Imagine getting dropped off in a foreign country with no map and no ability to speak the language of the residents and told that you need to get to a certain destination in order to get picked up and back home. What would you do? You might rely on past experiences that felt similar, things you have heard from others about their experiences in a similar situation, or rely on some thoughts or intuitions about what feels right. You might just get there but you might just not. This is often how we navigate relationships. We sort of “wing it” based on past experiences, information from others, or just our own thoughts/intuitions. Now, imagine getting dropped off in a foreign country with some sort of map with markers that help guide you from point A to point B; your likelihood of getting to your destination would most likely increase, and creating and maintaining a loving relationship is no different. What are some of the factors that help increase the likelihood of creating and living in a loving relationship?
Awareness: We each bring a suitcase into a current relationship that is filled with our past experiences in life and in relationships-some experiences that help influence us positively in a current relationship, and some experiences that can create roadblocks and defenses to connection and love if we are not aware of what is packed into our suitcase. We need to know what is in our suitcase, particularly the experiences that can create roadblocks, and how we tend to react when we are reminded of these experiences in our current relationship. Do we get anxious when we spend a lot of time away from our partner due to past relationship injuries? Are we afraid of opening up about the “tough stuff” with our partner because past experiences in our life tell us that we will be shut down, dismissed, or invalidated? As we are aware of what we each bring into a relationship, we are better able to understand our reactions in relationships that come from previous hurts and vulnerabilities as well as help our partner better understand and respond to these vulnerabilities that will inevitably come up in the relationship.
Emotional Literacy: If we think of emotional literacy (the ability to acknowledge, comprehend, and adequately respond to our own/others emotions) as part of a spectrum, we can assess where we fall on the spectrum. Are we beginners in emotional literacy or more advanced? If we are in a relationship with someone where we fall in the more beginner category of emotional literacy and they fall in the more advanced category of emotional literacy or maybe we both fall in the beginner category, we can sometimes experience tension around feeling understood or in feeling able to communicate our core needs or emotions which can then show up as tension or conflict in the relationship. In creating and maintaining a loving relationship, we both do not need to be fluent in this area, but we need to be comfortable with emotion and willing to feel the discomfort that sometimes comes with talking about the more vulnerable emotions and needs that are experienced in a relationship. I might not be able to speak “emotion” with fluency, but if I can better understand what is happening within me and with my partner, my responses in moments of tension can feel more authentic, comforting, and create relationship repair.
Flexibility: If I only have one strategy to manage conflict and tension in a relationship, I am probably going to run into a snag. To be able to “show up” in tension and conflict with the ability to be flexible in my responses is an important component to being able to navigate the nuances of conflict and tension. Sometimes it helps to listen and allow someone space to talk, sometimes I need to be able to speak about what is happening for me in that moment, and sometimes I need to set a boundary or be able to articulate a need I have in order to feel connected or cared about in a relationship. Flexibility in response helps build and maintain a loving relationship.
Tolerance: We never show up perfectly in any relationship. Being tolerant of relationship miscommunications and misinterpretations both coming from us and directed at us helps give permission in the relationship to “miss” sometimes which ultimately gives permission to talk about it and repair the tear. Tears in the fabric of a relationship will happen, and the work is in learning how to repair and mend when it happens.