You and your partner are sitting on your couch at home, doing teletherapy with me. Like most couples, you have come to me for help with communication. I ask you this question as a check-in: “How’s your relationship been this past week?”
“Disconnected,” you might say. “We had an argument a few days ago and haven’t had the chance to process it yet.”
“Is your relationship on your radar?” I ask.
You look a bit perplexed and frustrated by this question. “I guess I don’t know what you mean,” you say.
“I’m just wondering if your relationship is on your radar. What does your relationship need right now?”
“Well,” you say, “I know what I need. I need my partner to apologize for that snippy contemptuous remark. I mean, that was totally undeserved and…” At this point, you start to rehash the argument.
I cut you off. “Hang on,” I say, “we could get into the nitty gritty here. But what I’m really wanting to know, from each of you, is what the relationship needs right now.”
Met with silence, I continue. “I want you to think of your relationship as a separate entity. Think of it as something external to you both. It can be helpful to think of the shape, color, and texture of it. It needs attention. It has needs.”
You and your partner are listening.
“You are both responsible for nurturing your share of the relationship. It’s different than figuring out what you need, what your needs are, how you need an apology or how you need validation. Take a step back and try to see the relationship from this perspective. What does it need right now?”
Your partner speaks up. “It needs some attention,” they say. “It needs connection.”
“Great!” I say. “Attention and connection. How can you each support this?”
Both you and your partner do not look happy. “Ah,” I say. “You both need it, but can’t give it?” You both nod.
And there we have the crux of this work. What do you do when both of you are hurting, when neither of you feels seen or heard or validated by your partner? Sometimes, I use the metaphor of both of you bleeding. You’re bleeding, you’re hurting, you can’t see your partner’s bleeding and tend to it, or even if you do see it, you have no desire to connect with someone who hurt you.*
But that’s exactly what the relationship needs. It needs repair.
The way I coach my couples through this impasse is to invite them to spend some time with their own hurt. I ask them, as I ask you now, to see if they can follow the thread of this feeling back to when it first began. It is so often connected to childhood wounds. See if you can tend to your hurt part yourself, by saying to it something like, “I get that you’re hurting. This reminds you so much of the way you were treated when you were young.” Put a hand to where you feel the hurt in your body. Put a hand there and send it some love. Then tell it, “I know you’re hurting, but my job is to tend to the relationship, so I’m going to go make sure my partner is okay.”
Then do a little soul searching to see if any of your behavior hurt your partner. Whether or not it was justified. Whether or not it was your intent. Was your partner hurt by your behavior at all?
If so (and usually the answer to this question is yes), then go to your partner. “I know my behavior hurt you,” you can say. “I’m sorry for that. How can I make amends?” Without defensiveness. Without explaining your intent.
It’s that simple. Because once one partner feels tended to, they will turn and tend to you. And then the relationship is healing.
Of course, nothing is ever simple in this work, and it can take a few tries to get the wording and timing right for you and your partner. But this ability to tend to the relationship has great rewards. It will make you each feel tended to. It will make you each feel important to the other. It will create ribbons of connection between you and your partner.
The question is a simple one: Is your relationship on your radar? Is it for you right now? What does it need?
* If there is any physical harm being done to you in your relationship, please reach out to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline for support at 800-799-7233.