Getting the balance back in intimate relationships

We all have a pretty clear picture of what it feels like to have the balance right in our relationships - when it's going well we feel connected, heard and understood by our partner. We use expressions like "we're able to work as a team", "we trust each other", "we're able to talk through issues and work things out" to capture our sense that things are as they should be.

When our relationship is out of balance, as well as feeling that these things are no longer happening, we may complain that we are not being listened to or understood by our partner. We may also experience a profound sense of loneliness and loss - loss of the relationship we did have, and even a sense of anger or frustration that it's happened.

When relationships are going well, we use a number of strategies to maintain balance in an ongoing, dynamic way. These may include:-

  • letting my partner know that s/he's upset me, and that s/he needs to say or do something to make me feel better.
  • either withdraw or feel the need to be more intensely connected than usual.
  • experience more conflict than usual, about things that may or may not be directly connected to the underlying issue that has created the imbalance.
  • draw on extra resources (family, friends, professional counselling) to get support either individually or as a couple.
These are responses to imbalance that are all directed at returning things to how they were before.
But what do we do when returning to how things were is either impossible, or not wanted by either one or both partners? This may happen at times of change or transition, for example:-
  • one partner develops a serious and chronic illness
  • the arrival of a child
  • children moving out of home
  • moving interstate or overseas
  • one partner moves into a job that pays more, and/or requires more time and energy that the previous job
In all of these scenarios, healthy relationships need to create a new balance, rather than return to the old way of doing things. When this is needed, often our accustomed ways of restoring balance can be ineffective, or even create more problems.
We may need to undertake some pioneering work together, and re-vision our relationship to fit the new circumstances. We may need to ask a different set of questions of ourselves and each other that can serve to update our internal maps of ourselves, our partner and our relationship, such as:-
  • Who am I now? Who is my partner now? 
  • Who do I aspire to be in this stage of my life? What relationship do I want to have that supports this?
  • What sort of partner do I aspire to be, given our current situation?
It's possible that fundamental changes may need to happen to support your shift to the new life-stage you find yourself in.
You may need to work on creative solutions, not only to what you do, but how you choose to be in your relationship. For example:-
  • A woman who has stayed at home to raise her children decides she wants to have a career, now the children are older. She needs her husband to pick up more of the unpaid workload at home. After struggling with this initially, he is able to see it as an opportunity to step back a little from his very stressful job, and to create a better work/life balance for himself.
  • A couple where one partner has been diagnosed with chronic illness have some difficult but frank discussions about what the illness will mean for their sex-life. They agree to work with the doctor to experiment with medications that affect the unwell person's libido less, even if this means the medication is slightly less effective in managing his symptoms.
When couples are prepared to work with the signs of imbalance as an opportunity to understand what's changed, and work on establishing a new balance that accommodates the needs of each partner, they are often able to creatively generate new and unique solutions to their difficulties.
Till next post, Vivienne

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