Some couples come to counselling because their relationship is on life-support. So much damage has been caused by toxic ways of communicating, dismissing each other, extra-marital relationships, or harbouring contempt for each other that little hope remains for rebuilding the relationship. While many couples come to this point with little interest of repairing and rebuilding, some are not only willing to try but succeed in what appears at first to be impossible.
How are these couples able to move beyond the broken patterns that ruined their relationship and discover a better way of being together?
There isn't a magic wand that you can wave that will completely transform your relationship, and there are no guarantees that both partners are ready and willing to do the work, but there are some essential predictors of relationship success. If there is any hope of repair these 5 practices will help you move forward as you rebuild your relationship.
1. Take Full Responsibility
One of the first things that has to happen in any relationship repair is an ownership or our actions that takes full responsibility. Too often we want to shift blame, make ourselves look good, or blind ourselves to the real part that we play in the problems we are experiencing.
Taking full responsibility means that we are open and willing to hear how our actions affect our partner and hurt our relationship. This process is often painful, especially when the other partner won't follow in a similar taking of responsibility. We can be left feeling alone and bearing more weight for the relationship than we think is fair. But, in order for rebuilding to occur both partners must take stock of the part they have played in harming and helping the relationship and accept the pieces that they can control.
2. Really Listen
Taking responsibility can't happen without hearing how your partner has been affected by your actions. Even with minor transgressions most of us don't like to hear how we have wronged someone or caused them pain, so opening ourselves up to really listen to our partner's pain can be incredibly difficult. But it is so necessary.
Until our partner feels that we truly understand their hurt it will be difficult to work through any process of healing and rebuilding. As we open ourselves up to the full ramifications of our behaviour we communicate a desire to really understand. This is very difficult if we hare focused on how we have been hurt. We have to put ourselves in our partners shoes and listen as to them with genuine empathy.
Sometimes I will ask couples to think of a person who has been especially supportive and a good listener to them. Then I encourage them to take the same empathic posture as they listen to their partner.
Understanding can bring healing, but we can't understand unless we are really listening.
3. Offer and Receive bids of affection
One of the ways that partners build trust in their relationship is by responding to bids of affection. We ask for affection in a myriad of ways everyday. Sometimes our requests are onerous and demanding, but many times each day we make small requests for attention and affection. When your partner asks you to put down your phone and go for a walk and you respond with enthusiasm, that communicates a desire and interest in your partner. When our partner asks about our day or tells us that they were thinking about us, it tells us that they care.
These every day examples might seem so commonplace that we may disregard them as unimportant. But they are the essential signs of affection and interest that a strong relationship is built on. When these bids of affection are turned down or ignored we begin to feel that we can't count on our partner to meet our needs.
4. Work to make your partners dreams come true
One of the questions that I love talking to couples about is what their partner dreams about in the future. Their aspirations might centre around goals for the family, their career, educational goals, travel plans, or retirement ideas. These conversations are often filled with energy and a hopefulness for the future.
One of the ways that relationships grow strong is when both partners are committed to the success and happiness of the other person. They don't view their partners dreams as being in competition with their own. Instead, they work to support and encourage their partner in pursuit of the things that they aspire to. When we know that our partner is going to help us move forward in our career, be more supportive to our family, or help us realize a dream we have, we gain a confidence in ourselves and in our relationship.
5. Forgiveness and Repair
One of the hardest things for us to do is forgive someone for hurting us and do the work to really move beyond it. The weight of this work might appear to fall on the one who has been cheated on, or
neglected in some way. The truth is that in order for relationships to rebuild and recover both partners need to forgive and work to repair.
When couples are able to forgive each other they may find that a new level of intimacy and honesty develops in the relationship that wasn't there before. Painful as it may be, genuine forgiveness leads us to an acceptance of the consequences of our partner's failures and promotes an environment where repair can begin.
Let me be clear that the rebuilding of relationships can take time and isn't quickly resolved in a moment of tears and apologies. The work of forgiveness is a process that continues throughout the life of the relationship. As well, the work of repair and proving that you will work to protect the relationship doesn't happen in a moment. It also continues throughout the life of the relationship and builds increasing levels of confidence and trust.
Through Covid-19 many relationships have been strained because of our proximity to each other and the lack of outside distractions. Many of us have had to address unresolved issues that are now too obvious to ignore. For some of us, our first response is to ignore the problem and hope it goes away. But now that we are with our partners more often, navigating constant decision making at work, dealing with kids who can't connect socially, the strain on our relationships can be greater than ever.
These problems can't be ignored and they won't just go away. So lean in to your relationship problems and use these strategies to start making things better. Relationships can be recovered, improved, and rebuilt, if we take responsibility to care for our partner, listen to them, and do the hard work of repair.