There’s a lot known about the power of resilience to help us recover from extreme adversity. True, a great deal of stress that can be associated with this process but people generally thrive over time, making it through incredibly challenging situations. And those who are less resilient can learn to be so. Neuroscience has shown us that the brain can rewire itself when presented with the right conditions and what this means is that change IS possible.
What about relationship resilience?
Relationships can demonstrate a similar type of resilience, the ability for the couple to more effectively weather their personal storms. As a couples therapist, I know that part of what can get them through times of disconnection are their underlying strengths as a couple. No matter how restricted, distant, defensive or angry a couple appears the first time I meet them, for the most part, there is some degree of softening when their strengths are explored, many of which have been forgotten or are no longer noticed.
- How did you know that your partner “the one?” What was so special? What were the qualities about him/her that felt right for you? What bonded you together? Don’t underestimate the power of mate selection. It goes deeper than you might realize in its complexity. Does this initial draw to each other still have meaning for you? It’s easy to forget what went on “back then,” especially if you are in a long-term relationship but it’s worth a look and is a potential strength to draw upon.
- Did opposites attract? Did your partner have a little something you wish you had more of? And if so, I would guess that it’s this initial draw that might now be reported as a problem. “I loved his extroversion early on as I’m rather shy…..but now his social butterfly act is overwhelming and I feel ignored by him!” You get the picture. According to Harville Hendrix, PhD, “Though opposites attract at first, eventually they repel. And that’s when the growth can happen–because we are going to be attracted to somebody who’s a carrier of undeveloped parts of ourselves.” So perhaps compatibility isn’t necessarily the ideal and actually the attraction to an opposite can be considered a strength in it’s potential for meaningful growth within the relationship. This plays out time and time again in my couples therapy practice. Present annoyances often lead back to initial attractions. Go figure, right?
- What do you appreciate about who your partner is? Oh boy, it sure is easy to forget the positives when you feel overwhelmed by the negatives. Remember that we are wired to have a negativity bias and sometimes we have to work hard to bypass that. What traits do you like about your partner? Is he/she a good parent? Kind to others? Organized? While it’s easy to complain about your partner, challenge yourself to take in the good of him/her too. These points of appreciation can be considered relationship strengths, especially because they have meaning to you.
- Are there positive experiences between you being missed? Along the lines of the “negativity bias” topic, consider if there are good moments or interactions between you that deserve notice. Savor those experiences. Rick Hanson, PhD talks about how “positive experiences generally have to held in awareness for 5-10-20 seconds for them to be registered in emotional memory.” Because negative experiences massively trump positive experiences in your brain, you have to work extra hard to counter that. The positive experiences you have (that you may need to work on noticing and “taking in” more effectively) are potential relationship strengths.
Whether your relationship is currently solid or in need of some TLC, consider sitting down together to examine your strengths. Talk about it. If your relationship has become too hostile for this to be productive, each of you might carve out a little alone time to sit quietly and reflect on this which might soften you individually enough to try a discussion together. If this doesn’t work out so well, consider couples therapy to examine your relationship in a safe space with someone trained to identify underlying dynamics and how to shift them.