During her 30 years of counselling, Rhonda has often been asked, what is her favourite ‘take home’ advice for people in relationship. Here is her answer.
Communication, communication, communication. Don’t presume your partner knows what’s in your mind. Share your thoughts and feelings so that their response is based on fact, not fiction. Also don’t presume you know what your partner is thinking or feeling. Ask and listen. Ask at an appropriate time, when the kids are asleep but you are both awake. And ask in the form of ‘I-message’, as in, ‘I want to understand what you are feeling right now. I’m willing to listen when you are ready to share.’ Listen with respect, then share your point of view with them.
Relationship hazards and helpers
The most common relationship hazards can be summed up in four points. The pronouns are based on he/she but apply equally in same-gender relationships.
- She thinks she knows what’s in his mind.
- She thinks he knows what’s in her mind.
- He thinks he knows what’s in her mind.
- He thinks that she knows what’s in his mind.
The key to good relationships is communication. Expecting your partner to be a mind-reader is unrealistic, and so is believing being ‘in love’ means you have the same thoughts and feelings. You are individuals with different past experiences, regardless of what similarities there may be in your family background, religion, culture or career. Differences in these only add to the probability that you don’t think and feel the same about life.
In my thirty years of counselling, I have helped many couples find new awareness of the differences and the similarities in each other. Sometimes the really important values they have in common become buried under the surface of unimportant differences and hurts that are really the result of not communicating properly.
One couple who came through a very rough patch in their marriage agreed to practise better communication by being willing to ask and share. I was puzzled when they arrived at an appointment with the wife vibrating resentment and the husband at a loss to know what caused it.
I asked her if she had shared what she wanted, and she said she had. Puzzled, the husband asked her to remind him when that was. “One night last week” she replied. “Where were we?” he asked, as they had an agreement not to raise problems in front of their three children, who had been traumatised by the mother’s earlier threats to leave. “In the bedroom” she replied. “What night was this?” “The night you went to bed early, and when I came in you rolled over and spoke to me.” So she had told him what she wanted when he was actually asleep. New communication guideline: first ascertain that your partner is awake!
One technique I have found helpful for couples over the years is to agree on a time that works for them both to have time out for each other. This might be a walk around the block after work, or time to share over a cuppa after the children are asleep. The old adage ‘never to go to bed with unresolved issues’ is a wise one. The sooner a situation is discussed and settled the better.
I like to start couples’ counselling sessions with a sharing of what brought them together in the first place. They are often surprised to hear what attracted their partner to them. And how he/she felt about them in the early stages of their relationship. I always see a change in their faces when they remember the ‘good times’. And this opens them up to being willing to look at what changed since.
The best policy
My advice to those starting out in a relationship, before it even reaches the stage of being called that, is to be honest from the start. Meeting potential partners online can encourage not-quite-truthful sharing that can cause problems later. Present as your real self and not a fictionalised version, and be aware of possible untruths in the new person you are meeting. I firmly believe we all have intuition – that ‘gut feeling’ that tries to warn us when danger looms.
This honesty forms the basis for a truthful relationship where each can express their thoughts and feelings. And receive respect and support from their partner. I-messages are a good way to ensure this. ‘I feel confused/concerned/sad when…’ rather than ‘You make me…’ In fact, nothing anyone can do can make us feel anything; sad, mad, glad or bad. It’s our own beliefs that determine how we feel.
Is it worth the effort to build a strong, healthy relationship? Yes! One of the greatest blessings in life is a long-term commitment to one’s best friend. To love, support emotionally and be a blessing of good to each other, and to any children involved. This applies whether the friends are younger or older, first time around or third. As Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is quoted as saying: “To love someone deeply gives you strength. Being loved by someone deeply gives you courage.”
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