Coping With Change: Don’t Make Relationship Issues About You

Life never quite works out the way we expect. Someone once said to me that if you really knew what awaited us in the future, we would be totally shocked. Even though we, as humans, have the ability to predict the future, it is never spot on. The one thing we do know is that people change and the circumstances they find themselves in change as well. Sometimes by choice, often not.

I like to look at life in terms of life chapters and life transitions. Life chapters are phases in our life where things are stable, we are settled and things are running fine. There is no need for change and the thoughts around changing those circumstances are minimal. Life transitions are phases between life chapters where our lives can feel unsettled, we can feel stuck, anxious and trying desperately to find our path again. These transitions can be brought on by illness, loss of a loved one or relationship, financial difficulty or a myriad of other reasons. How we handle these times will determine how long the transition lasts. At least as important, maybe, is the influence of the people around us..our spouses and partners and especially if said partner is not going through the same thing.

It is never easy to be in a relationship with someone who is feeling that their life is off track. It is a big responsibility and one that some would try to avoid. However,  we can safely say that the strength of a relationship is determined by how good it is when things are not at their best…when sickness or depression or setbacks occur. We all have, of course, the ultimate responsibility to forge our own path but as a spouse or partner, we can either help or complicate the issue. Let’s look at this closer.

Often people going through life transitions have reduced energy and a perception that they cannot function in the same way as before. Small issues become big issues. Depression often occurs when there is a feeling of being stuck and hopeless. There is a withdrawal from routine, friends and pleasurable activities. When the feeling is at its worst, it could lead to a total breakdown and a distinct inability to function normally. Fear and anxiety dominate.

As a partner of someone going through such troubled times, a certain approach is essential if the situation is not going to get worse. The first thing to remember is that this is often a phase that will  pass eventually if things are handled correctly. A partner can help in the following ways:

Remember that it is not about you (unless it is about you) Even though frustration will often lead to flashpoints, it is important not to let it escalate into open conflict.

Be understanding and aware. Trying to be there for your partner means understanding and being aware of what they are going through. If you do not understand, find out. If your partner cannot tell you, you can research or ask a professional.

Encourage but don’t push. It is very easy sometimes to force solutions on the situation in your willingness to help. They would be your solutions however. What you think your partner should be doing is immaterial. It has to be their solution.

Listen don’t talk. Many people going through life transitions find it difficult to see a way out of their situation.. As a partner, it is important to listen and just be there. Sometimes all they need is someone to listen to whatever it is they have to say.  When they get to the point where they are talking solutions, encourage them to develop ideas by asking questions.

Set boundaries when needed. No-one has the right to smash boundaries under any circumstances. Sometimes when people are going through difficult times, they will attack the people around them verbally. it is important to set healthy, compassionate boundaries around this.

Look after yourself. When your partner or spouse is going through difficult times, it places more emphasis on you to hold things together. It is no good if you are also falling apart. It is important to keep yourself healthy mentally and physically. That means eating and sleeping properly, getting enough exercise and finding away to relive stress.

Know when to seek help. There may come a time when professional help is needed in the form of therapy or medical attention. Knowing when this is the right time might fall to you.

Incredibly important is how we communicate during testing times.

When problems arise in a relationship, couples are often told they need to “communicate” – or talk to each other. If a couple is in crisis, my feeling is that they need to talk more and not less. However, even those who do this often do not know how to talk about problems effectively and communication only makes the situation worse. For the most part, there are two basic ways talking of about issues: Direct Accusation versus Problem Identification (described below). Unfortunately, most couples use Direct Accusation rather than Problem Identification when trying to resolve conflict or issues generally.

Direct Accusation is more likely to produce the kind of response that will shut the discussion down or will result in the kind of defensive behaviour associated with “point scoring” and “tit for tat” back and forth interaction that leads nowhere fast.

Direct Accusation – Focus on Partner’s Behaviour:

When upset or angry, many people confront their spouses or partners by focusing on their behaviour. These accusations can be made directly “You did this or that” “You made me upset because you…” or even in the form of a question “Why did you…?” The motivation behind making such accusations is typically to change a spouse’s or partner’s behaviour or to the extreme, control. People believe that if they get upset and point out their partner’s mistakes, things will change. This rarely works.

If you accuse a partner of wrongdoing, partners typically:

get defensive – fight back or withdraw (stop listening and stonewall)

offer an (insincere) apology designed to stop your attack

hide and conceal similar behaviour in the future

The long term outcome of directly confronting a partner is:

increased distance

less understanding and greater dissatisfaction

the lack of a genuine resolution

increased future conflict

A more effective approach involves focusing on owning the problem and assertiveness not a partner’s behaviour.

Problem Identification – Focus on Assertiveness and Owning The Problem

A better way to resolve relationship problems involves focusing on being less accusatory rather than blaming a partner for what happened (even if, your partner deserves blame). It is easier for a partner or spouse to hear what you have to say when you focus on your own feelings and not dwell on his or her mistakes. For example, if your spouse has a habit of coming home late – rather than make a direct accusation –

“I hate when you’re so late – why do you do that?” 

It helps if you can focus on your feelings instead:

“I am feeling sad and a little frustrated. Can we discuss something that is bothering me?.”

In the above example, no blame was assigned and the focus was on problem solution.  Phrasing a concern as “I feel…” rather than “It makes…” is a more effective way of solving problems. Even a phrase such as 3It makes me uncomfortable” can bring a defensive response. The motivation for dealing with problems this way is to get your partner to hear what you have to say. If you can get your partner to under-stand your point of view, you are much more likely to create a meaningful and lasting resolution.

By focusing on your assertive approach instead of a partner’s behaviour, more likely is that people will:

listen to what you have to say

empathise with your position

discuss the problem in a constructive manner

And there are many benefits of approaching relationship problems in this way:

increased closeness, satisfaction and understanding

greater potential for resolution and change

less future conflict

Simply put, directly confronting a partner often leads to greater resistance, more conflict and resentment. Of course, it is easier to get angry and make accusations, but doing so rarely leads to positive, long term outcomes.

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Dr. Nicholas Jenner

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a counseling psychotherapist in online private practice working with individuals, couples and groups, dealing with codependency issues, severe depression, bipolar, personality disorders, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and other mental health issues. He has been practicing online for many years and recognized early that online therapy was a convenient method for people to meet their therapist. Working outside the box, he goes that extra mile to make sure clients have access to help between sessions, something that is greatly appreciated. He also gives part of his spare time up to mentor psychology students in a university setting.

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