Healthy couples have the skills to maintain their relationship while allowing each individual to grow and change. Couples develop daily routines that perpetuate a continued sense of intimacy and security. Yet life’s changes can disturb and challenge the web of connectness we have created over time. This article addresses how couples can develop skills that help cope with the stress of life’s changes in their relationship.
Successful long-term intimate relationships or marriages can offer us certain forms of comfort, security and stability. Within the framework of commitment, we have cherished routines that perpetuate the sense of togetherness. These shared expectations in how we spend our time together (what, where and when) can form the foundation of a good intimate relationship – one that mutually meets our needs. We develop rituals based on shared goals, values, likes and pleasures from the most basic like how we get up in the morning, when and what we enjoy eating at meals to more intimate time together in the bedroom. The things we do together help us bond in intimacy and companionability. For example, one couple may feel their special quality time on the weekend is when they bike ride together – something they both love to do with one another. Another couple may look forward to the quiet time in the evening when they are reading at home or going on an outing with the kids. It doesn’t matter exactly what it is…But each couple finds their own routine that they can look forward to regularly and appreciate as “bonding time”. Problems arise however when that time is disrupted. Developing couples skills to handle these changes is what a healthy intimate relationship is about.
Life is about change. Sometimes that change is caused by circumstances beyond our control like the loss of a job, an illness or extended family responsibilities. Other times it is by choice or part of a natural maturation process like expanding a business, starting a family or going back to school. Either way life’s changes are stressful and can have profound effects on relationship. The structures in our daily routines that form the web of connectedness in relating get disturbed and challenged. Even a relatively small change can have effects that we didn’t anticipate. For example, consider when someone in a marriage decides to go on a more restrictive (and healthier diet). That person wants and expects support and encouragement in making that change. Yet they may find their partner (though wanting to be supportive) is basically disappointed – the ritual of eating together, cooking and enjoying certain food gets disturbed and there is a feeling of loss. This kind of pattern gets acted out on a much larger scale depending on the circumstances. When someone’s work schedule is shifted to more travel, later hours or weekend work, the bonding time of being together can feel very threatened. Feelings of abandonment, fears about the future, pressure to succeed – all add to the stress level. It takes energy to make changes to adjust to new outside circumstances. Each partner can have different needs and desires that all deserve attention. This is in addition to actually making the practical real life adjustments. It can just feel absolutely overwhelming.
So what are the needed survival skills that help couples cope with change? First of all, just accepting the fact that change is stressful and affects people in a relationship in different ways is a start. Couples skills for better intimacy always include a respect for each other’s differences. Successful marriages and long-term relationships have a way to make room for that – people feel they can be themselves in the context of being together. When it comes to making changes in life – it is natural for the person actually making the change to want special support. They may not want to deal with their partner’s feelings, complaints, unmet needs or demands for more quality time. Yet in shared intimacy, each person is deeply affected by each other’s life – either directly or indirectly. A partner is affected by making his or her own changes in response and has their own valid thoughts and feelings. Often when people can really understand each other’s unique position, it is far easier to come up with solutions.
Finding safe and respectful ways to communicate feelings and creating an atmosphere of acceptance and sympathy despite differences is the challenge. It is an attitude that combines “we are in it together” along with “change affects everyone differently”. This delicate dance between separateness and togetherness is at the heart of relationship. When we commit to staying in a relationship and work through our differences, our capacity for true intimacy is put to the test and real intimacy has a chance to occur.