Rocky marriages and relationships that survived COVID will face their reckonings as an improving economy and forthcoming vaccine offer more freedom for couples to decide if they will make-up or break-up when the threat subsides.
I grew up often sitting on the other side of the door of mom’s basement office as she helped couples and families find their way through the crises that threatened their marriages, families and very lives through the sixties and seventies. For many, it was a time of transition as the expectations of relationships increasingly shifted from the submissive-dominant model of their parents and grandparents to the equality of peers.
While it will take years to know the details, we can be certain COVID’s impact on marriages and families will be significant and lasting.
Despite her experience and reputation as a skilled marriage and family therapist, mom discovered that the best help she could offer was skills training that helped clients find their own answers. That’s equally true today for couples who are considering if they’re going to remain committed to the relationships that helped them survive this tragic global pandemic.
She didn’t have a magic wand to change the past or decide the future for anyone, even our family. She could, however, help clients focus on what mattered, decide what they wanted to do about it, and support them with practical, usable tools that gave them the best chance of doing that competently.
Will Vulnerable Relationships Survive an Improving Economy and Vaccine?
For many rocky marriages, relationships, and romances that survived COVID and will soon face their reckonings as an improving economy and forthcoming vaccine offer more freedom, that help is as important as ever.
These five questions were particularly important to couples and individuals who came to her for advice deciding whether to make-up or break-up when their marriages, families, or romances were in trouble. They are questions participants in PAIRS (“Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills”) classes consider from the outset of their training.
1. What are you getting in your relationship that you do want?
That’s often the opposite of what people focus on in therapy and counseling, where many begin with “What’s wrong?”
I remember a conversation I had as a youngster with Virginia Satir, my mother’s mentor, who was staying at our home. By then, Virginia was already an acclaimed author and pioneer in the field of marriage and family therapy. She explained that her approach was helping people identify, focus on, and build from what they shared in common.
Beginning with that question helps make sure we’re aware of what is important and valued in relationships we may want to preserve.
2. What do you want from the relationship that you are not getting?
It’s tempting to hand the bill for whatever we’re experiencing, thinking, and feeling to whoever is closest, which is typically our loved ones. That can lead to a lifetime of revolving doors when it comes to intimacy.
This question is about getting clarity on specific behaviors or actions you want, but aren’t getting.
When loved ones know what’s important to us, especially with goodwill (caring, commitment, communication, and open to change), solutions — even creative solutions — become more apparent.
If you find yourself stuck searching for the answer, that may be a sign that what’s going on has little to do with others, but is about your own internal turmoil, conflict, or growth. That’s good news, because you have enormous influence and power in those areas.
The answer to this question will tell you a lot about what’s important to you and the potential to grow in your relationship together or separately.
3. What are you getting in the relationship that you don’t want?
Many expect loved ones to read minds, know the intimate details of our past whether or not we’ve confided those experiences, understand the painful, upsetting things we never want to go through again, and never, ever, ever do anything that even vaguely reminds us of those moments/periods in our lives.
We experience the events of our lives through a prism entirely unique to each of us, including much that we may not yet fully understand. [Increasingly, scientists are even exploring the impact of emotional memory imprinted on our individual DNA.] Healing becomes possible when we can confide about what we never want to again experience. Of course, that takes a partner with whom it’s safe to be vulnerable and who can listen with empathy. Those are skills that can be learned.
Loved ones aren’t the enemy.
No one choses to share their life with another in order to make the person miserable. But loved ones may not know the impact behaviors have on us and the pain, anger or sadness those behaviors bring up.
4. What are you giving in the relationship that you don’t want to give?
Relationships are the playing field for human growth and discovery. Early in life, we may get into an intimate relationship because it feels good at a moment. As our values, needs and expectations evolve, we discover (and decide) who we are by what we’re willing (even happy) to give in our closest relationships.
The inverse is also true.
Deciding what we aren’t willing to give, even knowing what’s at stake, which is typically about history, stability, children, finances and more that is valued, requires knowing what’s most important and meaningful to each of us.
5. What would you like to give your partner if things were better between you?
What can your loved ones look forward to when your relationship is at a better place? Which parts of you are you holding back because you’re angry, sad, or cautious about your future?
Imagine the future you’d like to create.
From that imagining, feel and experience the fullness of who you are in the world generally and in your closest relationships particularly.
When relationships are in trouble, time itself can be helpful.
Skills training for couples in crisis has been remarkably impactful for many. My experience delivering brief PAIRS training to thousands of couples at the point of separation or divorce indicated 75 percent could create a mutually pleasurable, satisfying relationship with each other.
Imagine for a moment how different our lives would be if even half of divorces could have instead led to happy, healthy, loving families?
Therapy and counseling, particularly in the hands of people without unique expertise and wisdom in the area of marriage and family, can quickly lead to negative outcomes. Couples considering therapy should be thoughtful about who they invite into their lives. A counselor or therapist’s actual track record helping other couples in crisis is important to consider. The same is also true of the friends and family members you may turn to for advice.
Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to find our way, hopefully with the benefit of the best help and resources you can find. Increasingly, military and veteran families are learning skills that are helping them succeed. You can too.
During and after COVID, these five questions can help you explore what’s possible for your relationships and create a roadmap to help you get there. Skills training to improve communication, conflict resolution, and deepen emotional understanding will make a difference.
Seth Eisenberg is President/CEO of Purpose Built Families Foundation, Co-Founder of Operation Sacred Trust, and a Master PAIRS Trainer.