Ask any couple who have been together for a long time what is the secret to their happiness, and they invariably have an answer – often along the lines of ‘Never go to bed angry’. Michael Leunig, writer and cartoonist put it simply: ‘Love one another and you will be happy. It’s as easy and as difficult as that.’

Truly it is both easy and difficult. On one hand love is, all at the same time, an ideal, a foundation and any number of practical actions. On the other, it is not surprising that couples can end up engaging in conflict when they are in a long-term relationship. The demands and stresses of everyday life can erode a couple’s enjoyment of one another. The pressures can become overwhelming, such as when there are financial difficulties and serious health issues. Just as challenging are different stages in life, particularly the arrival of children into a relationship – no one can entirely prepare for the adjustment that having a first child brings. All relationships have to change.

Relationships thus need to be able to change: this is part of the resilience that helps them survive and flourish. And in order to negotiate life’s changes, it is important to communicate as a couple in order to understand your partner at a deep level so as to be a real support to one another. Consider how you can do this effectively.

At times, people become anxious or angry because of events that occurred in their family of origin – events that have little to do with the present day but can be triggered by current pressures. Often, under anger or anxiety, lies hurt and pain: a partner’s behavior might remind us of a critical parent or a horrible teacher and we might react automatically with anger. Learning to listen –  really listen – to another person’s deepest feelings can enhance the closeness between you: “Can you tell me why you feel so upset about this….?”. The flip side is trusting your partner and genuinely opening up about what you feel: it is by revealing our vulnerability that we get closer to one another. Through talking and listening on a regular basis we can learn how to enrich our lives together.

John and Suzie

A couple – John and Susie – sought counselling after their relationship hit a huge stumbling block: John had slept with someone after a work function. He felt deep remorse and told his partner two days later; she was struggling to deal with it and to forgive him. After several sessions of counselling, both John and Susie had strengthened their relationship in many ways and were feeling much closer. Susie was able to acknowledge that at the time of John’s betrayal she was pushing him away. The couple gained a resilience that, as things turned out, would support them when Susie was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness six months later. Fortunately, she recovered well.

A few reminders of ways to enrich your relationship

•    Remember what attracted you to your partner when you first met – what are some of the qualities you liked?
•    Check that your expectations are reasonable – are you expecting your partner to be perfect?
•    Remember how much effort you made at the start of your relationship – increase your intimacy by planning surprises and dates!
•    Consider whether you put as much effort into your relationship as you do into your friendships.
•    Accept life’s stages such as the birth of children, financial pressure, illness and the normal ageing process.
•    Discuss shared goals and ask yourselves regularly “Is this good for our relationship?”
•    Take care of your own health and wellbeing.

Remember, if your relationship is not working, do something about it. Rather than leaving things until they become desperate, seek professional help such as relationship counseling.
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