On my way to work this morning (Valentine's Day 2019), I heard an internationally-known psychologist and expert on relationships be interviewed. In the course of the conversation about marriage and relationships, the interviewer asked “Some people say you need to work on the relationship while others say if you need to work on the relationship then something’s wrong. What is your take on that?” And the expert replied, “Well, I hate to break it to you, but you need to work on your relationship.”
NO NO NO NO NO. My profession’s marketing department has gotten this all wrong.
It drives me bonkers when I hear the phrase “The Relationship.” It’s not THE relationship - something that’s out there, separate from you and your partner, an entity that you manage like your checking account.
But this is, unfortunately, the bill of goods my profession has sold people to expect when they hear an expert on the radio say what they said today. So it's no surprise many clients come into therapy with a laundry list of complaints about their partner (because it's about "The Relationship", not me personally). They want the therapist to fix their partner while they sit passively by, nodding in agreement when the therapist points out their partner’s imperfections. They’re waiting for the “I told you so!” moment. At least that is what I think some people fantasize will happen in therapy. Like a form of destructive validation. Meanwhile, when one partner engages in that behavior, *of course* their partner is going to become defensive and/or counterattack and tell the therapist all the ways their partner is at fault. And we’re off to the races. This is not a productive use of everyone’s time in therapy.
The fact is, it’s YOUR relationship or even better yet it's OUR relationship. Try thinking about it this way instead: “I create this relationship together every day with my partner. This relationship is a part to me, it’s a part of my partner, and it’s a part of our life together. It is ours to own, change, and nurture.”
Because the reality is, you need to work ON YOURSELF, not “The Relationship.” This is what my profession needs you to know. Any relationship, but particularly the intimate one you’re currently in, *will* challenge you and you *will* feel uncomfortable feelings. It’s inevitable. And it’s not your partner’s job to make sure you aren’t challenged and don’t feel uncomfortable feelings. If they believe this (or you lead them to believe this), you will find out down the road all the harm it causes.
So how do you cope with all this? You need to work on understanding your feelings. You need to work on listening non-defensively. You need to give up black and white thinking. You need to work on identifying what you want and need (and what the differences are between these) while learning how to communicate those as requests, not demands or threats, and preparing yourself for disappointment. You need to learn about your anger and how to soothe yourself when you feel it. You need to practice empathy, loving kindness, and patience in those moments when it’s especially hard to do so. You need to remember why you chose your partner in the first place. And the built-in paradox of all this attention to self is that you need to learn it’s not all about you.
These are not things your partner, or your couples therapist, can do. Only you. And I promise that when you take your focus off your partner’s faults and instead focus on how you can grow and stretch yourself, “The Relationship” will improve. Not because of any magic that the therapist spun, but because you took ownership and responsibility for what you are doing and choosing to act differently.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist located in Sonoma county, California.