Towards the end of last year, I had to face the fact that my relationship with a close relative was not working for me. She lives far away so we would speak on the phone, and every time she called, I was left with a feeling of unease and anxiety.

We had been estranged for many years and as we got older, I had hoped to rebuild the relationship into a caring one.

Until the day when it became obvious that my efforts were being misread. What I saw as empathy and caring (this person is alone), she saw as weakness and hypocrisy. I was deeply hurt and had to face the facts that our starting points were a very different set of values and needs.

All along, I had not been comfortable with how I felt after her calls. It had gone from curious expectation at the beginning to anxiety and, at the end, clear avoidance, not wanting to pick up the phone for fear it was her on the line. It was then that I realised I had been giving her a power that she should never have been given. In an effort to “fix things” and mend this relationship, I had denied myself my own needs and values. It was never going to work.

It felt like such a liberation once that decision was made, and once more all the teaching about Non Violent Communication came to mind. We have to be honest about our own needs and feelings, while allowing the other person the same respect. It is the only way that relationships can flourish through deep communication from the heart about what’s really important to us.

According to Marshall Rosenberg, the American psychologist, there are some basic needs we must have met. Many of our relationships are based on these needs and whether they are met or not. He lists them as follows: Connection, autonomy, physical well being, honesty, play, peace, meaning. Coaching guru Tony Robbins has a similar list: certainty, variety, significance, connection, growth & contribution.

These are good touchstones against which to evaluate our relationships. Sometimes, something is wrong and we don’t even clearly know what it is, we just know something is missing. Many couples carry on regardless and try to ignore it, to their own hurt, because it will not go away. It is only through honest yet respectful communication about what it is we need that we can hope to re-balance the situation.

A lack of proper understanding of what each other needs is often the cause. In a marriage, the need for connection is not sufficiently recognised. Part of the problem is that people are different in the way they perceive love and caring.  Some need words of affirmation to feel, loved and connected, others need physical affection, others need acts of service, such as helping with the children in the evening, or offering to do the washing up (without being asked) after both have worked all day at full time jobs. I highly recommend the book “The Five Love Languages” by Gary Chapman. If you can, don’t just read it alone, make it a common project to learn about each other. Make it fun!

However, if things get so bad that a negative relationship has become the focal point of your mind, there are several options. Couples or relationship counselling are a very good option to get issues that are bearing on the couple out in the open so that they are clear. Sometimes one or both of the parties of a couple take some things for granted after some years, familiarity sets in and with it a lack of respect of the other person’s time, efforts, needs….. I have seen a young person go from being an outgoing and well spoken teenager to an introverted and unsure young mum, just as a result of the partner, a few years older than her, trying to “teach” and being always “right”. The relationship did not last as the young woman had to “fight” for each one of her opinions and just to be who she felt she was inside.

In general people are not purposely being mean to each other, they just don’t connect on the same level. There are some alternatives to accepting the situation that is not meeting the couples’ needs.  Getting informed is one: I highly recommend any of Marshall Rosenberg’s books on relationships. Another is getting some help from a coach or counsellor, another option, is to take a temporary break. It is good to remember however that “life” lasts a long time and few of us can manage to live for long periods of time in a stage of being dormant, of not receiving what we need. With time, that part of us tends to die, and a little bit of us dies with it.

Let’s take time as this year begins, to pause, to have an honest look into what our needs are and to communicate about them. This is a powerful way to change the dynamics of negative relationships that bring us down or tear us down. It is not always about breaking up  but about learning to express our unmet needs and recognising those of the other, and then work on meeting each other’s needs.

If you are struggling in your relationship, why not get in touch with us, we can help.

Some useful reading:
We can work it out (Marshall Rosenberg)
Getting past the pain (Marshall Rosenberg)
Raising children compassionately (Marshall Rosenberg)
The 5 love languages (Gary D Chapman)