The “Perfect” Couple
A couple I once worked with in therapy some time ago—let’s call them Kevin and Gloria—seemed to have a lot going for them: Kevin had a good job and Gloria was active in her community, and they were raising four healthy kids. They reported, however, that as family pressures had built up they had felt a growing distance from each other, and each time they tried to talk about their individual or family challenges, criticism and defensiveness soon followed, and one or both of them would get hurt or angry while nothing was resolved.
Through therapy, they learned how to create a safe space for each other to open up and go a bit deeper. A big breakthrough came when Kevin started sharing about intense criticism he had felt as a child. He talked about his fear of his own children going through the same thing. This helped explain why he felt so strongly about a particular issue. Gloria then shared her own experiences as a mother, comparing herself to other mothers, and her fear of failing to live up to expectations. This helped Kevin better understand the challenges Gloria faced every day.
Although they still disagreed on many issues (and probably always will), they deeply understood each other. They felt a desire to support each other, and suddenly some of the issues didn’t seem so big anymore. Each expressed a feeling of relief, like a weight being lifted off of their shoulders, and more confidence in their relationship.
One of the main goals of relationship therapy is to help couples (1) open up and (2) learn to be ok about the messy details of their own and each other’s lives. Trying to be perfect, individually or as a couple, can add a lot of pressure, which can turn a couple against each other and create a cycle of fighting and withdrawing that hurts the relationship. If, in the middle of all of this mess, both partners can learn to really listen to each other and just be there for each other, things will get much better. To do this, we need to listen, and open up.
Have you ever tried to talk to someone about something you are struggling with, only to have them ignore what you said and start rattling off all of the pressures they are facing? How useful was that? But how often does this happen to partners under stress! It can be hard to listen to your partner’s troubles when your mind is so full of your own, but when two people are both trying to be heard, it means neither of them are listening.
Listen to your partner. Set aside, for a moment, your own issues and give them as much space as they need. You will disagree with some of what they say, I can almost guarantee it, but this isn’t the time for resolution or debate, this is the time to show your partner you care and that you want to understand them. After all, the best research we have says that 70% of all relationship differences are never resolved anyway, so let’s stop beating our heads against the wall, and start listening with the intent to understand. The goal is just to listen, not to resolve.
Opening up is more than just sharing our complaints and opinions. Sometimes we will need to do a bit of self-exploration first. Maybe when your partner arrived home late without texting and you were angry, underneath that was the memory of your own father arriving home late or not at all, and the hurt you felt associated with that. The anger will push your partner away, but the painful memory may help him or her connect with you and want to support you.
There may be many other secrets or hidden thoughts, feelings or memories you hold back from your partner out of embarrassment or fear of rejection. However, consider the power of feeling loved for who you are, even though there are some parts of you you’re not especially happy about. When we stop holding back the messy parts of ourselves, we are showing trust for our partner’s capacity to love us unconditionally.
Made Strong Through Weakness
Strong relationships aren’t created by perfect people—they become strong when we are willing to drag all of our imperfections out into the open and say, “Here I am, in all of my mess, can you still love me and stick with me?” This is the glue that holds a relationship together, even in the hard times: needing someone, and feeling needed at the same time.
Sam Ryland is a therapist at the Spanish Fork Center for Couples and Families. He is a licensed clinical social worker, and is originally from Australia. He has grown to love Utah for its beautiful landscape and friendly people.