in: difficult times

How Not to Shut Down: Fostering Growth in a Relationship

When fostering growth in a relationship, one of the most essential skills to have in your tool kit is the ability to openly communicate—this means expressing yourself and staying present with what is being expressed by your partner.


When my sister was in kindergarten she was asked a trick question: Which is better—giving gifts or receiving gifts?

Now, of course the teacher wanted all the five-year olds to unselfishly choose giving. My sister’s written answer was not what the teacher wanted: For me to give is better for others. For others to give is better for me.  

Pretty astute for a five-year old. It may seem unrelated to the subject of this post, but bear with me.

Giving and receiving are infused into every aspect of life, and in some ways they encapsulate the value of our relationships. How much do you get from your partner? How much do you give? This is something that we’re measuring all the time… from when we choose someone online to email to when we’re balancing housework to when we’re making love.

Am I attracted to her? (Does she give me enough nice features to look at?)

Is he a good lover? (Does he give me enough pleasure?)

Does my spouse do enough around the house? (Do I get enough help?)

On a basic level, we shut down to our partners when we think that we’re not getting enough in the relationship or that the quality of what we’re getting is lacking. What do we do when we come home for the 20th time to crumbs on the kitchen counters and socks balled up in the corner of the bedroom? How can we stay open when it seems like our partner saves all her smiles and patience for work but snaps at us at home?

When you find yourself reacting in anger or shutting down in irritation to your partner, this is the time to get the most important thing a relationships is going to offer you—growth. Don’t groan! Beyond the sex, presents, attention, support, companionship and all else that relationships can give you, they are major teachers of what I can pretty much guarantee you want to learn if you’re on this site in the first place:

Open-heartedness. Non-violent communication. Patience. Presence of mind and heart in the midst of distress. Embodied communication.

So how the heck do we move in the direction of growth when every cell in our body is screaming “You’re such a #$%#@!!” to our partner?

Try this:

1. Take a breath.
2. Take a moment alone.
3. Ask yourself this question: Have I communicated what I need/want in this type of situation?

If the answer is no, ask to talk at a non-stressful time and express your needs/wants from a respectful place.

If the answer is yes, the next step is a little trickier.

You might need to communicate with your partner again. You might need to adjust your expectations of relationships. You might need to remind yourself of all the things you do get from your partner. You might need to consider if this relationship can give you what you want (but double- and triple-check your expectations before you determine it can’t).

Lastly, you might need to work on acceptance that sometimes, even things that you really, really want from someone aren’t possible.  Maybe he’ll just never be the kisser you desire or maybe she’ll never be able to have the deep talks that you long for or maybe he’ll never remember to do the dishes. 

This is your chance to grow.

It can be incredibly hard to stay open and loving in the face of needing to accept that our partners are not going to give us something that’s important to us. But this is also the moment when we choose giving love over getting what we want. I’m not talking about positive-reinforcement for not vacuuming. I’m talking about remembering that we are whole people, regardless of the imperfections of our lives.  That we can step back from the grasping for order or pleasure and make peace with what is.  

What helps you stay open in the midst of conflict might be different than what helps me, but we all share one thing: we all need the motivation to do the hard work of staying open. 

It’s easier to shut down (though it hurts more in the long run). It’s easier to just feel like we’re “right” and they’re “wrong.” But can we choose to get beyond that? We can, if we remember that we’re in it for more than just being right or getting what we want. 

We’re in it to grow, to love, to learn.

[image: via bark on flickr]

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About the Author:

Rachel Weinstein

Rachel Weinstein: I’m a therapist, writer and blogger out of Portland, Maine. I live on a half acre in the woods with my husband, two kids, two dogs, five chickens and a guinea pig named Rosie. I’m fascinated with love and marriage and what makes us all tick! Check out my blog, The Open Heart Space. Sign up for the newsletters and get some good freebies! Also check out my e-course: Busting the Fairytale: A Realistic View of Relationships to Help You Love the One You’re With

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