If you’re in the middle of a relationship storm what you most want is calm and stability. Often you just wish you could turn the clock back and for everything that has happened, not to happen. Instead it’s like being trapped in a nightmare. You get caught up in going over and over conversations and events, trying to understand where it all went wrong and what could have been done to stop it.
It’s time to take a deep breath and find a way out. There are a number of things you can do:
TAKE A BREAK Recognise that you are having a very stressful time and find a way to take a break, even if only for a short time. You might make an agreement with yourself that for the next 10 or 20 minutes you are going to think about something else. Telling yourself not to think about something doesn’t generally work. It helps if you do something active (requiring some physical movement for example cooking a meal or ironing) and concentrate just on that task. If that’s difficult and your mind starts racing away again you will need to give it a job to do. Counting is an easy task for your brain to do and will distract it from thinking about other things for a short while. Every time you notice a thought coming in again, just go back to counting.
KEEP IN THE PRESENT When things go wrong it’s easy to go over and over conversations and events. This is our natural way of trying to make sense of what has happened. Although this can be helpful, it keeps us trapped in the past and stops us from concentrating on where we are now. You can’t change the past but you can change what happens next. It can be hard to face the difficult situation you’re in, but you might be able to ask yourself ‘what can I do right now that would be helpful to me or the situation’. That might well be doing nothing. Sometimes it’s best to wait for the storm to pass over.
RELIEVE THE PRESSURE When you’re distressed it’s important to take steps that will relieve the pressure on you, and sometimes on the relationship. The pressure comes in various forms but often includes commitments. The arrangements you have made for the short and long term future probably included the other person in some way. Finding a way to postpone or cancel these commitments gives you time and helps you feel more in control.
TALK TO PEOPLE Everyone has difficulties in relationships at some time and most people understand. Maybe you’re someone who listens to other people’s problems and prefers to keep their own problems to themselves. Having problems does not make you a weak a person and you probably don’t think other people are weak when they talk about theirs. You might find that some people you talk to start to get emotional themselves and ‘wind you up’, rather than calm you down. Sometimes it’s good to let off steam and have a good rant with other people, but sometimes you just need to be held and supported. Chose the people who can best help you at different times.
DON’T TALK TO EVERYONE Some people tell everyone their problems. The difficulty is that you can get lots of advice and points of view which can create more confusion rather than less. Some people find they regret telling people later, sometimes because they have disclosed more than they feel comfortable with at a later date.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE Most people will get distressed at some time because life can be unfair and upsetting. Probably other people would also be angry and upset if it was happening to them. When we are distressed what we most need is to be comforted. If the person you most want to find comfort from is unable or unwilling, it’s important to find friends or family members who will be there for you. No-one is alone in this world, so even if you can’t find anyone around you all you need to do is reach out. I am a counsellor and I am one of very many people who want to be there to support you through the bad time. You can find us.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF Make it easy for you to recover from the distress. Physically you need to eat and sleep. Keep meals easy to prepare and light, and make sure you get enough sleep and rest. Limit the activities and demands you have on your time as you have less resources just at the moment. Think back to when you were younger. What did you do when you were a child and feeling upset. Try using the same strategies now so you can help yourself to feel more comfortable and calm.
REGULATE YOUR EMOTIONS When you get upset it’s easy for your thoughts and feelings to take over and you can feel overwhelmed and out of control. Sometimes you can be aware of how one thought leads to another and sends you into that downward spiral. When you’re feeling very emotional try switching your attention from what is going on inside your body, to what is going on outside your body. You can do this by looking around you and just saying in your head, or out loud, the names of everything you can see. Simply look around the room and say ‘there’s a chair, there’s a light, there’s a book…etc’. This forces your mind into noticing you in your surroundings and releases the temporary hold it has on your thoughts.
REASSURE YOURSELF If you keep telling yourself it’s bad/scary/terrible etc you will tend to feel more pessimistic. Reassure yourself that you can get through this. You might be able to remind yourself of other times in your life that have been difficult and you managed to survive. You could put stick notes in places you will regularly see them ,with positive and reassuring messages as a reminder.
GIVE YOURSELF TIME It takes time for things to get better, and for you to feel better. Although you might be in a rush for everything to be sorted out, it usually takes time. Give yourself, and sometimes other people or your relationship, time to heal. Putting pressure on the speed of healing tends to backfire and cause delay. Healing relationship distress takes time, not lots and lots of time, but some time.
Relationships can bring us the greatest joy, and the greatest pain. The pain will pass, even if at the moment it is all encompassing. Take shelter and be kind to yourself while you are waiting.
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Often when we enter into a situation with our partner for the purpose of resolving a problem or coming up with a solution, we come together with the attitude of competing against each other rather than creating a team effort. When we have the competition mind-set we bring our own ideas and solutions to the table with the attitude that my plan is the best and so the purpose of the discussion is to win my partner over to my side. When we do this, we create a number of relationship dynamics that are unhealthy for your couple intimacy.
When both parties think that their idea is the best, it creates a power struggle between them that can get rather nasty. Now, instead of working together on the same team you are at odds with each other. Secondly, this approach makes a statement of disrespect to your partner. Without actually saying it (well some of you do actually say it), you are telling your partner that their ideas have no value or that they are dumb. Sometimes this even leads to blaming and name-calling or other intimidation strategies. The usual result of this approach is that one of you loses and one wins or you come to a dead end where nothing is resolved. This approach tends to drive a wedge between couple relations in that one person is often left to struggle with feelings of disappointment or resentment. Sometimes the loser will even seek to sabotage the decision in order to proof their point or just as a way of expressing their anger.
A better approach is to come to the solution circle with the mind-set that both of you offer a legitimate perspective and so both of you have valuable insights to contribute to the solution. My wife sometimes quotes a saying from her mother which goes something like this, “if both of you think a like then there is only a need for one of you.” The point is that you need to see the fact that you both have different perspectives as a strength not a road block. As a team you can tap into the best of both minds, with two sets of insights.
Begin the discussion by defining what exactly it is that you hope to resolve. Allow each person to share his or her insights and concerns as well as what is of high value to them in coming up with a solution. Then, by using both perspectives work on a solution that both of you can own. When you take this approach one of you won’t be tempted to sabotage the solution in order to prove it wrong. Instead, you will both be inspired to give your plan the best effort. It will feel like a bonding exercise. And together, through problem solving, you will have discovered a more intimate response.
About the author
Phil Cole is the Pastor of Personal Development at Huron Park Baptist Church. He has an MA in counseling from Providence Theological Seminary. He holds a BTh and BRE from Emmanuel Bible College, as well as a BA in sociology from University of Waterloo. Phil is the founding chair of New Hope Family Ministries, which offers practical assistance to families impacted by abuse. Phil has his own counseling practice, and is also available for marriage retreats and weekend workshops.
We give thanks to Phil for permission to use his articles for helping our readers.