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Nurturing healthy partnerships
For many, February is a time to focus on our partnerships. We know that romantic relationships can have a profound impact on our well-being, with healthy relationships empowering us and giving our lives a sense of safety, and unhealthy relationships increasing feelings of anxiety, stress, depression and other negative emotions.
To understand more about nurturing healthy partnerships, we spoke with Melissa Fritchle, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Holistic Psychotherapist, Couples Therapist and Certified Mindfulness Teacher. Fritchle is currently teaching Mindfulness in Relationships, an online Healthy Living class that is Berry-eligible and STAP-approved.
The pandemic has caused stress and conflict in some partnerships.
With less ability to see other people or to gather with friends and family, the majority of our social time now gets focused on our closest relationships, causing us to rely on our partners for so many more of our emotional needs.
“This can be renewing for some relationships, but it can also highlight lack of shared interests or communication difficulties.”
Fritchle notes that many of us have lost our self-care habits; such as yoga classes, weekly get-togethers with friends, massages or pick-up basketball games; and those things reduced pressure and helped us bring our better selves to our partners.
Additionally, life changes and worry related to the pandemic have contributed to higher anxiety and stress levels and lower thresholds for patience, concentration and general good moods, all of which can lead to more arguments or irritations in our partnerships.
“Questions around risk tolerance and negotiating how you will handle shared risks of exposure or who is included in your contact circle require strong negotiation skills, which can be a challenge.”
Fritchle has also noticed that more time at home means more chores at home, which can be a source of conflict if there are inequities in household responsibilities or low-level frustrations about how tasks are performed or how the space is kept. She adds that this is further compounded if kids are at home for virtual learning.
“It is a very good time to explicitly talk about everything that needs to get done to keep your household running happily and how you can share the load.”
Trust and communication are key.
Healthy partnerships are centered on trust, allowing each person to have individual interests and friends while also actively creating shared interests and time with each other. They make time for communication and develop ways to communicate clearly with the understanding that their needs and desires will change and grow over time. In healthy partnerships, there is a commitment to personal responsibility, honesty and handling conflict respectfully.
Attention nourishes the partnership.
Schedule time to focus on each other. Fritchle says this includes check-ins about chores, money and basic household issues, as well as time to enjoy each other, date nights and time to be sexual together.
“Scheduling shows that we value something, and the truth is, the rest of the world will come creeping in to take our time if we are not intentional about how we use our time.”
She also advises slowing down to practice a more mindful connection with each other, which means getting away from screens and taking your mind off the past or future to be aware of the present moment and the connection you have in the present.
“If you don’t give each other time and attention, the relationship will starve. Think about how we approach dating — when you are in the early stages you probably don’t expect your date to wait around while you scroll your media. You turn your attention to them, directly and generously. We need that type of attention to sustain our important relationships.”
Know the signs of an unhealthy partnership.
Unhealthy relationship patterns can manifest in many ways, including feelings of being unsafe; violence, neglect, emotional or physical abuse; and controlling behavior.
Some less intense, though still painful, manifestations may be lack of trust or respect, ineffective communication and repeating arguments that do not resolve.
Key indicators to assess if you should stay in or leave a partnership include:
- Are each of you willing to take responsibility for your behavior and patterns?
- Does it feel like there is willingness to put time and attention to making changes?
- Can you imagine a shared life that would make both of you happy and fulfilled?
- Do you want the same things?
- Can you remember why you liked this person and does that still resonate with you?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, it indicates a healthy relationship that is likely worth investing more time in. If you answered no to most of these questions, you may want to consider what is motivating you to stay in this relationship, and what you are getting out of it. It may be worth getting the help of a couples counselor to work through some of the more difficult issues together.
“Ultimately, I hope you can find a relationship in which your happiness together outweighs the difficulty.”
All partnerships have their ups and downs.
All relationships have their unhealthy moments and weak points, and life stressors may cause us to revert to old patterns and unhealthy coping skills that may affect our close relationships.
“You don’t have to be discouraged if there are areas you struggle with and want to improve. Each relationship is unique so we all have to learn as we go! Don’t be embarrassed to seek out resources, from books or podcasts to couple’s therapy.”
She reiterates that attention is necessary to keep the partnership healthy and one of the most common ways she sees relationships deteriorate is when people stop making time to focus on one another and stop being interested in learning about one another.
Self-care and honoring each other’s boundaries are important to combat stress.
Taking care of yourself is important in keeping your partnership healthy.
“Self-care makes you more available for a positive, fun relationship. Don’t try to recreate life before the pandemic. Focus on the ability to do things differently this year. Think creatively and try something new.”
Self-care includes being mindful of your health, eating food that makes you feel good, limiting your drug or alcohol intake, physical movement and practicing good sleep habits.
While Fritchle advocates finding self-care that involves time apart, she also recommends a daily ritual to connect with your partner, which could be a 15-minute coffee break or turning your screens off 30 minutes before bed and sharing about your day.
In connecting, she reminds us to honor each other’s tolerance level for news or exposure to stressful world events and make sure there are times when current events are not the focus of conversation.
Look for opportunities during this time to strengthen your partnership.
Despite the stress of the pandemic, opportunities to nourish your partnership may be present. You and your partner could use this time to cultivate new shared interests and revel in having time together. You could also use this time to gain more insight into what your partner’s days are like, as you may now also be their officemate, fellow stay-at-home parent or workout buddy.
“I have found a lot of couples having really powerful conversations about what they value and realizing that they can potentially reshape their lives, work and how they spend time, which is really exciting.”
Fritchle adds that the stress of this past year has made a lot of us kinder to our partners as we acknowledge how much the people we love mean to us and how much we rely on each other to get through life.
Partnerships are dynamic and require growth.
Relationships require us to learn as we go and develop new skills. If you and your partner are having difficulty adjusting to challenges, seek out support from professionals and keep talking to each other about what you do want and the positive interactions you want to create together.
“We are all different from one another and that is a great thing! But it means we have to stay open to understanding one another and hearing the other’s perspective. Connection means accepting the ways we are separate and unique and honoring the ways we come together.”
By Katie Shumake