Again, take the time to read through these with your partner, and discuss the challenges of each. Doing so can help you create a stronger couple relationship.
Task #4: Cope with crises. In any family, crises are inevitable – and often unanticipated. For stepfamilies, these crises may pop up even more given unexpected drop bys from the ex or problems with the kids. Learning to cope with crises involves several skills:
- Learning to realistically acknowledge and think about the consequences of a crisis. That means both people must work to maintain perspective, distinguish between their fears of the worst case scenario and reality, and try to consider how the crisis will affect everyone.
- Protecting one another by not blaming, in spite of the temptation to do just that.
- Taking steps to allow some degree of pleasure (i.e., humor or doing something enjoyable together) back into their lives so they are not living and wallowing in the crisis.
- Not playing the martyr and pretending to be saintly! This is very important for the good of the relationship.
- Taking steps to block a crisis you could see coming if possible by intervening early. In other words, don’t wait for the crisis to come so you can tell your spouse what an idiot they were and that you were right. Take the higher road when you can and intervene early. If you can’t, then sit down with your partner after the crisis happens and talk it through.
Task #5: Make a safe place for conflict. All couples need to work together as a couple to develop a safe way to have conflict. This is for the good of the relationship. There are things we do for our own good (and most of us like to be right and righteous or defensive and angry), but for the good of the relationship, we need to make conflict safe. This honors and respects the relationship itself. Without a safe way, you can only hurt one another. Any comments made out of anger or hurt, once said and expressed, are very hard to take back.According to Wallerstein, successful couples:
- Create a safety zone, which means that you agree that strong anger won’t breach the walls of the marriage, and the relationship will stay secure no matter what.
- Don’t engage in physical violence – ever.
- Can state their mind without dire consequences, meaning no name calling, no screaming, no attacking and no intentional hurting.
- Never use their partner’s vulnerabilities against them.
- Become realistic about the stresses and strains of life so they don’t fight over non-issues.
- Have a maturity and sensitivity to their partner’s needs.
- Are able to distinguish between little problems and big ones.
- Maintain the marriage as the focus so the marriage itself becomes stronger, rather than maintaining a personal victory focus of “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
Task #6: Keep love and sexual intimacy strong. This doesn’t mean having a lot of sex, but it does mean making time for love and intimacy and focusing on this in the marriage. Strong couples do not punish each other by withholding sex, and keep a strong focus on being a romantic couple. They remember to do the things they like to do together and guard the importance of it. Maintaining a strong intimate connection helps to keep the focus on the couple, no matter how many outside intrusions there may be.
Couples often don’t like the concept of date night because they feel it’s too contrived and it should just happen naturally. But, with busy lives, nothing but exhaustion happens organically, and that is part of being a grownup with responsibilities. Pay attention to your relationship and make the necessary time with one another to play, laugh and make love. Make a date! Don’t count on it to just appear.
Of course, at times things will happen spontaneously, and when they do, enjoy them! But don’t count on spontaneity when you are running busy, hectic lives. You didn’t when you were dating, so why on earth would you do it now?
When I work with couples, whether they are stepcouples or couples with or without children, these rules of being in a relationship are very helpful. We can all feel justified in our anger and righteousness (“When she does X, I feel Y and I just have had enough”) and scream at our spouse hurtful words which, once expressed, land hard. Fair arguing is a skill and something we do for the sake of the marriage rather than for the sake of being right.
Decide the type of relationship you want. If you want one of being respected, be respectful. If you want to be understood, then be understanding even when it is most challenging. Resist black and white thinking and name calling. Always think about the type of relationship you want to create and be the co-creator, not the reactor.
Next month’s article will discuss the final three tasks in Wallerstein’s study. Once you have made it through these, you will be well on your way to creating a successful and rewarding stepcouple relationship.