How to Cope When Life Interrupts Your Relationship
Have you ever been in a situation where you feel you are happily ticking along? Life feels good. Life seems good for your partner too. Even better, the two of you seem to be ticking along together remarkably well.
Then your partner drops a bombshell. He or she suggests a big change. They want to throw all that 'ticking along happiness' into the air and suddenly the ground beneath you shifts. It opens up and you're falling. And you can't quite catch a foot hold, let alone a hand hold.
Or maybe things haven't been that great. Maybe you've been scratching your heads together for a while but haven't come up with an answer.
Perhaps you're happy but you suspect your partner isn't quite as happy as you are. You bury the thought and just hope he'll 'man up quietly'. Or that she'll just 'get over it' and everything will be fine.
And then the bombshell. A new job perhaps, far from home, far from your friends and family. Far from the school your child has just settled into. Far from your own job.
Worse still, you know that now that your partner has caught the vision, they will never be able to settle again. And you can't even find a place to process it in your own head.
There are two essential reactions to avoid in this situation.
The first is that you try to change your partner’s mind. You gather in all your best persuasive powers and push hard to stay put. You use the children, you use the grandparents, you use the dog. You are just too scared to contemplate losing this one. And the fear does an excellent job of keeping a balanced view way out of sight. It feels like a life or death situation and you must win at all costs. But your win will be at the expense of your partner. Because in this mind-set, you have forgotten that you are a team, that you either lose together or win together.
The second bad reaction is to cave in to avoid the tension and to keep the peace. Compromise has no place in this situation either. Many people think that relationships are about compromise but I disagree. Yes, they are about small daily compromises that are unimportant on the grand scale of things. But giving yourself up over something big does not bode well for the long-term. It can lead to resentment. And unresolved resentment can end up as contempt.
Couples are often afraid of conflict and assume it means they have a bad relationship. But conflict can be good for growth as long as you repair well. And in this case, as long as you know how to negotiate.
Successful negotiation needs preparation. The first thing to do is to find out where this new challenge sits in your relationship. Does it sit between you and separate you? If so, then take it out and put it on the table in front of you - then move onto the same team and start the work together. Identify your shared values for the negotiation first. Then identify your goals.
Prepare yourselves by asking what anxiety feels like in your body when you’re triggered. Find your own soothing mechanism that you can use during the process when you begin to feel upset.
Next break the bombshell down into pieces. What does it mean? What is important? What do you think, what do you feel, what do you want and why?
Once all your cards are on the table, it can be helpful to put a value on them. Perhaps a number according to their importance to you. Quantify each piece. How important is it? Are some more important? Others less so?
Consider how both options might turn out for you - with an open mind. Knowing what you want is not the same as getting what you want. However, it is an essential part of negotiation because you must be standing on your own ground before you can choose how and where to move to. It must be an ‘I chose this because’, not an ‘I had no choice, I had to keep him/her happy’.
It is vital that you know what you want on your own behalf, and then you can ask yourself what you might want on your partner’s behalf. In this way we take responsibility for our choices.
Win-win solutions are hard to attain and require a lot of self –awareness, patience and especially a lot of courage. You will need to be curious and genuinely interested in your partner’s values, reasons and preferences. Most importantly, remember that negotiation is an ongoing process. It is not a single event.
If this seems like really hard work – it is. But it can be fun too. I know from experience because my husband and I went through it several years ago when we moved country, continent, culture and language – with our three children. And then we went through it again nearly 20 years later when we moved home. But it was worth it because at no time has either of us been able to blame the other for the tough stuff in the new place because each one of us made the choice ourselves – with both feet.