure emotional bond with your partner, which leads to more satisfaction, intimacy, and trust within the relationship. EFT focuses on the present moment. Through a process of interaction, the therapist guides the couple to go deeper into their emotional experiences, make sense of them, and send new signals to the brain. 

It works in three stages: 

  1. De-escalating a negative cycle 
  2. Restructuring the bond between partners 
  3. And consolidating those changes to create a new love story.

You will notice again there is an element of perception here in creating a new love story. People tend to seek out what they experienced before, even while harboring sensitivity around past wounds. If a person was abandoned as a child, they will be extra sensitive to abandonment as an adult; knowing your partner's relational history and your own will help you both navigate relational trapdoors. 

The reality is we seek out partners that remind us of our early relational figures, or at least have qualities that remind us of those early attachment figures. Being aware of those qualities and the struggles that went along with those early relationships will help you both realize when you are bringing past wounds into the present.     

This process is called Imago therapy, and was developed in 1980 by Hendrix and Hunt. Imago helps shed light on these dynamics and provides support as you unpack your histories. It also allows you to tell your partner about your childhood, to state your frustrations clearly, and to articulate exactly what you need from each other to heal. 

Hendrix and Hunt say the Imago process ultimately allows you to say to your partner, "I respect your otherness; I want to learn from it. And I want to share mine with you." This clear communication, this change in perception, if you will, is a powerful aphrodisiac that allows you to live comfortably on someone else's "planet," going back to Winterson's analogy. There is an exquisite joy and sense of aliveness that comes with the repair phase of a relationship; a deep-down pleasure from the attachment itself. 

 At Humantold, we know it can be challenging to navigate relationship dynamics on your own. But the good news is you don't have to. If you would like support with your relationship, reach out to us, and we will match you with a therapist who can help.

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