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Jason and Francesca live busy lives. Jason runs two businesses, and between the two of them, they have four kids from previous marriages and many extracurricular activities to attend. Lately, it has become tough to spend time together. A rushed lunch during the week or a couple of hours alone at the weekend is all they seem to manage. What complicates the situation is that Jason tends to take on too much. He feels the financial pressure of being self-employed and wants to be a good father and a helpful friend. So even though he longs to spend time with Francesca as much as she does with him, their plans are often cut short, postponed or cancelled.
After another argument at the weekend, they see me for a session. Some unforeseen events and others, due to miscalculations, have postponed Jason for three hours on Sunday. Francesca tried to be considerate and understand that work and the children were more important than her. However, when Jason finally comes home after customers, the kids and a friend have delayed him, Francesca is angry. She feels unimportant and taken for granted. It is hard for her to communicate her feelings calmly, and Jason responds with defensiveness to her criticism. Their limited time together is overshadowed by conflict. What can this couple do?
Clinical psychologist Joanne Davila names three core skills we need to develop for “romantic competence” and “healthy romantic relationships.”
First, let us define a “healthy” love relationship. Dr. Gottman’s research into the longevity of marriages has shown that “relationship masters” interact in a certain way with each other. He observed mutual respect, deep friendship, trust and commitment. On the other hand, warning signs of a deteriorating relationship are the four horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
With the “masters,” there is a turning towards each other instead of away. That includes allowing the partner to express all their feelings without becoming defensive, minimizing, turning away or attacking back. Instead, successful partners strive to understand their partner’s perspective and validate their experience.
On the other hand, the sharing partner needs to deliver criticism gently so it can be heard. It requires getting in touch with their feelings and choosing their words carefully to make I-statements free of blame. Successful couples are aware of the impact their words and actions have on their partner.
Relationship masters are also focused on what works well in the partnership instead of what is wrong. They express appreciation for their partner’s words and actions, including their efforts. They are willing to do the work to keep the love in the relationship alive instead of taking the marriage or their partner for granted.
These “masters” have “romantic competence” to allow their marriage or long-term relationship to survive and thrive. Joanne Davila defines romantic competence as “the ability to function adaptively across all areas or all aspects of the relationship process [including] . . . figuring out what you need, finding the right person, building a healthy relationship, [and] getting out of relationships that are unhealthy”.
According to Davila, the three core skills behind romantic competence are insight, mutuality and emotional regulation.
Insight is required to minimize disappointed expectations and misunderstandings in our interactions with others. That insight is two-fold. We need to know who we are, what we want and why we react and behave a certain way. We also need insight into our romantic partner. Who are they, what are their values and needs, and why do they do things a certain way?
Insight is only possible with the willingness to be introspective and become an observer of ourselves in human interactions. We must become curious about our triggers and “shadows.” Other people serve as our mirrors and reflect what we are identified with or have disowned. They can activate our previous experiences and traumas through their words or behaviour.
With insight, Francesca can become aware of who Jason is and what her needs and expectations are. Jason is a man who works hard but also takes on too much. He wants to please everybody and ends up disappointing others in the process. He makes promises he cannot keep, largely unaware of how this affects his partner. For her, a broken promise is worse than not making a commitment to her. Francesca herself is somebody who values reliability and predictability. She was not a priority in her family of origin or her previous marriage. Hence the situation with Jason triggers her into feeling unimportant again.
Mutuality is about the awareness that both partners have needs and negotiating those successfully. Each partner needs to be able to tune into their needs and express them successfully while being open to also hearing the partner’s needs. With mutuality, we are able to consider each other when making a decision.
In our couple’s case, Jason made several choices without fully considering the impact on Francesca. He put customers, his kids and even a friend’s needs before Francesca’s. She, in turn, also made decisions which affected her. One of her decisions was not clearly expressing her needs to Jason or making alternate plans. When they communicated their values and needs in the session, they realized different assumptions they made due to a lack of insight and mutuality.
3. Emotional Regulation
When we don’t feel safe, and an old trauma resurfaces, our nervous system is triggered into a fight or flight response. Francesca went into her natural go-to, “fight,” angrily expressing her emotions, and Jason felt he needed to defend and protect. He wanted to run.
The skill of emotional regulation means improving our ability to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and knowing how to calm our nervous system down. Self-soothing during a time out, as well as being able to co-regulate with your partner, are essential before a couple can have a productive conversation.
Coaching or therapy sessions help individuals and couples to develop deeper insight,
practice negotiating diverging needs and learn to calm their nervous systems.
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