Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Happiness and success

 
Angry wife fighting with confused husband

We could all do with a reality check every now and then when it comes to relationships. You were riding along a smooth paved highway and it suddenly peters out, leaving you on a rough, corrugated road. More often than not the cause is stress. When stress goes up, so can irritability. Whatever the cause, here are some ideas to help you get over the corrugations, whether it's you or them. Here are my top relationship tips.

What to do when suddenly, everything about them irritates you

Suddenly every little thing your partner does is annoying. I could list them here but you know what they are. Things you used to tolerate, or even think were cute, now enrage you. Cultivate tolerance of these things. Take a deep breath and step away from your irritability. Do a reckoning of the good things about your relationship instead of focusing on the small, irritating things. You can ask the other person to stop doing the small, irritating things, and they might try, but old habits are hard to change. You need to have patience, remembering that it can take up to 8 weeks to change behaviour. Try to see the funny side. Picking your nose can seem hilarious when seen in the right light.

Now, if it's a really big issue, stop stewing over it; raise it and try to work through it. Get help if you need to.

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Exercise tolerance and pick your battles. Irritability is a sure sign of stress in a person, or a relationship. Address your issues and practice good stress management (some ideas here, here and here).

You haven't learned how to fight

Unless you've done a course in dispute resolution, you're probably still using guerrilla tactics learned in the playground or the backyard. For example:

  • Fighting to win instead of resolving the problem
  • Listening for ammunition, instead of a rational response
  • Reacting in order to hurt the other person rather than responding
  • Historicalizing or future-izing and not staying with the present problem
  • Bouncing from one problem to another instead of trying to solve the problem that started it all
  • Keeping score of all the other's perceived slights and going over and over them in your head … then arguing about them

 

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  • Use good communication with yourself and others (see my last post).
  • Use assertiveness (not aggressiveness), since 'losing it' often means losing the fight.
  • Use good body language – stand tall or sit openly, facing the person, hands at your side – look the other person in the eye – don't use threatening body or facial gestures (closed fist, snarling face, yelling) - lower your tone of voice, speak slowly and strongly.
  • Negotiate for what you want, don't demand. Tell the other person what you'd prefer - that is, what you'd rather have - instead of what is happening now.

Not thinking as a couple

When you're both working and being independent, it's easy to stop feeling like a couple. Also, when only one is working and the other one is not doing paid work, it's easy to lose sight of 'team us'. Inequalities in relationships bring resentment. Women are left behind in their jobs and careers. Facts don't lie and women are still doing around 75% of the unpaid work in relationships. 'Team us' means working together, and that includes on the cooking and chores.

Even if your partner has handed over a chore or a responsibility to you, make sure you include them in decisions about it.

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Make sure you communicate about your relationship regularly, and are both truly happy with the division of labour. Make shared decisions.

Neglecting your friendship relationship

We might start a relationship in the throes of passion, but without a friendship relationship that passion fades, and the relationship fades too. There are all kinds of reasons why we're attracted to our partner. Just look at how our mums and dads fit together. Many of the attractions are also unconscious motivations, and we could spend forever trying to work those out. So we need to be consciously nurturing our relationship with our partner, especially our friendship relationship.

We stop 'hanging out', we don't do fun things together, we stop catching up with other friends for a drink and a bite the way we used to do. Suddenly our relationship is all chores. Then when it comes to sex, that's another chore.

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Regain your friendship relationship. Make sure you spend time 'hanging out'. Have a chat about what's new, make sure you have at least one thing you have in common, and can have a conversation about. If you've lost your partner as your best friend, do things to rekindle the friendship. Maybe you've had a good friend who sometimes does some irritating things, but you stick with them through thick and thin. Apply that to your partner.

Trust and intimacy are low

Trust and intimacy are essential to each other, and to a relationship. That's not just intercourse. Many people mistake intercourse for intimacy, when it's often just sex. Trust is not just about being faithful and responsible, it's about being able to trust your partner with your thoughts and feelings, and not have them used against you. When you don't trust your partner implicitly, then sex loses its spontaneity and joy.

I always say sex starts at breakfast. Small touches, loving words, holding hands, terms of endearment and affection. Without them, sex is sometimes just going through the motions. For some, it can be a way of avoiding facing up to the problem that you just don't desire each other anymore, you just want sex. Really good sex means feeling safe; if you don't trust your partner, how can you feel safe?

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Trust and intimacy can be nurtured by improving communication skills, regularly sharing thoughts and feelings, and making shared decisions. Sexual intimacy does not necessarily include intercourse and relies on loving touch and mutual satisfaction, however this is achieved.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul, got it right when she sang "Find out what it means to me." If you've lost it, it might be hard to regain it, but, along with tolerance, it's essential to a relationship.

Respect is lost when there's a breach of trust. Or, someone isn't pulling their weight. You know when you've lost respect for your partner, because it brings up a really negative feeling; contempt.

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Be honest. Level with yourself, or your partner, about why respect has been lost. If it's you … choose to change in order to regain respect. If it's them … ask them to change.

Stay attracted to each other

If you look at your partner sometimes, and don't feel attracted to them that's pretty normal. But if you never find them attractive anymore, that's a problem.

Attractiveness might seem like a superficial thing, especially if one or the other is ill and simply can't make an effort, but otherwise attraction is part of what brought you together, and it's important. "They've let themselves go," a friend of mine says sadly, meaning they no longer make an effort with their appearance or demeanour. That might be because they're mentally or physically ill, but it might also mean they take their partner for granted, or they just don't care that much.

Attractiveness matters. It's not everything, but it's important. If you think it shouldn't be, that we should give each other unconditional love, that might be true if you're talking about brotherly love. But if you're talking about intimate relationships, that's a different thing entirely.

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If you're not attracted to each other anymore ask yourself honestly, why? Then if you are able to change, then try. It might mean a makeover, not just physically but behaviourally and attitudinally. Make an effort. Have regular date nights and dress up!

That's not everything there is to know about relationships, but it's a good start. If you feel your relationship needs more than first aid and it's time for CPR, then you might want to get professional help. If all is lost, consider separation counselling, it will help you get through spitting up. I truly hope that's not necessary.

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