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Can Crises Make Your Relationship Better?

All people, at some times in their lives, face loss, grief

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

My grandmother came from a time and a place where she expected that extreme peril was likely to happen to her and her family at any moment. Though she died when I was still a child, she left me with many of her stern axioms:

“Never go to bed angry.”

“Remember that you have no guarantee you will ever see someone you love the next day.”

“Pay attention to the things you would miss if that happened.”

“If someone never comes back, will you regret what you said or didn’t say?”

“What makes you think you’ll always have another chance?”

“Don’t live in past heartaches and anticipate future ones. You will never appreciate what you have in between.”

In the four decades I have worked with individuals and couples, I have always kept her words in my mind and heart. When someone leaves my office, I silently say goodbye forever, because I know life is unpredictable and I may never see that person again. If we have the opportunity to meet again, I feel the blessing of having another moment together.

It is a sad thing that so many people only remember those gifts when they are facing the potential of unbearable loss or in the middle of a crisis.

“I’ll never take things for granted again.”

“From now on, I’m going to not worry about things I can’t control.”

“I promise to be grateful for what I have, and not focus on what I don’t have.”

“I need to learn to keep perspective rather than get bogged down with stupid things that don’t matter.”

“I know now what is truly important and I’ll never forget.”

“I’m never going to go back to the person I was before.”

Only too often, they forget them when the crisis is over. They more often fall away as normal life resumes, but they needn’t let that happen. If they are, instead, committed to do so, intimate partners can transform their relationship through heartbreak, loss, and disruption. They can practice new behaviors during those times that will actually make their relationship stronger when the crisis is over.

All people, at some times in their lives, face loss, grief, fear, and insecurity about the future. If they can transform through those experiences, they will not only grow stronger in their love and respect for each other, but be better prepared when their next challenge emerges.

When couples come in to see me, they are often in the middle of a crisis. I try to help them to commit to turning their heartaches into the possibility for a better future. Of course, we must first process their legitimate heartbreaks and disillusionments. But, as soon as possible, I urge them to use their current distress as a hope-springboard for positive change.

When they’ve been able to move them from fear to courage and from overwhelm to determination, their love, trust, and respect for each other deepens. I know then that they will face the next challenge in their life more connected and effective as a mutually supportive team.

The four following behavioral changes are what they must be willing to adopt to make their transformation possible:

1. Learning to Debrief Rather Than to Rehash

When people feel overwhelmed or powerless during a time of sorrow, they often endlessly recount the heartbreaks they experienced after the crisis ends. Having held their emotions in check to survive the hard time, they now unravel them, often blaming each other for what they could have, or should have, done differently.

This is what rehashing looks like:

  • “Why weren’t you nicer to me when I was so afraid?”

  • “You tried to control everything that was going on. You wouldn’t listen to me.”

  • “I don’t know if I can ever forgive you for not helping more.”

  • “Why wouldn’t you let me help you? I felt erased.”

Debriefing is a completely different process. Its goal is to use the past as a way to change the future.

This is what debriefing sounds like:

  • “Now that we can breathe, let’s go back over how we handled it and what we could have done better.”

  • “I’m really sorry if I said things that hurt you when I was afraid. I know I took out my fears and frustrations on you.”

  • “Let’s plan for the next challenge together and how we can work better as a team.”

Rehashing reproduces the negatives of what happened during the crisis, deepening the wounds. Debriefing chronicles the past without judgment, makes a mutual plan for the future, with hope for a better outcome.

2. Holding on to a New Perspective

Crises sharpen our point of view even while we feel we are drowning. Even when we are feeling grief, fear, and trauma, our brains are processing what is important and what we need to focus on to survive. We shut out what is unimportant and pay attention to what works.

We’re also without boundaries or protection and trust too much or not enough. Still, life is not the same and, sometimes, will never be again. We resist the forced changes and try desperately to hope they are temporary, so we can resume life as we knew it again.

Familiarity is gone, but so are limitations. People often found themselves able to do things they never thought possible before. They have learned how remarkably brave and different they have become after they have survived the sorrow.

If they hold on to that new self-awareness, they also hold onto the beauty that can accompanies it, the strengths they have mastered, and the relationships they’ve built.

“I never knew people cared that much.”

“I thought I would never be OK again, but I know things about myself now I never did before.”

“I’ve been living my life all wrong. I know now what I should have been focusing on all along. I can see things so differently now. I don’t want to ever forget this.”

“I can’t ever take things for granted again. I’ve got to find a way to remember this for the rest of my life.”

3. Keeping Your Word

How can you differentiate the promises you made under stress from the true intention to honor them in the future? How can you ensure that you will embrace permanent, courageous, productive change rather than forget who you were and what you were able to do when you were buried in fear and anxiety?

These steps will help:

1. Assess what you were like before you faced this crisis?

Make two lists. On the first, write down each of your dissatisfactions with your life before the crisis occurred. Give each thought or feeling a number from one to ten as to how much time and energy you put into experiencing them. Were they resolved by the energy you gave to them?

On the second list, write down everything you treasured and appreciated about yourself and your relationship. Also give each item on the list a number from one to ten as to how much you thought about those blessings.

2. Who do you want to become?

During the crisis, you were dissembled, trying desperately to hold things together. You saw into the depth of your capability to get through and what held you back from being the person you wished you could have been. From that view, you can put yourself together in a whole new way. That resolve will make the crisis a point of transformation rather than a permeating and forever loss.

Looking at your two lists, what will you need to change to create a life of more satisfaction and less disenchantment in the future?

Do you need different people around you?

Are you treating your body with care and appreciation?

Does your life have the purpose and dreams you want it to?

What habits and behaviors that have never worked for you do you need to leave behind?

And what did you learn about yourself and your partner that will bond you closer to each other in the future?

4. What do you need to help you hold on to your new commitment?

Your hardship has left you traumatized, insecure, and frightened. Expert guidance you can trust is crucial right now. Do not turn to people for help who have reinforced the old thoughts, feelings, and behaviors you want to leave behind.

It is often better to utilize an objective, professional person to help. Trauma can make us blind to possibilities and prone to double down and do what has helped us get over heartbreaks in the past but at the expense of the expansion we desperately need to create now.

When hope is not visible, faith must prevail. Look back into the times in your life when you, or people you’ve known, have turned their lives around for the better after they have survived a painful time. Talk to those who have made that happen and ask them how they were able to not only prevail through the hardship, but end up more self-respecting, secure, and hopeful than before it happened.

My free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love.

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