What are the components of a successful relationship? What do couples who have been married for over 50 years have to say about what kept them close? The simplicity of their answers may surprise you. They compromised, were able to put their needs aside, admitted mistakes, accepted their partner’s more challenging sides, and communicated vulnerably.
Being able to put your own needs aside for your partner does not imply that you are codependent. It means that you are flexible. When you know how to take care of yourself, then you can distinguish what a healthy dose of giving is for you. That is often an intuitive call. You simultaneously feel taken-care-of and you are able to bend - be flexible to the needs of your partner. Even when - especially when it requires you compromise or give up on something you want. That doesn’t mean you do it all the time or martyr yourself to someone else. It simply means being willing to adjust to your partner. Being resilient and flexible as well as clear about your own needs.
Being humble means being wiling to admit mistakes. It means pushing past your drive to defend yourself. It means recognizing when you’re angry because really you feel ashamed after you’ve screwed up or hurt your partner (even when it wasn’t intentional). It means taking a couple of deep breaths, taking the time to really consider what upset your partner, what actions you took and why that hurt. Being willing to come back, admit your mistake, and apologize with sincerity are all key to repair. There are often small ways we hurt one-another, or even bigger ones. Nobody is perfect and no relationship goes without injuries. But to be able to repair them is critical. Repair allows for reconnection and enables you and your partner to process hurts that might have driven you apart or led to unnecessary resentment.
Lastly Acceptance and vulnerability. Accept your partner the way they are. They are not a project to be changed or worked-on. We all evolve over time and hopefully, with self-reflection, into more compassionate, mature people. But we should never expect our partner to change their basic personality or temperament. You can of course ask your partner to change behaviors that are hurtful to you or disconnecting to the relationship.
If you do ask for a behavior change, it’s most effective to say it from a place of vulnerability, not blame or finger-pointing. Let your partner know what hurt and why, and give your partner’s motives the benefit of the doubt (this can be hard to do but very helpful). They may not have intended to hurt you or behave the way it seemed to you. Simply express your hurt and sadness in an open way, and your partner will more likely be drawn to you and want to be close to you. Your vulnerability creates compassion and natural empathy in your partner. We are drawn to each-other’s openness and sharing when we don’t blame. True vulnerability creates bonding, closeness, and safety.
Sure, there are many more components to lasting love, but these are the most basic, the ones highlighted by long-term partners. They are also qualities that can be developed. I see them in couples that I work with - and oftentimes it took a lot of hard work to get there. But it’s worth it because increased connection is like a magical elixir that increases contentment and joy not only in our relationship but in our everyday lives.
You might be surprised to know that a lot of couples deal with an affair at some point in their relationship, and it’s really hard. Sometimes divorce is an understandable reaction, but when the offending partner is able to feel and show deep remorse and empathy, there is lots of hope. When there are kids in the picture and years of history and positive connection within the relationship, it can be really worth putting in the sincere and hard work that it takes to recover.
There are phases of what the injured partner will be feeling: disbelief, anger, betrayal, a feeling of complete distrust, renewed hope, as well as ‘I don’t know how I will ever recover from this’. These are all understandable and normal reactions to this kind of shock and betrayal. You can feel completely blind-sighted, like you can never trust the person you thought you could trust again. Like your world has just been turned upside down.
You think, 'even if my partner is apologizing and taking responsibility, how do I know this won’t happen again in six months? How could the person I thought I knew so well lie to me?'
These thoughts are normal but hard to reckon with at first. It’s like - this just doesn’t make sense, and it’s hard to organize in the brain and heart.
There are things that can be done. One is working through the intense hurt and sense of complete betrayal that you are feeling together with your partner. I know that sounds crazy, but research shows that if your partner is wiling to do what it takes to mend what has been broken, he or she being available to listen, empathize, be with you in your pain, your sense of connection and trust can heal.
Research shows that empathy and emotional connection are the key to healing betrayal.
In order for that to happen, the partner who had the affair has to be wiling to listen completely and often while putting aside explanations and defensiveness. There often need to be countless rounds of listening to the hurt partner’s justified rage, despair, sadness, and distrust.
The hurt partner also has a task - he or she has to be willing to come out of the licking wounds alone phase, and to vulnerably share how bad it feels, how horrible and awful it feels to be betrayed that way.
The listening partner needs to not only listen, but be able to reflect and empathize, to allow him or herself to be moved by the hurt partner’s emotional experience and show the inevitable regret and remorse.
This scenario needs to happen repeatedly and often.
When you are feeling listened to and joined in your pain, you will feel less alone and like something is healing, something is changing. This can take a long time. As annoying as this sounds, this kind of life-changing situation can be an opportunity. A chance to reconnect at a level sometimes never experienced between the you, a closeness maybe you have rarely felt before. It is also a chance to pay attention to what was wrong before the affair.
After the healing begins and a sense fragile trust begins to come back, it’s important to heal underlying patterns that led to this imbalance in the first place. The affair was a symptom of a sense of disconnection between you, the negative pattern that was driving you both apart. This is an opportunity to heal that negative cycle, to find a way to come closer and be able to talk to each other in ways usually not experienced in a long time, if ever before.
Do you ever feel like you're living with a stranger rather than the person you married? Or like you are fighting an endless battle over nothing in particular with increasing disconnection?
I promise that you are not alone - those feelings come up for many people in long-term relationships and marriage. We try to talk about the stuff in life that needs to be ironed out - content like finances, kids, or extended family, but we get derailed not because of the subject matter, but because of the feelings that come up underneath.
It's normal to go through phases of feeling like you can't connect - where everything feels like an effort.
The truth is, most of us can get into 'negative cycles' in our relationships that are exacerbated during stressful times. By negative I mean that we begin to misread each other, make assumptions based on the body language or tone of the other, and end up feeling unsafe and shut down as a result.
We sometimes create just what we don't want, increasing disconnection. This is because we can begin to experience our partner as a scary tiger based on what we see on the surface. Ironically, we are often surprised to find out what is happening for our partner underneath: their unspoken fears, hurts, and misunderstandings. So we react - based on what we initially see as a growling tiger, without seeing the scared bunny rabbit underneath.
The goal is to learn to talk with each other from the bunny place, the place that is soft and vulnerable. The catch is that you need to feel safe enough to dare to do that. Ironically, the closer you feel with your partner, even though it can feel scary, the safer you actually are.
We tend to create disconnection and hardened defenses (anger and withdrawal) in order to feel safe, but it actually makes us feel more alone and less resilient. It also feeds the 'negative cycle'.
Coming to know that cycle like a team investigating a phenomena, working together to understand and defeat it, is a bonding experience in itself. The immediate result is that we tend to feel more bonded and supported, with a common goal. The more transparent and safe we feel, the less assumptions we tend to make about the other. Starting to see the world through our partner's eyes and thereby daring to give them the benefit of the doubt.
From there the results are plentiful: we can find our way back to one-another more easily and swiftly. This closeness and safety inevitably brings with it less effort in communicating, and most importantly, a secure and lasting connection.
Katharina Sandizell, LMFT