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Relationship Mastery

10 Steps to Getting What You Need (And Giving What They Need)

businessman aims and shoots arrows at target but misses

By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

You can’t always get what you want But if you try sometime you find You get what you need

The Rolling Stones

We need close, intimate relationships. This need for close connection is biologically driven. Our brains are literally hard-wired for love. When we experience relationship distress we react emotionally, the brain sending danger signals to the body. Couples therapy teaches us how to master this process of reactivity – and teaches couples how to get their needs met.

I’ve identified 10 steps to relationship mastery, based on research findings by Drs. Sue Johnson, John Gottman, Terrence Reid, and my own years of clinical experience. The daily practice of these steps help couples reduce relationship distress, and improve trust, intimacy and rewarding partnerships. The most effective couples therapy includes the use of these methods.

10 Steps to Relationship Mastery

1. Mindfully Practice Adult Love – Mindfulness is awareness without judgment. I describe Adult love (in my “Who’s In Charge?” model) as a choice – a decision to love with an open heart and unconditional positive regard. The great psychoanalyst Erich Fromm explained that “Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’ Mature love says: ‘I need you because I love you.’” The new science of love, based in modern neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology, shows us that Adult love is responsible, committed, and responsive to our partner’s needs. We’re there for each other – we can count on each other for care, compassion and support. Relationship distress occurs only when there is a lack of conscious intent to stay connected in a loving manner. The foundations for Adult love are friendship, trust, consistency and generosity. The mindful practice of Adult love is a daily, conscious choice to be present, available, and devoted to our best friend. Effective couples therapy teaches spouses and partners how to love in a mindful, Adult manner.

2. The Approach-Response Strategy – Dr. Gottman’s years of research with thousands of couples reveal the secrets of successful marriages. One of the most important findings has to do with the way women express their needs – and how their husbands respond to their needs. When there is relationship distress, women tend to approach their husbands harshly. Their husbands react emotionally with defensiveness and distance. When the approach is inoffensive – even gentle – husbands tend to be more responsive. And in the most successful marriages, husbands allow themselves to be influenced by their wives – and they will alter their behavior to meet their wives’ needs.

3. Friendship – How would you treat your best friend? Is that the way you treat your spouse or partner? In the happiest, most well-adjusted relationships, partners are available to each other, responsive to each other’s needs, and involved, often deeply, in each other’s lives. They know each other deeply – their likes, dislikes, preferences, beliefs, and their dreams, aspirations, and fears. They challenge each other in a supportive and loving manner. And when they are in conflict, they stay connected – they face each other, and they use relationship repair attempts even during the conflict. When there is relationship distress, and this basic friendship is compromised, couples may turn away from each other (Gottman), and they tend to complain, criticize, and distance or shut down.

4. Invest with Devotion – “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” (The Beatles, Abbey Road). Adult love is generous, unselfish, and based in an attitude of gratitude. And the beauty of this practice is the more we invest, the more we profit – with love, respect and appreciation. In an intimate relationship, giving should be reciprocal. Daily rituals of devotion are suggested: hugs, kisses, words of love, love notes, emotional support, and helping gestures with chores, the kids, and so on.

5. Express Needs & Drop Expectations – Ask to have your needs met. Why be indirect? Let you partner know what you need (assuming you’re being reasonable – “I need you to buy me a new house” may not be reasonable). Expressing needs for emotional support, affection, or help with a task are reasonable. Demands, threats, and emotional blackmail aren’t reasonable. Extreme dependency needs aren’t reasonable – such as constant requests for validation or needing your partner to be responsible for your excessive insecurities isn’t reasonable. Expectations can undermine a relationship. Unrealistic expectations are like premeditated resentments – expecting your partner to read your mind results in unnecessary frustration and relationship distress. These issues are a frequent topic in couples therapy.

6. Identify Your Dance Steps – The next 5 steps are necessary when there is relationship distress – and to help prevent more serious problems. First, identify emotionally reactive patterns (the relationship dance). The pursuer may complain, blame, pressure, or express feelings from the position of victim (with crying, yelling, slamming doors, etc.). She’s trying to get his attention, and pleading for attention, support or connection. The distancer becomes defensive, counter-attacks, criticizes, and shuts down. He’s trying to protect himself from the imagined attack. Are you a pursuer or a distancer? These are reactive positions, and they become a vicious circle of reaction and counter-reaction. In couples therapy the first step to clearly identify the dance moves.

7. Listen to the Music – When couples dance together the music is always playing. In this case, the music is the feelings and unmet needs that drive the dance. The dance is our natural reaction to powerful emotions and unmet needs. The surface emotion is usually anger, but peel back the layers and you find the more sensitive, vulnerable emotions. When the pursuer blames, she may be feeling abandoned, alone, unheard, insecure, scared, or uncared for. When the distancer becomes defensive or shuts down, he may be feeling unappreciated, disrespected, or deficient. The unmet needs associated with these feelings include needs for connection, affection, emotional support, appreciation, and respect.

8. De-escalate and Reconnect – During times of relationship distress there may be escalations or distance. Escalations are times of direct conflict, with unproductive arguments or fights. Distance is a cold war. One or both partners shut down, with hurt feelings and anger. The extreme form of distance is emotional divorce, a complete breakdown where even the pursuer becomes burned out. The way back is simple, but requires commitment and a full intention to reconnect in a loving manner. When things start to escalate I recommend an immediate time out. Both partners remove themselves from the situation with the full intention to reconnect 20 minutes later. Partners can go for a walk, meditate, practice some yoga moves – anything to self-soothe and re-center to a calm place. After 20 minutes partners reconnect with a hug and verbal reparations, such as “I’m sorry” or “I love you.” No further discussion is recommended at this time – that can occur later under the right circumstances. Reconnection after a period of distance is done the same way. Talking or “communicating” about problems at that time are almost always unproductive, and only serve to re-escalate or to cause more distance.

9. Emotionally Corrective Conversations – This type of conversation is most effective when guided by a trained and experienced professional in couples therapy. Couples with some therapy experience can begin to practice these conversations on their own. The emotionally corrective conversation occurs during times of positive connection – not during times of escalation with tension and arguments. This type of conversation begins with “I statements” – for example, “I feel alone and unloved when _________”; or “I feel injured and unappreciated when ____________”. Partners listen without interruption and tune in to the emotional content of the conversation. There is no right or wrong, no blaming, and there’s no correct answer to “Who started this”. This is a time for compassion and empathy toward one’s partner. This type of conversation can be the single most healing force when there is relationship distress. There are many more components in this process, and experienced marriage counselors or couples therapists are trained to guide couples through these conversations.

10. Tools and Tips – There are many other tools and helpful tips for dealing with relationship distress. These are some of the most effective practices:

o Don’t react – During times of relationship distress start with one focused breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Do not react, no matter what. Do some self-soothing and approach the situation with a true desire to be understanding, compassionate, and responsible for a positive relationship outcome.

o Use loving boundaries – Know when and how to say “no”. Say yes unless to do so will truly compromise your basic values or needs. When you say no, say it with care for your partner, with kindness, with an explanation when necessary, and with a willingness to negotiate.

o Practice forgiveness – When you hold on to anger and resentments, you are hurting yourself as well as your partner. An old allegory explains that resentment is like buying rat poison to kill the rat, and you swallow the poison yourself. Forgiveness doesn’t let the other person off the hook. Rather, it is a letting go of the toxic anger within you.

o Do the opposite – When you’re tempted to react with same old dance steps (like getting angry, blaming, complaining, or shutting down), do the opposite. And practice doing the opposite of what your partner knows you usually do (Reid).

o Practice self-care and self-soothing – Use the one breath, visualize a positive outcome, journal about your thoughts and feelings, and love the little boy or little girl inside of you.

Relationship mastery is easily within reach today. It just takes practice, and maybe a little guidance with an experienced counselor or therapist. Our Center specializes in reducing relationship distress with couples therapy. Contact us today to set up an appointment.