Wisdom//

5 Fundamental Relationship Rules From an Expert Marriage Counselor

Rule number one: Don’t compare. Relationships are hard work, and sometimes stressful, even if you’re with “the one.”

Apple and orange against yellow and green background.
Apple and orange against yellow and green background.

Couples therapy gets a bad rap with the alarming number of therapists who claim to be skilled at working with couples, yet do not have the necessary skill-set to do so.

Just as a parent- desperate for an answer to their child’s chronic ear infections- seeks out the leading pediatrician in the field, the same holds true when looking for a marriage counselor. For matters of the heart, people want the very best, and a well-trained therapist who can help them through difficult seasons of  marriage is no exception.

There are several important factors to consider when choosing the right therapist for your relationship. First, a couple’s counselor should be trained in the most research-based and highly effective couples therapy modalities. The most highly researched and proven are the Gottman-Method and Emotionally-Focused Therapy.

A therapist’s level of experience is another important distinction. There are considerable differences between therapists who consistently work with couples and those who may see a trickle “every once in awhile.”

Lastly, finding someone who you feel comfortable confiding in, who creates a safe space for effective communication between you and your partner and who gives you a sense of hope that you can overcome the challenges are critical in being able to navigate the vulnerabilities you both come into therapy bearing the weight of.

Working primarily with couples in my practice since 2012, I know right away where couples get stuck. I understand that romantic relationships have the ability to make us feel out of this world good, yet also know that they have the ability to cause us the greatest deal of pain. Being in a distressed place in your marriage comes with a sense of urgency to identify the problem and solve it quickly and efficiently. This is where a skilled and committed professional comes in handy.

With expert training, years of experience and some personal lessons learned from my own marriage, I share my most fundamental relationship rules for couples to follow.

  1. Don’t compare. It’s easy to convince yourself that the snapshots of love and romance depicted on Facebook and Instagram are an everyday affair. And we often forget that this is not reality. Don’t get caught in the deception of social media leaving you wanting more of something that you can’t attain all of the time. There is no “perfect” relationship or couple. Relationships are hard work, even if you’re with “the one.” When you start to tally up your partner’s faults and compare them to a friend’s “seemingly” perfect marriage, resentment and the inability to see things clearly seep in. Keep in mind that even those we deem seamless have gone through periods of grief and struggle. Instead of playing the comparison game, try expressing gratitude and appreciation for your spouse. Gratitude and negativity can’t share the same space. Practice keeping a gratitude journal and add two simple, yet meaningful things to it everyday. Download a gratitude app like Happify or the Gottman relationship check-up app Card Decks. The more you prioritize your relationship with the positivity, the more likely it is to prosper.
  2. Don’t judge or criticize your partner. These negative relationship behaviors are some of the most destructive. When you criticize your partner, they feel a sense of disapproval which puts them on the defense. They take in the message, “I’m flawed and need fixing” or “my partner doesn’t accept me.” No spouse wants to feel inadequate or not good enough and constant judgment or criticism portray that. Stay away from blanket statements like “you always” or “you never” or the instinct to scoff at your significant other’s new idea. Instead, state your needs using “I” statements (“I feel like you’ve been neglecting me when you don’t come home as promised”) and show support (“I love that idea! You can do it. I’m behind you.”) We all want to feel like our partner has our back and is on our side.
  3. Listen to Understand. We often approach conflict right out of the gate with guns blazing. Unfortunately, this tactic leaves us feeling more at odds and hopeless as ever, especially if our partners fire back. Understanding must precede advice. Seek to listen first with empathy. See where they’re coming from even if you don’t agree. Common ground can’t be obtained without first seeing the situation from your spouse’s perspective. As you listen, refrain from building more ammunition for your difference of opinion. You end up hearing less of what they are feeling and instead, counter attack.
  4. Communicate, even when it’s hard. A strong marriage requires two people who choose to love each other even on the days they struggle to like each other. Shutting down or giving up is not an option. As difficult as it feels, keep trying. A good tactic is to take breaks when things get heated. After twenty minutes, try again. Talking side by side instead of across from each other makes intense moments feel less intense. Try walking, holding hands and communicating about the issue as best you can.
  5. Seek help when you can’t do it on your own. As hard as you may try to get out of the negative cycle, it might be difficult. Hopes of waiting it out until it passes is never a good approach. The research tells us that couples wait an average of 6 years before going to marriage counseling. Making the decision to seek couples counseling does not mean a sense of defeat. We can often get so caught up in our own feelings and emotions that we lose the ability to see things clearly. Problem-solving goes out the door, and a well-versed marriage therapist can help you identify what’s really going on, provide support and work towards healing.

There are so many valuable and specific skills that couples therapists’ utilize when working with relationship issues. Some of the most common dilemmas are presented above, along with suggestions on how to eliminate them from your own marriage. By utilizing these fundamental relationship rules, you’ll be on the right track.

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Originally published on Couples Thrive

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