As we head into the holiday season and our stress levels go up because of the demands of family members, meal preparation and gift giving, we need to honor our primary relationship with our significant other or partner. Couples often come to counseling discouraged about their relationship because they are constantly arguing. For example, Sophia feels that she cannot trust her partner even though in recent times he has not given her any reason to not trust him. Sophia says, “When I’m at work, I’m constantly wondering if he’s texting an old girlfriend or having lunch with some other woman at work. I don’t know how to get these thoughts out of my head.” Max says, “I can’t take this much longer. I don’t know what to do to convince her that I’m not involved with anyone else. We used to both go out with other people before we moved in together. But we have been committed to each other for the last 8 months. I go to work, come home and it is all about us.”
In understanding how to help couples strengthen their relationships, Ira Byock’s book, The Four Things that Matter Most, seems to distill the basic needs of any relationship into a set of manageable expressions. Byock states that the four expressions that matter most in a loving relationship are I thank you, I ask you to forgive me, I forgive you, and I love you. These expressions are also all “I” statements, which is helpful in developing non-judgmental communication. For example, if I say “You make me feel like you don’t care about me.” The other person might become defensive and respond, “No, I don’t.” (The other person does not make you feel a certain way, you feel that way.) If you say, “When you don’t respond to me when I walk in the door at night, that makes me feel like you don’t care about me.” The other person does not necessarily feel attacked because you state what the behavior is and then how that behavior makes you feel. A person can change their behavior, and might then respond, “I’m sorry, that’s not my intention. I’ve usually just walked in the door a few minutes before you, and I need time to decompress.” Using “I” language in relationships is a valuable tool.
The first expression of the four things that matter most, I thank you, is usually the easiest to say to your partner. Most individuals can find some aspect of gratitude in a relationship. An example might be, thank you for sticking with me when I was so stressed out about losing my job or for being there every day to help me get out the door in the morning. Gratitude and appreciation of others is fairly clear to most people even if it is just for small acts of kindness. Appreciating others and thanking them for what they have done to support and help you is often an issue of frequency, not that you don’t do it.
One of the most difficult concepts is forgiveness and Byock explains the difference between “to feel” forgiveness and “to give” forgiveness. He explains that forgiveness is like an actual debt. If someone owes you $100, you can be reminded every time you check your wallet that the person has not paid you back. On the other hand, you can forgive the loan and wipe it out of your mind relieving yourself of the negative reminder. By giving forgiveness, you are spared the negative emotions. By giving forgiveness the past no longer controls the present. The person “giving” forgiveness is the one that benefits the most. So why are we so hesitant to forgive others? Maybe we think that if we forgive once, the other person will take advantage of us. What are we afraid of when we won’t give forgiveness? Why is it so difficult? Again, whenever we feel stuck or unable to change, we must try to understand the fear or the hurt that is keeping us from changing. The hard work to repair or strengthen our relationships is changing ourselves.
All of us unintentionally hurt and slight others, so the expression “forgive me” might seem unnecessary because we are blind to how we may have slighted someone. Individuals may transfer their past hurts and pain onto us because something about us reminds them of their past relationship/experience. By asking for forgiveness, a person acknowledges that they are human and cannot possibly understand another’s perspective entirely, but they intend no ill will or malice. “Forgive me for whatever way I might have slighted or hurt you.” Such a statement opens up a dialogue and a vulnerability that can lead to trust, and trust is one of the most important ingredients in a healthy relationship. If your partner says something to you, and you find yourself getting upset or angry, try to pause before you react if you can, and set aside the interaction to think about later. Contemplate what is missing for you, what do you need?
The final expression, I love you, is often an overused expression to the point that your partner does not feel it is genuine or heartfelt. Try to add why you love that person, or say it in a private setting not as a matter of course when saying goodbye on the phone.
So often in couples counseling one or the other partner feels unable to trust the other to be monogamous, loyal, honest or dependable. Thank you, forgive me, I forgive you and I love you are all statements that require vulnerability and in turn lead to trust. They are simple expressions, but can be difficult to say and genuinely feel. In any couple’s relationship, if either partner feels unable to state one of these four expressions, it is an indication of a hurt or pain in themselves that they may not have acknowledged or addressed. If you have difficulty expressing these feelings to another, think about why you are stuck, and work to understand yourself so you can better communicate what you need to your partner. Relationships can improve if you understand what you need, and can communicate that clearly to your partner in a non-judgmental way.
If you feel stuck in some way in your relationship with your partner and unable to communicate your needs, feel free to contact us at 760 942-8663. Small changes can make big differences in your relationship.
Katie Militello, IMF, IPCC
Clinical Intern, Supervised by Sara Gilman, LMFT 21586
Coherence Associates, Inc.
Byock, Ira. (2014). The Four Things That Matter Most. 10th Edition, New York: Atria Books.