five-step-diagnostic assessment for struggling relationships

Saturday, June 21, 2014

From my limited observation, newlywed couples seem to fall into three distinct camps: 1. happy and in love, 2. already contemplating divorce, or 3. in a state of occasional regret, and occasional happiness, struggling to meld their lives together.  As we continue through life, the situations become much more complicated as children and other discrete events and experiences enter the equation.  These camps don't really change that much right before and right after the actual wedding and marriage, which caused a friend to recently utter concerns about other engaged friends are having problems in the lead-up to the marriage.

What is the right advice to give to a friend who finds herself struggling to communicate and be happy in the lead-up to the wedding?  Here is my five-step approach:

1. Support rather than lecture.  In my opinion, the most important thing you can do as a friend is to support your friend's decisions, whatever they may be, while providing any suggestions that you can to make them more successful.  If you have a strong opinion, try to prompt your friend to arrive at that place on her own, by asking her questions, rather than making arguments.  The truth is that none of us really know what it's like to be in another relationship and our ultimate opinion is of limited value.  By contrast, helping a friend really reflect on her own situation is extremely valuable.

2. Not all fighting is created equal.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that most engaged couples should have disagreements, and some of these may be fights.  The key here is how much the fight is affecting the real happiness of the two parties.  E.g.  A and I initially had some fights regarding decorating.  Some of these peripheral fights will seem hugely important in the days leading up to marriage.  "Am I really committing to never live in a home with fake flowers again just because it makes you happy?  Yes."  There are some losses in marriage, such as the ability to do whatever you want.  It's good to appropriately those losses for what they are, losses.  But, a good marriage will ultimately make you happier than these peripheral things.  It's important to differentiate between fighting patterns that will cause long-term unhappiness and the moments where we're realizing that any marriage will require us to change some of the things we like, which is important to realize before getting all the way into it.

3. The goal should be happiness, not perfection.  Why, why, why do we compare ourselves with other people and feel a loss when some aspect of their marriage or life seems "better" than ours?  My aunt, who is a Methodist minister and works with lots of married couples, told me that the top problem she sees in couples contemplating divorce is that they think their problems are abnormal and therefore there is something wrong with their marriage when there isn't anything wrong at all.  Why does this happen?  Because everyone else's marriage seems so perfect.  We should all try to get over the idea that any aspect of our lives will be perfect.  Are we, just ourselves, not us comparing ourselves with any ideal or anything we know about anyone our core, are we happy?  Can we be happy?  Happiness is amazing.  It's enough.

4. Know what you need to be happy and communicate it.  Happiness is enough, but sometimes it's hard for us to admit to ourselves what we need to be happy and it's even harder to ask for it.  Maybe it seems weird.  Maybe it makes you not the ideal girl.  Maybe it makes you "high-maintenance."  Whatever it is, reflect on it, figure it out, and ask for it.  You won't win the battle over something you need to be happy, but wish you didn't need, or wish you didn't have to state, by simply ignoring it.  Do you need lots of extra emotional support this week?  Then ask for it, but acknowledge the extra effort it's taking to provide that support and give something back.

5. Know whether you're getting what you need to be happy.  Up to this point, in my opinion, things are fine and you can individually take steps to assess the situation.  But, if you're clearly asking for something that you need and you aren't getting it, then may be time to really start considering options for intervention.  Once again, I'd caution that you can't expect perfect happiness.  Just happiness.  But, if you aren't getting something you need to be happy, then you might need to make changes.  Have you communicated the importance?  Are you giving back equally in ways that matter to your partner?  If you think you are, then, at this point, it may be time to start having conversations about "the relationship" and conversations about counseling.

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