Few events are powerful enough to change the world in just a little time. Crises like wars and natural disasters can rock the entire world and transform our realities literally overnight. The current pandemic has created an indelible shift in our lives and our culture. One of the toughest things people are facing right now is ourselves. We are being forced to see ourselves in ways we might call…unflattering? Personal flaws, weaknesses, dysfunctional life tools, ignorance, bad attitudes. Personal traits and behaviors we thought were okay and normal are proving to be disastrous. Frustration and anxiety are primed and pumped, and many people are realizing they don’t know how to handle their own emotions.
The next thing we are struggling with is each other. For many, the systems we’ve taken for granted (and maybe even complained about) have saved our collective butts. Couples, spouses, families and households are being shut in with each other for long periods of time, and we’re finding that time away from each other has been one of our saving graces. With these new circumstances, staying together is the safer option for many, if not most. For the record, spending time away from each other can be a very healthy and important part of keeping relationships healthy, as long as it isn’t used as an escape mechanism. If we can’t use time apart from each other as a tool for keeping our relationships healthy, we need to rely on other
It is common in relationships to try and take our frustrations out on each other. We hurt the ones we love because we think it’s okay. It’s not. As Brené Brown says,
“Stop working your shit out on other people.”
We have relationships of all types: Personal, romantic, professional, casual, familial. Here are three relationship-saving devices to help grease the cogs of a relationship when you’re stuck together. Heck, use these anytime.
1. Create a Safe Space
“The idea that you have to be protected from any kind of uncomfortable emotion is what I absolutely do not subscribe to.” ~ John Cleese
A healthy, happy life requires safe space. This doesn’t mean we’ll never feel difficult emotions. Safe space is a place where we can work those emotions out in healthy ways. Relationships — romantic, familial, professional, friendships or otherwise — are healthy when they are safe. A safe space is something you create for each other in order to be yourselves freely, together. Some important elements of safe space include:
Suspend judgment and expectations. Give your judgments and expectations of each other a hard break. Times are a-different. Now is a good time to re-evaluate your own judgments and expectations to make sure they are realistic, fair and supportive (rather than rigid, selfish and demanding).
Set healthy boundaries. If one person’s words, actions, habits or behaviors are mentally, emotionally or physically harmful, boundaries need to be set. It’s not okay to say or do harmful things, intentionally or unintentionally. We may or may not be aware of our own toxic behaviors, so setting healthy boundaries together is vital. Honoring and enforcing those boundaries is just as vital.
Don’t react. This might be the toughest part of creating a safe space because negative reactions often catch us off guard. We rarely know when negative triggers are going to hit, so we have to practice catching ourselves before acting on those emotions. Stop. Breathe. Count to ten or as high as you need to. Step into another room if you have to. Calm down and regain your focus before engaging. This will give you the best chance of communicating effectively rather than working your shit out on each other. If the other person in your relationship is triggered and needs space — give it to them.
Divide your living space. Dividing the living space into areas can give you your own areas to think, not think, do, not do, play, practice, work, etc. If all parties agree to respect each other’s physical safety zones, this can be a way of getting away without actually getting away.
Divide your time. Set certain quiet hours where you simply leave the other person alone so you each get to be alone with your own thoughts and energy. This can be especially useful if living in tight quarters. If walks together used to strengthen your relationship, you may find that taking walks separately is a better option for the time being. Call in those healthy boundaries. For instance, quiet time should probably include not emailing or texting that person. Even these little things can be an invasion of privacy.
Admit when you’re wrong. This one needs no explanation. Set your pride aside. Apologize. We’re all human which means we’re not going to get it right all the time.
“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” ~ Dean Jackson
Listening attentively is an essential part of creating a safe space for each other, but it serves another function important enough to be its own item. Good listening creates true communication. It’s not communication unless all sides are really listening. Nor can a relationship be healthy without good communication. When you listen first, you are more likely to be listened to.
Be present. Turn your own mind chatter off. Tune in to them.
Make sure you’re hearing the other person. Don’t just listen — hear them. Hear their intentions, not just their words. Listen to the spirit of their words; they may still be trying to figure out what they’re trying to say. Ask meaningful, supportive questions to help them express themselves. Reflect what you are hearing to make sure it is actually what they are saying. Remember to suspend judgment.
Share the floor. Let people finish their sentences. Don’t assume you know what they’re trying to say after a few words. Give them a chance to say everything they want or need to. If you have to, ask if they’re done.
Don’t take it personally. The person is talking to you about themselves. Not you. Even if their language is accusatory or blaming, they are talking about themselves, their lens, their perception, their concerns, their frustrations. If you take their accusations personally you’ll miss their message altogether. If they truly believe you are their problem, then they have some self-work to do. Vice versa.
Practice empathy. Try to understand things from their perspective. Do your best to understand where they’re coming from. A healthy relationship is always evolving, and we’re always learning new things about each other. Empathy helps us meet somewhere in the middle.
3. Check In
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” ~ Aldous Huxley
One major hazard of relationships is waiting for something to blow up before engaging. We may hope something resolves itself so we can ignore it and avoid confrontation. Well, when you’re in each other’s space all the time it is nearly impossible to ignore things. Much better to communicate, find common ground and work on solutions together.
Be honest. Check-in’s require honesty for them to be effective. If one person doesn’t admit if something is up, then small, seemingly-inane problems will quietly build into big, destructive ones.
Ask. Ask how the other person is doing. Ask if they need anything. Asking opens the door to communication and lets them know you are there for each other.
Get on the same page. Relationships get complicated because you’re sharing different perspectives, experiences, life tools and sometimes values. Check in to make sure you have some values and goals in common. See if you can agree to disagree on things that matter or compromise on others. Getting on the same page doesn’t mean agreeing on everything, it means making sure you truly understand each other and agree to make it work.
Do nice things. Do little thoughtful things here and there. This creates a positive engagement where you can gauge each other’s well-being. Don’t overdo it, this isn’t about control or manipulation. You also don’t want to be annoying. Keep It Simple & Sweet (KISS).
The relationship with yourself…
…can always benefit from the above attributes. Be a safe place for YOU. Suspend judgment. Relax your expectations and make sure they are realistic. It’s normal to feel weird in weird times, so allow yourself to adjust and adapt. When you speak — listen. Practice journaling and meditation as a way of opening up healthy dialogue with your own thoughts and emotions.
Give yourself some space to just be, or to work off some of the very-understandable frustration or anxiety you’re feeling right now. Check in with yourself often to see what you might need to stay on track or to feel better. Practice kindness and empathy for yourself. Treat yourself from time to time.
The claim to “save a relationship” in no way claims to define a relationship (i.e. I’m not claiming to save relationships that aren’t meant to be or have changed over time). I don’t mean you’ll stay together if that’s not the best thing for all parties. It means you’ll have the best chance of keeping things positive and healthy. Part of a relationship means exploring the ongoing dynamics from moment to moment, day to day, for as long as it lasts.
Healthy relationships happen when each person is managing their own “stuff” responsibly, and support each other in managing their own “stuff”. Happy relationships happen when each person tries to improve the others’ health and well-being. Whether you’re working on a healthy, happy relationship with others or with yourself, we can use this pandemic as an enormous reset button. Let’s use this opportunity to clear away the crap we’ve been living with and move forward with some clean slates, positive outlooks, and hopefully some healthy new habits for living better.