Skillful Relating For Couples

How Can I Be Connected With You And With Myself At The Same Time?
Kate Feldman, MSW, LCSW

The Search for Relational Connection
“Relationships”, “relating”, “intimacy”, “single-hood”, “couple-dom”, “communication”, “connection”, “closeness”, “distance”, “love”, “romance”, “power struggles”. We are a culture obsessed with, not the joys of human bonding, but the desperate search for healthy connection. Bookstores are filled with self help books; the media bombards us with images of fabulous sexual encounters; the statistics tell us that our favorite novels are romance stories… and yet the truth is that more Americans complain about dissatisfying relationships than ever before.

Human beings are, by nature, interdependent; we depend upon one another for survival physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Our essential human nature is to seek intimacy with one another as well. By intimacy I mean connection, the sense of caring and sensitivity that goes along with being bonded with another human person. As long as we have been a species we have gathered in tribes, bands, communities, families and partnerships. The urge for growth, connection, and belonging drives our desire to be together.

Now in this 21st century, our need for connection is increasingly focused upon one on one partnership. One reason for this is that community, extended family, and even nuclear family is less available to us. We no longer have clans or tribes to support, guide us and fulfill that all-important human need for love, belonging and social structure. Our culture tends to devalue the aging process and so we leave our elders to their “elderly” pursuits and thus miss the richness that comes with allowing us intimacy with people of all ages.

Another reason we focus on partnering is that many of us still believe in the myth of romantic love: it says that all we have to do is find the perfect partner and all our needs will be met, all our insecurities assuaged, and we will live happily ever after. This myth is based on the belief that another person can actually fill us up emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Sadly this is not true. Another human being can offer support, caring, strength, and love. But they cannot make any of us believe in, or love ourselves more.

Creating Connection And Intimacy With Others Is An Intentional Act.
Hopefully, when we were children, the grownups in our lives extended caring and sensitivity to help us develop our own inner caring and capacity for intimacy. Usually they did the best they could, and now we have to complete the job. We all know they made mistakes, and we probably repeat them to a greater or lesser extent in our own relationships. Of course there is no such thing as the perfect relationship. Nor is there even such a thing as the perfect friendship. We are imperfect beings. We have our unique personalities and histories; so as we seek connection with one another we naturally bump into one another’s fears, insecurities, and idiosyncrasies. Part of any healthy relationship is learning to weather the ups and downs of our differences. This we must do if it’s our lover, our parents, our children, our work partners, or the local grocer.

How To Make Your Relationships More Satisfying
If you are serious about wanting to make your relationships work really well (and even though we are imperfect, it is possible to make them better and better) there are three things I think are crucial to attend to:

1. Educate yourself about the way relationships work. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel. People have been studying relationships for a long time. There are hundreds of books, tapes, workshops, educators, therapists, and researchers who are figuring out what makes human beings tick in the arena of emotional relating.

2. Learn and practice relationship skills. No kidding. There are better and worse ways to relate to your fellow humans – ways that increase the sense of connection and other ways that decrease it. And especially if you are interested in intimate one on one partnering, there are important principles to put into practice if you want long-term success. (More on this later).

3. Do your inner relationship work: Understand everything possible about who you are. Do whatever you need to do to overcome the defensive behaviors that keep you from feeling comfortable and satisfied in relationship. There is no such thing as the perfect partner, friend, boss, child, or parent. And you can’t really change anybody else. But you can become the partner, friend, parent, employee you want to be by increasing your self-awareness and relational skill base.

What Are Relationship Skills?
Relationship skills are behaviors, attitudes, and methods of communication that can be learned and practiced. They help you relate to, and understand yourself and others. The benefits of practicing skillful relating are many. First, you will feel better about yourself. You will take charge of your communication, your listening, and your emotional responses. Second, you will open doors so others can do the same. Most of us want to feel energized and alive in even our most casual relationships. So by acting and communicating with integrity, you support the possibility that others might do the same. The third benefit to learning the art of skillful relating is that you will grow and develop yourself personally. You will change dysfunctional ways of relating, develop better personal boundaries, and learn to accept differences between people. You will get along with more people more of the time. Your intimate relationships will deepen as well.

Here are five important relationship skills to learn and practice. Certainly there are more than five, but these will get you started.

1. Learn to identify your feelings. Most of us know what we are thinking. We easily talk about our opinions, judgments, beliefs and values. What we did not learn at school or from our families was the skill of identifying our emotions. Part of the reason for this is that in our culture there are some feelings that are judged more acceptable than others; for example girls in our society are taught that crying and frustration are more acceptable than anger. Boys are socialized to suppress tears and sadness, but express anger and aggression.

The truth about feelings is that we all have them and they are important messengers to tell us about who we are. If you can’t identify your feelings, you can’t choose when, whether and how to express them. They will leak out or explode in inappropriate ways.

Feelings reside in your body and mind. You can learn to identify them by paying attention to sensations in your body and the accompanying thoughts. To make it easy you can consolidate the vast array of human emotions into five categories: SAD (hurt, grief, disappointment etc.), MAD (anger, fury, rage, annoyance, irritation, aggravation etc.), GLAD (happy, joyous, content, satisfied, loving etc.) AFRAID (fear, terror, anxiety, apprehension etc.), EXCITED (aroused, thrilled, ecstatic, rapturous, horny, turned on etc.) Next time you have a few minutes, tune into your body and mind, take a deep breath and try to identify what you are feeling in the moment. Do this a few times each day and notice how feelings come and go. They are not permanent, but they are important clues about who you are as a person.

2. When you speak, use I statements. As much as you can talk about what you think, what you feel, what you perceive, what you remember, what you imagine, what you hear, see, touch, taste etc. You will stop blaming others when you consistently speak about yourself, using I statements. You will also take more responsibility for your experience, instead of telling others that they make you feel this way or that way. This is called Responsible Relating. It helps you make a stand for who you are and what you believe and feel. It will strengthen you as a person. But you have to be willing to stop blaming others and let go of any victim consciousness you have going inside you.

3. Listen. Every person in the world has value as a human being. Every person experiences his or her reality differently. We are all unique in our perceptions, our feelings and our personalities. Make a commitment to slow down your interactions and listen to the world of the other – no matter who it is. You will be amazed at what you learn. And you will be astounded at what happens. Deep listening helps solve problems, builds understanding and appreciation, gives us the opportunity to walk in another’s shoes, and deepens connection.

4. Ask for what you need and want. Don’t make people guess. Understand that needs and wants are perfectly normal and human, and your particular desires are part of what make you the unique human being you are. If you are someone who easily expresses needs and desires, great. Notice your reactions to getting what you want, as well as not getting what you want. Do you deeply receive when you are given to? Do you react or act out when you are disappointed? It is an art to receive deeply as well as bear disappointment and frustration.

If you are someone who grew up “needless and wantless” you may need to practice identifying your needs, and taking the risk to tell others. None of us can get all our needs met all the time. Part of being in healthy relationships is being able to talk about what we need AND be able to take care of ourselves when we don’t get what we want.

5. Learn the art of giving feedback when someone is doing something you don’t like. The art of giving feedback is an essential skill by which you can identify mature adult problem solving, conflict resolution, and anger management. It involves making an agreement to sit down and “fight” consciously; it includes the skills of identifying your feelings, using I statements, and making requests. It also requires that you have built your ability to bear disappointment and what I call the normal “messiness” which comes with the territory of working through upsetting times in your relationships. See Part 2 of this article: “What do I do when something you’re doing really bothers me?”

I will not tell you that you can learn and master these skills overnight. Proficiency takes time: First there is the learning curve of actually getting the skill down, then there is practice time, when you naturally feel awkward and clumsy. Some of the people I have taught carry around a “cheat sheet” in their wallets to which they refer. Somebody even made a little script for themselves to they could remember a better choice of words when they found themselves in an old emotional reaction pattern.

During the practice time, you’ll be super sensitive to people’s responses to you. You’ll want everyone to appreciate and react to your attempts with receptivity. Some will, some won’t. You may fall back to interacting in your old ways. After all, the old ways of speaking, listening, or solving problems will feel more familiar and comfortable. It’s not easy at first. You are breaking old patterns, and the people around you might wonder what you’re up to. You have to “hold on to yourself”, and persevere because you know its good for you, and in the long run good for building satisfying connections with people. You may even want to get some communication or relationship coaching as you practice and build your comfort level with these skills.

After practicing for a while, you’ll notice you begin to make these skills your own. You use your own words, you discover your own timing, boundaries, and you become more thoughtful about how, when and where to practice. Your relational integrity begins to be part of who you are. This is when you have the experience of being the master of your communications. You know yourself better, and you choose how and when to express yourself. A great comfort and sense of aliveness accompanies the integration of relationship skills. After awhile they are not skills, but just your way of being in the world. Intimacy, connection, friendship, family relationships are freer and more satisfying!

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