Marriage and Relationships
Tom Ahlrichs LCSW

Marriage and relationship
Married couple walking.
I have been providing therapy/counseling services since the year 2000.  During this time, I have often encountered clients who are under the illusion that marriage and relationships are supposed to be easy.  This is clearly a fairy tale. All relationships, intimate or not, require work and dedication to maintain their overall health.   Society appears to normalize the concept of throwing in the towel at the first sign a relationship encounters difficult times.   Truth is, this is the time and opportunity for both individuals to work with one another to resolve whatever issue is in an effective manner that both can live with.  Doing the work and required maintenance often leads to a more improved understanding of one another and likely improves the marriage/relationship for everyone involved.  In this writing, I would like to share a handful of concepts I have found helpful in promoting healthier, happier, marriages and relationships in general.

We have all heard the saying “knowledge is power”.  This is so true when it comes to marriages and relationships.  Being aware of each other’s family of origin provides each other with insight related to strengths, vulnerabilities, and understanding of behaviors that both work for and against the marriage, or relationship.  This is an opportunity to determine what each other’s relationship model entailed, both healthy and not so healthy.  This provides each couple with the opportunity to choose and maintain what was healthy and needs to be maintained in the relationship.  It also provides the couple with the opportunity to expunge or modify what wasn’t healthy in your family of origin.  We have all heard the saying “if it didn’t work for our own parents, it likely won’t work in our marriage/relationships”.

Another area that often creates distress for couples is when one or the other goes about making big decisions without consulting each other.  A good example of this might include myself returning home from work in a new F-350 with all the bells and added-on features.  I imagine my wife would be quite upset about not being a part of this big decision that impacts us both financially over the next 5 or so years.  I am not saying that couples need to communicate on every financial matter.  Each couple will likely have different parameters regarding what warrants communication and joint decision making.  For example, my wife doesn’t expect me to inform her about my lunch plans if I step out for a quick bite to eat.  This likely isn’t going to impact both of us financially in the long run.  For some couples, finances might be tighter and a quick bite to eat might need to be communicated. On occasion, we all likely get our way.  On occasion, others get it their way.  However, most likely, big decisions need to be made jointly and in a manner that is mutually beneficial and agreeable by both.  This might include me and my wife agreeing on the purchase of the F-350 when we can afford to put down 20 percent of the cost and take on less debt over time.  And of course, she may need to provide some input on the color, extra gadgets and add accessories that are necessary or unnecessary.  This is viewed as a horizontal relationship where both are considered equals and share in the decision making that impacts them both.  A vertical relationship includes one person holding all the power and decision making while the other is not afforded shared decision making.  Shared decision making related to big decisions equals happiness for both individuals.

Four behaviors that often create relationship distress and is referred to “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” include:  Criticizing and attacking the other, contempt or name calling, defensive/blaming the other, and stonewalling.  Criticizing only serves the purpose of making each other feel bad or inferior, creates defensiveness, and moves us further from resolving issues in a mutually beneficial manner.  Contempt or name calling is obviously a step above criticizing, making it more of a personal attack on one another.  Defensive/blaming only serves the purpose of not taking responsibility for our own behavior in the relationship.  A healthy relationship includes owning your own behavior, making appropriate amends, and efforts to no longer engage in hurtful behavior.  Stonewalling is akin to giving each other silent treatment, withholding any form of love and affection.  This only creates long term resentment and diminishes any desire to mutually resolve issues.

Healthy couples are often aware of and show a strong appreciation for the strengths both bring to the relationship.  Healthy couples are also aware of one another’s weak or vulnerable areas and make efforts to nurture and build each other up rather than use this against each other. This might include showing appreciation for an ability and teaching one to feel more competent in another area.  For example, appreciating a partner’s ability to stay levelheaded when dealing with unruly teenagers.  Nurturing the same individual who may be more vulnerable to loss due to losing a parent at an early age.

We generally want to be seen as caring and helpful to our partner.  Good intentions often go wrong when we start to tell each other how they should feel, how they should do something, or doing it for them.  This often comes across as making the other partner feel inferior, unheard, or incompetent.   A common scenario I often witness includes telling a partner to “just let it go, don’t let it make you so angry”.  As you might very well guess, this usually does nothing to quell one’s feelings.  Another scenario might include correcting your partner, telling them they have done something completely wrong, and they need to do it the way you do.  Think about loading the dishwasher!   Couples tend to do much better when they can avoid fixing each other’s stressors and focus on providing empathy, stating “sorry you are going through that, is there anything I can do to help”?  Often, we can’t fix something for someone, all we can do is listen and let them inform us how we might be helpful.

I often see couples where one or the other, or both, are highly emotional and dysregulated.  In this situation there is likely no chance of an issue getting resolved.  More than likely the issues will just further escalate.  In a dysregulated state, we are more prone to being reactive rather than thoughtful and responsive.  The end result often includes on or both individuals saying and doing things they later regret.  I encourage both individuals to be aware of when one or the other, or both are dysregulated, need to walk away temporarily, and return when in a better place to resolve issues in a mutually beneficial manner rather than react.

Healthy couples will be aware of and supportive of each other’s personal goals.  This might include a husband supporting his wife’s goal to finish up her business degree.  The wife might be aware of her husband’s personal goal of getting back into shape.  Both are aware of encourage healthy actions towards these personal goals.  In an unhealthy scenario the husband may feel threatened by his wife outshining him with a degree and make statements such as “it is costing us too much money, you won’t have time for the kids or me”.  The same wife might feel threatened by her husband trying to get back into shape and make a statement such as “you going to the gym takes time away from home, what, are you seeing someone”? In both examples both partners may just want to feel better about themselves, put themselves in a better position to contribute to the family, or just be healthier to be around for the grandkids.

Finally, I often encounter couples struggling when responsibility does not feel equal or shared. I am going to pick on men first and foremost.  In an unhealthy relationship I often see men who assume they have a special pass after being at work all day.  They often passively let their partner be responsible for all the household duties even when said partner has been at work all day herself.   Men often further assume they get a pass because their partner only stays at home with the kids all day. Let us not forget, taking care of the household and kids is a full-time job.  Healthy relationships will respect what each other contributes to in and outside of the home, share responsibilities.  Each couple is different and will need to figure out what works for them.  This might include a joint decision that one cooks, the other cleans up.  One may walk the dog while the other takes on the responsibility of scooping the poop. This will be different for each relationship, what works for one relationship might not work for another.  Most importantly, both individuals are aware of and agreeable with their own responsibilities and appreciate each other’s specific contributions.

For the reader, I hope you can take one or two of these concepts that make sense to you and apply to your own relationships.  No relationship is perfect. What matters, includes being aware of our strengths in relationships and where we can learn and strive to do be a better partner.

Contact North End Wellness today to start on your journey towards creating your best life.