Relationships – When does yours need help?

People yearn for that special connection with another human being yet the reality of being in a relationship is disappointing for many. Couples tend to ignore the dynamics of their relationship until a crisis occurs, although by then it may be too late. While people acknowledge the serious consequences of neglecting their physical health or their careers, too often their relationship does not get the attention it needs to sustain itself.

A healthy relationship can provide a safe haven from an often callous world and can be a wonderful vessel for the personal growth of each partner. However, when a relationship becomes troubled, an opportunity for growth and change presents itself. Simply abandoning one relationship and springing to a new one will most likely propel that person into the same old choices and patterns or into reactionary, opposite ones that are no more satisfying over time.

Relationship problems usually reflect some internal issue of one or both parties. Partners may unconsciously blame the other for one’s own internal fear or disappointment or because that person is different from whom it was assumed he or she would be. People choose one partner over another because of some unconscious dynamic that may involve unresolved psychological history. For example, one partner may remind the other of a parental or compensatory parental figure. In fact, a critical barrier to the achievement of mature love has to do with the often unconscious pull of old emotional scars from childhood. Such issues as fear of abandonment, low self-esteem and the conflict between wanting love and wanting control may be harbored from the past and get played out in the current situation.

Professional counseling or therapy is helpful for any couple who values an opportunity to engage in a diagnostic relationship process, a relationship "check-up." An emphasis on communication and conflict management style helps bring patterns into sharper focus, paves the way for a safe discussion between the couple, and hopefully begins a thoughtful process within each of the participants. Specially focused sessions guide one partner or the couple to more fully understand the strengths and weaknesses of the relationship and to learn what kinds of approaches actually work for couples— married or not, straight or gay.

There are certain serious symptoms that indicate that the need for professional help is more crucial. A lack of respect, conflicting values, an unsatisfying physical relationship, infidelity, substance abuse and constant bickering are just some of the "red flags" which might bring a couple into counseling.

Even the happiest of couples experience occasional conflict, but they learn to minimize the crisis. Ground rules such as no labeling or name-calling are essential fair fighting strategies. Sticking to the topic at hand avoids fanning the flames of conflict. It is important to learn how to clarify and paraphrase, and to keep in mind that listening is still a skill that does not require problem solving or advice giving. If, during a discussion, too much rage or negative intensity develops, it is important to stop the communication and continue at a later and calmer time. It is helpful to keep in mind that each party is continually writing the history of the relationship and creating its memories.

In addition to effective communication, the characteristics of mature love include an agreement by the couple as to what it takes to make a good relationship; and trust is a very basic ingredient. It is possible to mend and even strengthen a relationship where trust has been broken, but it takes skill, effort and commitment. Satisfied couples tend to express an abundance of appreciation to each other and feel that romance, equality, and freedom are all necessary, rather than exclusionary, dimensions of their relationship experience.

In essence, genuineness, not game playing; politeness, not rudeness; are some of the most important ingredients of an honorable relationship and a satisfying love. But do not expect perfection. While it is important to support the other’s goals as separate and apart from one’s own, it is also vital to continually develop oneself as a whole person. Two whole people in a relationship are infinitely better than two halves seeking to make a whole, for the former is based on mature desire while the latter is based on insecure need.

If you would like more information or the names of professionals working with couples contact Healthcare Advocates at (215) 735-7711.

By Dr. Marion Rudin Frank & Kevin Flynn