Guest Post by Kari Brooke: “You and me babe…How about it?”

Karlaina Brooke received her doctorate in clinical psychology from Baylor University. She completed an APA-approved clinical internship at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, where she studied under two of the foremost psychologists in the field of sexual functioning, Sandra Leiblum, Ph.D. and Raymond Rosen, Ph.D. She is licensed to practice psychology in Oregon and Washington where she specializes in female and male sexual health, couples therapy, infertility and pregnancy loss, and postpartum depression and anxiety.

Last month, I had a great evening talking with FHM members about relationships—how important they are to us, how challenging it is to make time for them, and how fulfilling it is when the connection is secure. I wanted to summarize some key points for a blog post for those who weren’t able to attend.

Couples co-create the cycles (both the positive ones and negative) and stuck points that develop in their relationships, and both people can do a lot to repair the destructive patterns. If I have a complaint that I need to share with my partner, he is much better able to hear me, support me, and respond if I approach him in a way that is kind, clear, and without criticism or attack.

As a result, how the conversation goes is as much about how I approach him as it is about how he responds. I have a choice to either use a softened start-up to our conversation (“Hey, Honey, if you have a minute I’d like to talk with you about something I’m struggling with”) and own my own part of the issue (“I know that I could certainly be better about picking up after myself…”) or I can choose to come out in attack mode (“I can’t believe you did that again…”). Attacking or criticizing my partner encourages him to go on the defensive because it doesn’t feel safe for him to let his guard down or be vulnerable with me.

Sharing or asserting my needs in a kind, respectful way meets his needs for being treated fairly and enables him to hear and support me, which meets my needs. If you and your partner are stuck in an old pattern that you want to change, try to approach it in a way that identifies your needs, respects your partner, and enables them to move toward you so that you feel heard and you can solve it together. “I know we struggle with how to fit in enough family time on the weekends. It means so much to me to spend time together, and to see you playing with the kids or reading to them—it warms my heart so much. There’s nothing like the feeling I get from watching you spend quality time with the kids. So on the days that you get caught up at work late or spend a lot of time at the gym or on the computer, I just miss out on our time together or the joy of seeing you parent the kids—and seeing how much they love and adore you. I definitely don’t always strike a good balance between my work and our family time, and I hope we can talk about this more so that we’re both hitting a better balance.”

I also tried to stress in the talk that all of us have needs—needs for connection with others, the need to be liked and connected in relationships, and identity needs—roles that define us. Having those needs doesn’t make us “needy.” It’s not a weakness. It’s the human condition. Having insight into what those needs are (ie: I need to know that you see and value me; I need to spend time volunteering or helping others, I need to know that you love and need me, etc), being able to recognize when a need is not being met, and being able to share that with your partner are key life skills.

I think daily living is one part being able to meet our own needs, and one part asking others to help us satisfy those needs. Some days we can meet most of our needs, other days we really lean on our friends, partners, families. The combination of having positive self-soothing skills (knowing what works for you to self soothe and being able to do it), and the ability to identify an unmet need and reach out for soothing from another together keeps us healthy and thriving.

One more concept that we discussed a great deal was the goal of being able to hold onto one’s own reality or experience at the same time that you recognize that your partner is living a different reality at the same time. One person may feel criticized even if the other partner did not intend to criticize. One person can feel hurt even when the other was trying to be gentle. Rather than getting stuck in the all-too-familiar cycle: A: “You are doing X!” B: “No I’m not!” A: “Yes you are!”—try something different to slow down the moment. A: “I’m feeling really hurt, so I need a minute to respond.” B: “You’re feeling hurt? I didn’t mean to come across as harsh or hurtful. Let me try to say it again a different way.”

There’s so much to say about how good it feels to feel held and close to the one you love dearly and the person who knows you so well. And when that attachment feels threatened, either by a real or irrational threat, it can shake us to the core. Our loved ones don’t want us to feel lonely or fearful or hurt, so if we can approach them and let them know we’re struggling in a way that doesn’t feel accusing or hurtful, they will usually feel compelled to move toward us with reassurance and love, thus soothing our fears and reinforcing our attachment to one another.

At the risk of getting too long-winded, I want to share one more thought. Assume the best. When in doubt, if we are able to assume the best of our partners, it will help us to fill in blanks when we’re not sure of the other’s intention or at times when there are details or information missing. When our partners sees us assuming the best of them, they feel loved and cared for and they soften and put down their guard (if their defenses were up). It can slow down or prevent an argument, or reinforce a positive exchange. (e.g.” You’re really late tonight—you must have had a really long day/traffic must have been awful tonight/I bet you wish you were home hours ago.”) It can be hard to make ourselves vulnerable, even with those to whom we are the closest.

So I leave you with the hope and wish for each of you to know and practice the ways we can self-soothe when we need it, the ability and willingness to take the risk to share with our partner when we are struggling and need reassurance, and the vulnerability to let down our guard and let our partners in. There’s so much more to say (I didn’t even get a chance to talk about intimacy!), so I hope you and your partner will go on a journey together to talk about your relationship, read some good resources, and, if needed, spend a little time with a couples therapist. It’s worth the investment and the time and effort will pay back dividends.