Relationships, like individuals, go through ups and downs and different stages of growth and development. David Richo, Ph.D., who has written a number of books integrating the psychological and spiritual, suggests in How to Be An Adult in Relationships, that relationships go through three phases: (1) Romance, (2) Conflict and (3) Commitment. Each phase challenges our ability to show up, pay attention, tell the truth, ask for what we need and want, and let go of attachment to the outcome. A characteristic of the conflict phase is that we begin to be more aware of, and have less favorable perceptions of, the differences between our partner and ourselves. In the conflict phase, people often experience deep ambivalence about the relationship and wonder if it is viable for the long term.
In my experience, all long-term relationships have crises. Our response to those crises produces one of three possible results: (1) the partners avoid the pain triggered by the crises, neither working through it nor ending the relationship, choosing instead to live within a relationship of diminished life and intimacy; (2) the current form of the relationship (such as a marriage or living together) is ended; or (3) the foundation of the relationship is re-examined and partners learn more healthy ways of relating, thereby rejuvenating their energies and commitment.
Pia Mellody, internationally recognized author and expert on codependence, recovery and personal boundaries, describes healthy relationships as having the following characteristics:
- Each partner views the other realistically.
- Each partner takes responsibility for personal growth.
- Each partner takes responsibility for staying in an Adult Ego State.
- Each partner can focus on solutions to problems.
- Each partner can be intimate with and support the partner a reasonable amount of the time.
- Each partner has developed a life of “abundance.”
- Each partner can negotiate and accept compromise.
- Each person is usually able to enjoy the partner despite the differences between them.
Recent developments in the fields of Attachment Theory, Emotionally Focused Therapy, Neuroscience and Mindfulness provide valuable insights and tools for developing more healthy relationship patterns. Attachment Theory, building on the groundbreaking work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, posits that human motivation for bonding is even more primary than our desires for food and sex. As human beings, we need a “secure base” in the form of “attachment relationships” throughout our lives to provide a safe haven in times of fear or vulnerability and a springboard for our exploration of, and personal expression in, the world. Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples, made available to the general public through Susan Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight, gives us a roadmap for identifying, understanding and changing the destructive patterns we develop in intimate partnerships in response to hidden or acknowledged fears that our needs for a “secure base” have not been or won’t be met. Neuroscience teaches us how fear shuts down our decision-making “executive function.” It also provides a map to different ways of processing information and how each of us is predisposed to prefer one way of filtering and processing information over the others, thereby explaining many communication break-downs. Mindfulness teaches us how to achieve and return to a state of attuned awareness, which is particularly valuable when our reactivity gets triggered.
Relationship Mediation is a facilitated process for addressing mutually developed goals and intentions for improved relational dynamics and communication. In some cases, participants may work with individual therapists to support the process. The depth of improvement depends in part on:
- Each participant’s ability to acknowledge different points of view
- Each participants capacity for empathy for self and other
- Each participant’s ability to recognize when his or her fear, anger or hurt has been triggered, thereby setting off a pattern of reactivity
- Each participant’s willingness to recognize unhealthy patterns of communication when they are pointed out
- Each participant’s willingness to address addictive behaviors
- Each participant’s willingness to recognize and make efforts to change his or her own behaviors that contribuite to unheatlhy patterns
- All participant’s desires to reduce the drama in their lives.
Relationship Mediation can be adapted for business partners, parents and adult children, siblings or any other group of people in relationships that are important to them.