When employees and their families turn to their Employee Assistance Program for services, relationship problems are often the reason. When romantic partnerships become strained, the impact is felt throughout several areas of life including job performance and attendance, physical health, and mental wellbeing. For this reason, Espyr is committed to assisting employees and their partners through education, tools, counseling, and support aimed at resolving interpersonal issues and re-establishing equilibrium in the family unit.
Between social isolation, working from home, and managing children and adolescents engaged in virtual learning, romantic relationships around the world continue to be tested by the pandemic. Many couples report losing patience with their partners, building resentment, or simply missing a sense of connection. It is normal for relationships to ebb and flow, so it is important to have tools to turn to when you find yourself in a relationship funk. Here are some six ideas for your toolkit.
Build compassion for your partner.
Approaching disagreements with compassion and empathy helps to dissolve resentment and bitterness. Showing compassion means recognizing the stressors, obstacles, and hardships your partner experiences and offering a helping hand. To empathize with your partner is to take the time to understand their feelings and validate their emotional experience (even if they differ from your own). Next time your partner says or does something that irks you, before reacting ask yourself what outside factors may be at play. Maybe your partner is grappling with a demanding project at work, struggling with insecurities, or finding it difficult to express what is really on their mind.
Invest in your friendship.
In these trying times it can be easy to put having fun with your partner low on your priority list. However, fostering a friendship is critical to staying connected. The bond of friendship is one of mutual respect, playfulness, and enjoying shared or new interests. Designate time at least twice a month where you enjoy hobbies and activities together such as reading, hiking, cooking, or playing board games. Quality time allows you to temporarily put the pressures of a relationship aside and enjoy each other’s sense of adventure, intellect, silliness, or spirituality.
Express your gratitude.
A partnership means sometimes sacrificing your expectations so that you may embrace your loved one for who they are in this moment. Instead of stewing over things your partner could be doing, show gratitude for what they have already done. Gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness and wellbeing. Next time your partner is helpful by emptying the dishwasher, checking the mail, or allowing you to choose what movie to watch, take a moment to look them in the eye and say thank you. These small tokens of appreciation add up to build a stronger bond of care and respect.
Expand your support network.
Remember that no one person can be everything you need at any given time. Diversify your support system so that you and your partner maintain realistic expectations and boundaries surrounding your roles in the relationship. Befriend a colleague who you can enjoy vent sessions with, maintain ties with friends, or adopt a dog to accompany you on your morning jogs.
Consider how you communicate.
Did you know that a person’s conversation style can significantly influence how they give and receive communication? Renowned linguist Deborah Tannen has devoted her career to studying language of everyday conversation and how our various conversation styles affect relationships. A person’s conversation style is influenced by many inherent and environmental factors including culture, history, geography, gender, upbringing, and personality. For example, Tannen found that Americans from the West Coast tend to allow for longer pauses between dialogue exchange than their Northeastern counterparts. This means that someone from New York may be considered rude for speaking over others during discussion when in reality this conversational style is simply the norm in that region.
Two major types of conversational styles are high-involvement style and the opposing high-considerateness style. These conversation styles shape how an individual communicates and opposing styles may result in misunderstandings or misconceptions.
- High-involvement types minimize pauses between topics, ideas, and speakers. They speak at a faster rate and tend to show their enthusiasm by speaking over/alongside their partners speech. Individuals with this conversational style tend to see a conversation as collaborative rather than turn based.
- High-Considerateness speakers are just the opposite – they speak at a slower pace, allow for longer pauses between topics and speaker turns, and avoid simultaneous speaking (speaking while your partner is speaking).
Reflect on how your conversational style may differ or mirror that of your partner. Maybe one of you is more direct whereas the other tends to approach topics and requests in a more roundabout way. Or perhaps your partner was taught that it is polite to hold back opinions until asked specifically to share them. Remember that there is no “right” or “wrong” style of conversation. Instead, recognize that these differences exist and seek to clarify misunderstandings before jumping to conclusions about ill intentions.
Try working with a couples counselor.
If you find that you and your partner bicker over small things, hold grudges, struggle to connect intimately or emotionally, or harbor resentment then it may be time to consider counseling. Your relationship does not need to be at its breaking point for couples counseling to be helpful. In fact, it is recommended that you engage in couples work in the beginning stages of your relationship struggles.
A counselor can provide objectivity, a fresh perspective, a new way of understanding your partner, and tools for rebuilding your foundation. It is important to remember that you as a couple are the client – there are no keeping secrets in couples counseling. The counselor will help you to identify your relationship goals, points of contention, and conflict resolution styles and patterns. This helps the counselor to hold up a mirror to your relationship, allowing you to gain a new perspective and identify changes that will benefit you as a couple.
It is typical for the counselor to see both of you together for the first session to complete a thorough intake assessment. The counselor may then schedule one or two individual sessions with you and your partner before coming back together as a couple. This helps the counselor to understand all sides, emotions, and perspectives.
Sometimes the counselor may recommend that one or both of you engage in individual therapy. This is because we tend to bring underlying beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world into our relationships. These underlying beliefs typically begin in childhood and are shaped by our experiences before we come together as a couple. Learning more about how our experiences have shaped us allows a better understanding of ourselves and a chance to heal old wounds that prevent us from enjoying intimacy and authenticity. It is recommended that you and your spouse seek out separate counselors for individual work to avoid a conflict of interest.
Many counselors will tailor their treatment to the needs of the couple. Three of the most common approaches to couples work include:
- The Gottman Method – this approach aims at disarming conflicting verbal communication; increasing intimacy, respect, and affection; removing barriers that create a feeling of stagnancy; and improving the capacity for empathy within the relationship.
- Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (EFCT) – this short term and structured approach is designed to restructure emotional experiences and maladaptive interaction patterns by focusing on attachment types and traumas.
- Imago Relationship Therapy – this approach operates under the assumption that experiences in early childhood are directly connected to our expectations and frustrations in adult relationships. Childhood feelings of neglect, abandonment, or suppression that often cast a cloud over relationships in adulthood are addressed so that healing can take place.
If you and your partner are considering couples counseling, talk about what each of you are looking for in a counselor. Schedule phone consults with counselors in your area before deciding who may be a good fit. If one counselor is not right for you, do not hesitate to keep trying until you find what works.
Relationships require work. You can expect highs and lows as natural phases in a long-term commitment. Keeping your relationship high on your priority list allows you to learn and grow together without letting wounds, disagreements, or joy slip through the cracks. Know when it is time to bring in a professional and recognize that it is okay to decide the relationship is not working. Avoid comparing your relationship with those around you – there is no such thing as a perfect couple. Committing to making small changes can keep your relationship healthy so that you may enjoy what makes yours unique.
Here’s a collection of additional, helpful resources.
- Gottman Card Decks
- Love Nudge
- That’s Not What I Meant! by Deborah Tannen
- You Just Don’t Understand by Deborah Tannen
- Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
- Where Should We Being? With Esther Perel
- “Why Conversations Go Wrong”, Hidden Brain
- “Keep Your Relationship Health”, The Happiness Lab
About the Author
Lauren Drake is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and head of Internal Learning, Development, and Clinical Care at Espyr. Lauren has worked in the field since 2013 and has experience across several domains including substance use, mental health, public schooling, relationships, and EAP. She is authored in scientific journals for research on topics such as adoption, childhood development, and cultural competency.
For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions – solutions like our AI powered chatbot, TESS – to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.
Tannen, Deborah and Hamilton, Heidi. The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, 2nd ed., edited by Deborah Tannen, Heidi Hamilton, and Deborah Schiffrin, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015.
The Gottman Institute: A Research-Based Approach to Relationships. The Gottman Institute, 2021, https://www.gottman.com/about/the-gottman-method/
ICEEFT. ICEEFT, 2021, https://iceeft.com/
Imago Relationships. Imago Relationships Worldwide, 2019, https://imagorelationships.org/