Walking through the halls of a church a few years ago I saw a poster for a class and in big letters it said, “It’s Complicated” and then in smaller letters, “A class on relationships.” This struck me because while I know relationships are complicated, I wondered how much we complicate them unnecessarily.
As a Marriage and Family Therapist I see daily how complicated relationships can be, but I also see how complicated we can make our relationships. My goal is to help people avoid unnecessarily complicating their relationships, and I came up with three ways we do this.
The first way we complicate things in relationships is by trying to take responsibility for the other person in our relationship. We take responsibility for their emotions, their happiness, their time, etc., and what begins as a well-meaning attempt to make their lives better quickly turns into an impossible task. What happens when all your attempts fail to keep your partner or child or family member happy? Usually you try harder and harder until you finally realize you can’t do it! You can’t control another human being and it gets complicated!
Here’s how to simplify this: Remember that you have a responsibility to the other person, not for the other person Your responsibility is for yourself, but not for the other person. You bring your best to the relationship, but you can’t take over for the other person. Sounds simple, and it is, but putting it in to practice can be challenging. Why? Because you have to give up control of the other person. You have to allow them to feel and think and behave so they can grow, and you might not like the way they do it.
To give you an illustration, I received a questionnaire back that I sent a prospective client who stated his main problem was that his wife was unhappy. When he answered the question, “What have you tried to do to solve your problem?”, he wrote me a list of about 20 things he had tried to do to make his wife happy and they had all failed. Now, he was very resentful of his wife because she was not changing and he felt helpless. No matter what he did, she was still unhappy! Through therapy he learned how to quit taking responsibility for her and start taking responsibility for himself and focus on his responsibility to her—to support her, to listen to her, to cherish her. Then, he was able to make the changes in himself that he needed to and it took a ton of pressure off his wife to be happy for him and she was able to express what she needed and what she was feeling.
The second way we complicate our relationships is by putting all of our needs in one relationship. I read and research a lot about marriage and here’s one of the biggest things coming up: we now expect more out of our marriages than ever before. Why? Because for most of history marriage was mainly about personal, financial, and social stability of those involved, especially for women. Being passionately in love with someone was not a prerequisite or an expectation for marriage like it is now. In the United Staes in 2019, marriage is not seen as a means for economic stability but as a means for emotional stability, romance, and growth. Of those, our culture really pushes for romance and passion as the most important facets of marriage.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, it is just a new thing. Now, one of the most important qualities for a man is to be emotional stable and connected. Can you see the problem, here? What have men been historically and socially trained to avoid, see as pointless, or not deal with? You guessed it, emotion! Men are having to learn how to be emotional after be told for so long not to be. This is not an excuse for men, but a reality to face and a place for men to grow.
Another consequence of this change has been men and women having less friendships outside their marriage. Men and women are having to learn how to be husband and wife, best friend, confidant, lover, and emotional supporter all at the same time. That’s a tall order! Having close same-sex relationships, something I believe is very important for people and marriages, is becoming less and less common as we lean on our spouses to be our best friends. We need more friends than just our spouse to be healthy in life.
To simplify this one, you need to make sure you are not putting all your needs on your partner and make sure you have other people that you are close to and that you can go to for friendship and support. As a man I need other men in my life who can listen to me and can support me when I am struggling as a man or husband. I do not need to put all this on my wife—I’ve tried and she just gets stressed and resentful. She does not need to be my only support. What makes a marriage complicated is trying to switch between lover, supporter, protector, friend, advisor, etc., all the time. It is important have a best friend outside your marriage to help balance this, and this friend needs to be of the same gender who strongly supports your marriage.
For women, I do not envy you. I believe many women have been raised in so much competition and distrust with each other that it can feel really vulnerable to be close with other women. There is a reason the Mean Girls type movies exist. I’ve talked to my wife and other women about this and have heard how difficult it can be to not feel judged by other women. However, there are ways other women can support you and hear you and love you that your husband cannot.
The third way we complicate relationships is by not truly listening to each other. Listening is a lost art, and so few of us do it well. I believe if we would listen and really try to understand each other, we would have a lot less problems (I’d venture to say at least 75% less).
I’ll be the first to confess I struggle listening. As much as I teach it to others, I still struggle to hold back my thoughts before I really understand someone. Listening takes serious effort while talking is so easy to do. We have a term we therapists like to call active listening, which means to listen with the intent to understand someone else and to give verbal and non-verbal feedback that we are listening. Listening is not a passive action, but an intentional act.
To simplify this, learn to listen. Practicing giving someone else your ears and not taking over the conversation or jumping in before you really understand them. Ask questions about what the other person is saying and take time to listen to them. I don’t know about you, but when I feel like someone is truly listening to me, I feel honored and comfortable and valued.
One of my greatest joys in life is to help others find more joy and passion in their lives so they can live amazing lives. I love helping people simplify and uncomplicated their relationships so they can love more fully and more completely. If you would like to work with me, you can contact me at New Vision Counseling at (405) 921-7776.
In addition, we have other great therapists at New Vision that are more than happy to help you on the same journey. I encourage you to seek out help if you are feeling like you are in a place you don’t want to be emotionally or spiritually, whether that is in your individual life or in your relationships. Please reach out and let us help you discover what better looks like for you and then equip you with the tools to create it. We can be reached at (405) 921-7776 or go to NewVisionCounseling.live to find out more.