Building the strength to sail through hard times
It was a strange coincidence that I sat down to write this article the day after reading a relationship advice column in a popular newspaper and perusing the hundreds of comments from invested readers. A married man was feeling tempted by a workplace fling, despite being deeply in love with his wife. Many readers wrote in with stories of their own similar experiences and how they had moved past them, and I found myself struck by the remarkable ebbs and flows of our relationships. Their stories proved that even when things seem like they’re at a breaking point, resilient relationships can find a way to bounce back stronger than ever.
Stephanie Davis, a registered clinical counsellor based in Vancouver, defines a resilient relationship as “one that has a malleable capacity to stretch, to ebb, and to flow with whatever circumstances life may throw at it.”
According to Davis, these are relationships where partners hold equal space for each other, commit to developing effective communication skills, and work together to move through challenges.
Resilient relationships are dynamic: members are continually looking for ways to improve their connection and better show up for each other.
Common problems that Davis sees in her office include a lack of connection or loss of intimacy, poor communication, differing views around childrearing, differing life goals, or extramarital relationships.
There are many ways that you can work to build resilience in your relationship to weather these experiences and more.
Davis says that, often, couples only seek professional help when they’re already in crisis, but, ideally, therapy can be used as a tool to build connections and establish healthy communication habits before challenges arise.
She also recommends that people seek individual counselling, either alongside or before seeking couple’s therapy, to help them develop a greater sense of self-awareness and empathy.
Good communication is the key to a resilient relationship. Davis recommends listening to your partner with all your senses, paying attention to tone, body language, and subtext. If the meaning of something they say isn’t clear, ask for clarification.
It might sound prescriptive to stop and summarize your partner’s thoughts, but what we think we’re hearing is often influenced by our own stories, emotions, and experiences, rather than our partner’s own feelings.
In an episode of the TED Radio Hour, renowned Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel explains how our reactions to many relationship challenges are influenced by societal norms, and says that every couple should figure out what works best for them outside of influence and expectations. That said, sharing can make you feel less alone and help you to navigate the path ahead.
Davis says that people often feel a lot of shame when they’re struggling in their relationships, particularly in these social media-saturated days when people around us seem to be living perfect lives.
“I always encourage people to share to the degree that feels safe and not overexposing for them,” says Davis, “which usually means finding those safe people that can hold tenderly the vulnerability that comes with this kind of pain and struggle without giving advice or imposing shame.”
Although therapy is the gold standard to navigate relationship issues, there’s plenty of room to branch out—alone or together.
Acupuncture can help with anxiety, insomnia, depression, and chronic pain, allowing us to show up in relationships as more balanced versions of ourselves.
Couples’ massages can help to restore connection and affection, as can going on a just-you-two vacation or exploring spicier practices such as tantra.
Participating in discussion groups is another great way to get clarity and support. “I am a big fan of groups, as they tend to bring our greatest challenges to the surface real fast, yet are often met with compassion and understanding by others,” says Davis.
If you’re looking to build relationship resilience, above all, avoid playing “the blame game.” Davis says it never resolves anything and, instead, perpetuates shame and discourages accountability. If your emotions are running high and you can’t control how you react to conflict, it’s best to take a break until you can find the space to engage in active listening once again.
We get caught up in navigating relationships with other people, but having a healthy relationship with yourself is just as important. Whether you’re in an external relationship or not, take the time to practise self-care and cultivate positive self-talk.
If you notice sudden changes in your partner’s everyday habits or behaviour, they might be experiencing issues with their mental health. These changes might make you feel alienated, but it’s important not to pull away. Instead, talk to your partner about the ways these changes make you feel, and encourage them to get professional help.
According to a recent study, using text messages to settle disagreements is associated with perceived lower relationship quality for women, while men perceive lower relationship quality when they’re texting too much.
If you’re going through a rough patch, avoid a flurry of text exchanges and, instead, try writing longer letters or emails, which can allow for more self-reflection and depth.