Relationships matter. They make us happy, and keep us happy. Countless studies including one at the London School of Economics, and a study of 1200 Germans in 2018 have shown that our social relationships are absolutely fundamental to our happiness. So this pandemic, with its social distancing and lockdowns, will almost undoubtedly have had an effect on your relationships in some way or another. Separated from family and friends, with most of our leisure activities cancelled, couples have either been kept apart, or spent a previously unimaginable time in the house together. It has been a weird time, and the anecdotal evidence about strained relationships is starting to manifest itself in increased in divorce rates around the world. So in this week’s article, we thought we’d try and do our bit for love. We’re looking at ways to catch little problems in our relationships before they get blown out of proportion and end up in another fight, and we’re starting with the things that keep coming back again and again.

It’s not them, it’s you

Do you find the same things happening over and over again in your relationships? Do your boyfriends always turn out to be versions of the same feckless manchild? Are your girlfriends always too needy or too controlling? Does your partner always seem to have a go at you about the same old stuff? For many of us, relationship issues seem to have a cyclical quality. We just can’t get a break right? Can we really be that unlucky? Every single time, with every single partner, we just happen to experience remarkably similar problems from them. But who is the common denominator in all these relationships? An old friend of mine once summed it up very nicely in an expression. If you notice the same bad smell everywhere you go…. Check your shoes! Or as relationships and dating expert Sarah Louise Ryan told us when we reached out to her for advice:

The first step to strengthening communication with your partner and within your relationship is to take responsibility for your own actions. Often when we start to look at our partners and find things that we don’t like or habits and behaviours in the relationship that aren’t serving us, there is something unresolved within ourselves that we need to consider and be accountable to. 

Happiness Pillar #1 - Self Knowledge

If there is a problem – you are a part of it – if you like it or not – you play a part.

It’s very tempting to see the other person as the problem. But as the old saying goes, it takes two to tango. If there is a problem in your relationship, you are a part of it, whether you like it or not. And the good news is, you’re going to be a big part of the solution. So we’re going to have to start with YOU. Progress is impossible without self-knowledge. There’s a reason it’s number one in our Seven Pillars of Happiness (link to that blog article). If we’re going to get better in any way, we have to get to know ourselves better. Do some deep feeling and thinking. The fights we have with our partners go much deeper than the surface irritations we use to get at each other. It’s never really about mess, or eating the avocado. There’s a deeper reason for our annoyance. And as our clinical psychologist Dr Marsha loves saying, You’ve got to feel it to heal it. The first step is always introspection and acceptance. So sit and really think about how you’re feeling. Our emotions can’t be avoided, or denied. When we try to ignore them, or squish them down, they tend to pop back out in other forms when we are least prepared for them. Ever overreact to something your partner says or does? Course you do. We all do. Time to check your shoes! Listen to your emotions. Breathe through them. Accept that they are a part of you. Not all of you, but a part of you.

Notice Patterns

One great way to notice recurring patterns is to keep an emotions diary. Have a place in a notebook or in the notes section of your phone where you can jot down your thoughts every time you have a disagreement. What are they about? What do you think they’re really about? Why do you think you feel like that? Why does it trigger you? What are your thoughts when your partner triggers you? What did you do after you were triggered? These patterns are enormously important to uncover and give you a lot of insight into what might really be at the root of the issue.  For a jaw-on-the-floor how-did-I-not-know-this-about-myself dose of insight into your behaviour patterns in relationships, you might want to look into adult attachment theory, check out Attached by Levine & Heller. 

Don’t pull away

Difficult feelings instinctively make us want to pull away, but if a particular issue keeps coming back again and again, chances are it’s because you’re avoiding the underlying feelings you’re experiencing. You will need to break that cycle by having a new narrative within yourself in order to shift your reactions every time you find yourself triggered. We have some great free SOS exercises in the app which lead you through a process to accept, feel, and process difficult emotions. Give them a try.

Recognise the elephant in the room

When you’ve done some work on yourself, and got to what you feel is the root of the problem. It’s time to talk it through with your partner. This bit isn’t going to be easy. It’s a touchy subject between you, and you’ll need to make sure you’re feeling calm, and diplomatic going in. It’ll go a whole lot better if you start by owning the problem. Admitting your part in it. Behaviour is much less hurtful when it can be understood as an unconscious pattern rather than a purposeful bit of spite. You’re not doing it on purpose, and neither are they. It’s a pattern you’ve fallen into, and you want to work out how to fix it. You’re going to have to name the problem. Recognise that it’s a problem. Describe it. Break it down. Talk it over. Even if it is scary to share with your partner. Explain the patterns. Look for understanding.

Here’s Sarah Louise Ryan again:

If there is a blame game being played, it’s often a projection from one partner to another to avoid one’s own shame around something in particular. When it comes to resolving any conflict within your relationship it’s really important that you don’t see the debate as a winning or losing scenario, you focus on the end goal which is having and maintaining a happy, loving and fulfilling relationship with your partner. When relational conflict becomes about winning or losing an argument a couple can lose sight of the most important thing – the relationship itself.

Repair the Rupture

If you get this far, you’re doing amazing work, and you can start to feel super proud of yourself. You’re a proper partner whisperer! You’ve understood the underlying causes of your recurrent behaviours, and hopefully put some measures in place to try and address them. Now it’s time to repair the rupture. Fighting hurts you both. You need to repair that hurt, and you know how to do it. Remember all the things you did at the beginning of the relationship? The stuff that made them fall for you in the first place? You’ve still got it! Give. Love. Apologise. Tell them you love them. Show them by responding with kindness and taking ownership of your part. Ultimately, this is all about understanding and connecting.

Make sure you’re always seeking to understand your partner and asking more questions so you can land on communication solid ground. If you’re always speaking to be heard you aren’t necessarily actively listening to one another, rather just speaking to get your view across. Make sure it’s always a two way street of communication. 

 

Keep filling your own cup – what I mean by that is make sure you’re always self-developing and learning how you show up in your relationship with yourself and your partner. Make sure you’re clear on how you communicate your love for them both verbally and non-verbally and that they are aware of that too so you can understand each other on a deeper level, strengthening the connection within your couple.

Gratitude

Last, but by no means least, develop a gratitude practice. We bang on  and on about this at Mindshine, because it is incredibly effective. If you start the day by writing down all the things you are grateful to your partner for, you change the way you look at them, and you start the day off on the right foot. Every day. It takes two minutes, it’s free, and it can change your life. Don’t think about it, just do it and see what happens.

You can find Sarah Louise Ryan dishing out very sound relationship advice at her site LOVE LESSONS. As we said at the start of the article, there’s nothing more important to your happiness than your relationships and connections. They are worthy of your work and attention to keep them as healthy as possible. So get to know how you are showing up in your relationship, talk it over, listen, and repair the areas of rupture. Have patience, and do the work, and it’s very likely your relationship can be brought back to a state that makes everyone happy, and if all else fails, look her up for matchmaking and dating advice!

You can find more articles about self-belief, positivity, self-awareness or mindfulness in our Magazine.

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Download the Mindshine app (iOS or Android) for more mindfulness and happiness exercises that help you find out what you believe and who you are.