Bond through life passages — 08 June 2007
How to improve your couple connection during stressful times

Shared joyous life events provide an opportunity for couples to deepen their connection. How they deal with difficult life challenges is often a greater gauge of their bond to each other.

Emotional intimacy often blossoms when couples interact in conversations, activities, experiences, or even tasks that are cooperatively done.

Couples may also delight in their children’s lives as another mutual accomplishment of having created and bred such wonderful offspring. When their children experience social, emotional, educational or physical challenges, the parents often team up to facilitate their youngsters’ woes.

Couples may share mutual interests, tastes and hobbies that keep them close and happy. Some love partners are also work mates or closely associated with each other’s job. Being best friends elsewhere and at home only increases their attachment to each other and their sense of security and happiness.

It is during times of trauma or difficulty of one or both partners that their committed strength is put to the test. When illness, failure, financial hardships, family needs, social, emotional or relationship difficulties arise, their endurance, perseverance and selfless love are most needed.

For example, in 2004, Contact a Family, a British publication for families with disabled children, conducted a study of more than 2000 families to assess the impact of caring for a disabled child on the parents’ relationship. The responses varied from: “the breakup of my marriage was a direct result of giving birth to a disabled child” to “After early relationship difficulties, we are now much closer”. The survey did not attempt to address the reasons for the divergence in couples’ response to their child’s disability. It can only be assumed that some pairs are stronger than others in their commitment to each other and have greater coping ability during adversity.

My clinical impressions are that compassion, deep love and other-mindedness play vital roles in one’s ability to withstand the stress caused by troublesome situations.

The psychoanalyst, Dr. Karen Horney, diverged from the Freudian theory by stating that not all conflicts stem from childhood experiences. She added the social concepts of “Moving Towards” “Moving Away from” or “Moving Against” people as contributors to understanding human connection. Using her construct, the “moving towards” each other is the energy needed to create and maintain strong loving unions.

Whatever minor or major difficulties couples encounter, the attitude of caring and unity are paramount in alleviating stress. Emotional heartbreak often occurs when the anticipated support, help and compassion are not forthcoming. As the saying states: “A friend in need is a friend indeed”. When the need is apparent and the help is scarce, hurt and abandonment are likely to be felt. Being cared about always matters, but is essential during hard times.

The burden of supporting a partner during times of physical or emotional pain deprives the mate of personal time, comfort, or self-care for the sake of helping the other heal. Short -term inhibition of one’s needs for the sake of a loved one are more manageable than those that require a longer commitment. The capacity for empathy, caring and self-sacrifice during a mate’s short illness is more abundant. A chronic ailment demands extensive self-denial of one’s needs, which fewer people can graciously tolerate.

Being a good partner during stressful times requires:

• Supporting your mate during his/her times of stress is the highest level of love and commitment.
• Viewing intimacy not only as the bonding during good times but also and more importantly in response to stressful events.
• Giving in a form of selfless love, without resentments or self-pity. Knowing that your partner would have been there for you had the situation been reversed.
• Avoiding the urge to withdraw, ignore, feel imposed upon or victimized by your mate.
• Finding the rewards of compassion and love as a gift to you in attaining your higher self.
• Taking time to recharge and care for yourself, so you can continue to be a help to your mate.
• Soliciting the help of others to reduce the burden and allow others to show their caring for your mate.
• Concentrating on making your partner more comfortable physically or emotionally.
• Using cooperation, respect and good listening skills when the stress is a mutual issue such as finances, children, family or home.
• Always affirming your partner’s feelings and wishes as well as your own in solving mutual difficulties. Nothing is more intimate than being understood and validated.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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