Home | Flourishing Relationships | Improving Your Relationship
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 2015 (edited February 13, 2022)
Relationships get stuck in harmful cycles, repeating hurtful behaviors and destroying connections. We can change.
The decaying branches of a struggling relationship doesn’t easily sprout new growth following years of dormancy—pruning may be required. We can’t bury heads, deny the rot, and expect that a bright future awaits. A commitment to change must be made and skillful action taken. Changing habitual patterns of interaction demands time, effort, patience and perhaps also professional guidance.
Because of the arduous work and stubborn reoccurring patterns, we rely on subjective evaluations—how do I feel. Unfortunately, feelings can deceive. An abusive episode feels bad; the following apology feels good. But the pattern remains unchanged with extreme ups and downs. We must rely on more objective evidence to determine effectiveness; otherwise, we waste precious resources chasing idealistic garbage—unfulfilled hopes.
Almost all change includes momentary slips—relapses. Old habits die hard; but with patience, we create a new normal. The slips decrease, and deeper intimacy is obtained.
Embarking on new territory, shaking up the normal, spikes fears, lacing interaction with uncertainty, each back step challenges our resolve. Newness of action demands attention, fatiguing our mind. But this is the path. We can’t rely on a discussion to dissolve learned emotions, alleviating the relationship pressures. Re-programming requires closely monitoring expressions and triggered emotions (mindfulness).
Following comfortable patterns of explosion and name calling is mindless, requiring no thought, no repression—just letting the emotions flow at will. But when we embark on change—any change—we discover the strain of remaining mindful. Our resolve crumbles under the demand, we relax the mind, explode and once again feel the impoverishment of an unfulfilling bond, full of fear, anxiety and hate. The dreamy intentions of intimacy appear out of reach. We want it but not motivated (or skilled) enough to do the work.
Are things changing? When attempts to change fail to provide noticeable rewards, we sour on the investment. Struggling with change isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s normal. The trajectories of life continue to roll; momentums fight adjustments. A little high-minded hope for something better cowers beneath the weight of habits. But there is hope; change is possible.
Our hopes must comply with reality. The dream must comfortably fit within the limitations of facts—our weaknesses and strengths, our partner’s weaknesses and strengths and the natural challenges of human connection. Rich rewarding relationship are possible; but not without flaws. Relationships require acceptance of the normal discomforts—including occasional pangs of guilt, sorrow, regret, and sadness.
Relationships are emotional. In the bounds of connection, we feel and incite emotion. When impaired (from painful pasts), the magnified emotions of a relationship crush stability, drowning efforts in a constant flow of magnified feelings. Expectations that a relationship will provide the escape from the emotional learning of the past are impractical.
These learnings are locked in the synapses of our brains, without skilled intervention the emotional barbs remain. No simple adjustments will achieve lofty hopes of an irritant free relationship—all real relationships will disappoint when measured against idealistic hoopla.
A skewed sense of relationship-benefits poisons the reality of relationships. For those seeking a handsome prince with an awakening kiss, may misunderstand these concepts, supposing I’m suggesting relationships have no value. Relationships are crucial to human fulfillment. We are biologically programmed to bond. Life feels empty alone (for most).
Driven for connection, we march forward, seeking the warmth and fulfillment of healthy attachment. When relationships struggle against faulty expectations, we demand the relationship bow to our strict expectations rather than adjust the misguided hopes. This is where many fail, manipulating, punishing, and passive-aggressive tactics replace attention, acceptance, and respect.
We can’t transform a partner against their will; this violates all the laws of connection, forcing compliance to our expectations assumes bondage. To improve connections, we work to improve ourselves and kindly invite a partner to join in the transformation. Techniques fail. People resist change when forced upon them.
Our improvements of implementing healthier behaviors often softens attitudes, preventing destructive fights, and encouraging partner growth; but if the hidden motivation of our action is to change our partner, the thinly veiled show is often revealed as another control tactic, poisoning the goodwill. The nasty attempts of manipulation are often wrapped in pretend kindness. Overt actions disguised as empathy and compassion but intended to gain compliance can’t force intimacy.
Change Hurts at First
The recovering addict must contend with a reality that fails to provide the same rush of a chemical fix; but the enduring discomfort when spread over days, weeks and years provides a richness surpassing the diminishing rush from an artificial high. Our betterments may not provide the desired escape from reality, transforming our mortal partner into a prince (or princess); but will add to the richness of our existence. No matter what changes we implement, our partners still can maintain their freedom—it’s their prerogative.
A healthy relationship requires a respect of individuality. The healthy dependence on each other doesn’t invalidate individual freedoms. Security, while dependent, requires trust that is built through honesty. Building a life together creates some vulnerability, trusting a partner that we don’t control will not betray the loyalty. We develop ourselves to survive an unplanned dissolution of a relationship but also enjoy security in trust that our partner will fulfill their commitment. If we can’t trust, we will struggle.
We may, in efforts to change, conceal emotions. The hidden emotions continue to communicate—sometimes purposely. Revealing comments such as, “I’m trying to remain calm,” expresses all the anger but allowing for the tinge of self-righteousness. Often designed to fix blame for triggered emotions, and then frost with a sweet covering of taking the high road. The expectations haven’t changed. The partner is expected to pacify the emotions by bending to our narrow minded will. Anger, sadness, fear or disappointment simmers underneath.
We can’t force a relationship to provide security by molding a perfect partner. Even if the perfect partner does exist, they are either taken or not likely to find interest in our imperfectness.
Strengthening relationship bonds demand a different approach—honest communication instead of disguised goals. Healthy communication motivated by compassion, respect and understanding. The goal for closeness guides couples through the twisting roads of conflict resolution.
"Compassionate Communication: Speaking and hearing with concern for the other, reaching beyond words and connecting with the hearts."
Compassion doesn’t preclude us from being angry, sad, disappointed, or even jealous. We can honestly express feelings. Compassion isn’t trembling with anger and blurting out, “it is okay.” The forced and insincere message is lost in the overshadowing disapproval. Silent anger is still communicated, creating more anxiety than an honest sharing of feeling.
To change, we must embrace proven skills. Instead of power struggles, we open to the complexities of connection, inviting a deeper understanding of pasts, hurts, and emotional triggers. In pursuit of change, we achieve success from mutually exploring each other’s emotions. The deeper understanding engenders compassion—exposing the anger, hurt and fear as cries for healing; and not seen as threats to security.
Discomforting feelings, rather than being the enemy, become guides, pointing to tender spots begging for greater attention and clarity.
Compassionate communication is a skill that relies on mindfulness. Relationships with histories of name calling, blame, and disappointment will take work before difference no longer spark protective emotions.
When past discussions hurt, we’re programmed to respond defensively. We learn to protect. Because of these default responses, designed to protect, we must now slow down, recognizing the pattern stimulated by the past and intervene. When a couple fails to transcend the power-struggles embedded in their conversations, discussions will break down.
Be the First to Begin the Change
One partner must be first to change, courageously embracing compassion through honest expression, opening to vulnerability. Change doesn’t simultaneously occur in both partners. One partner may never cooperate with the healthy changes, forcing a more difficult decision—the possibility of leaving.
Some relationships run their course, succumbing to habitual negative interactions, embedded labels, and hurtful words—too much injury to heal. Even if this is the case, stop the unkindness. We still need effective relationship skills in other areas of our lives. If our partner uses openness to their advantage, we enforce clear boundaries. If they ignore boundaries, then enforce your rights—leaving may be appropriate; seek professional help to move forward safely. Two people must work together to establish intimacy but only one to destroy it.
Through all our relationships, whether they are healthy or not, our emotions are magnified. In a relationship, we have great opportunity to explore emotions, gaining familiarity with personal feelings, triggers, and tender spots. This knowledge becomes the foundation for intimacy with a willing, loving partner.
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