I’m a relationship therapist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and work with couples that struggle with everything from everyday communication breakdown to the ultimate betrayal. I often ask my clients what they believe the secret to relationship satisfaction is. Some have said “Don’t go to bed angry.” Others believe it’s regular date nights away from the kids and work. One couple even said passion, sex and romance are the priority. While these are all wonderful examples of ways to increase connection and improve relationship fulfillment, none of which are wrong, I’m still struck by one client’s interpretation of what happily ever after was. She said this: “The best way I can describe true love is through my parents. They never gave up. Even when times were tough, they always kept their responsibility to each other. My mom still made dinner every night, even if she were angry with my father. My dad always went to work and never stormed out, no matter how frustrated he may have been. They stuck together and they stuck it out.”
This explanation resonated with me, especially in our current day. Couples come to me looking for a quick fix, which, given their current state of affairs, is understandable. They’re in hard times and struggling to dig themselves out. It is in these agonizing moments where I see people grappling with the idea of forever, and feeling overwhelmed by the thought. Disconnect then starts to take shape, fear about the future creeps in and partners then drift off into their own abyss. When this happens, it’s easy to throw “forever” out the window and cut ties with the one you love. I urge not only couples who come to me for help but those in any relationship that seems to be waning to consider that the secret to forever lies not just in happy times, but more so in times of significant despair, longing and fear. The ability to practice daily appreciation and generosity allows couples the wherewithal to manage the hard times that lie ahead.
It turns out that a significant body of research on what makes love last proves that my client’s perspective about her parents was right. In his groundbreaking book, “What Makes Love Last” by renowned marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman, Gottman reveals that long-lasting love is built on a deep-rooted foundation of friendship. This foundation is shaped by trust, compassion, kindness and empathy. When you practice these things daily, the stormy times are much easier to bear. Think of your dearest friend, for example. You go out of your way to support him or her; you treat them with respect and autonomy; you cheer them on and pick them up when they fall. Now think about your partner. Do you treat them the same way? Why is it that your spouse is often your biggest enemy instead of your most trusted ally?
Gottman goes on to say that all relationships have one law. Never to make the one you love feel alone, especially when you’re there. Isn’t it the worst feeling in the world to be in a room with someone but feel totally alone? Like you don’t matter? Or they don’t get you? Or worse, they’re your adversary and not your friend? I hear these complaints from a lot of my clients who are desperate for some relief. They want to trust that they’re partner will be there for them and not desert them. When past hurt and resentment seeps in, it’s easy to be stubborn and not step up when it might matter the most.
Couples who can learn how to put aside their anger and frustration fair similarly to that of my client’s parents and their 43 years of marriage. They come to understand that no matter how dire a situation their marriage is in, their partner will be there. The everyday moments of kindness and generosity prove crucial in being able to weather the rough patches as a united front. They trust that their partner will come through for their family, their jobs, their household duties and for each other. There is no question that they will not be abandoned. You see, it doesn’t matter if you’re feuding or angry to the bone. You built your foundation, and can live up to it no matter what. Showing commitment to one another through thick and thin strengthens your resolve as a couple. And as the years go by you will know that no matter what happens, your friend, your lover, your confidant, your spouse, will always be there.
And this is what I try to convey to my clients who come to see me battling with their marriage. I tell them the key is not to let past disappointments lie and bitterly stick it out. Instead, I urge couples to work on the everyday. Improve communication, do small things to show you care, find your friendship again, support one another and be there for each other. This is where healing takes place. Hope for the better comes in the moments of acknowledging the despair, coming together through the darkness and working it out by holding each other even if sometimes, you don’t want to.
April Eldemire is a relationship expert and Couplestrong blogger and has a private practice in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. To contact April, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.