How to make long-term relationships last.

Sorry. I have no magic tips for longevity. For a start, who's to say how long is long-term? Twelve years and still going is my current record! Feels like a long time to me and I can feel like a beginner compared to friends who recently celebrated their ruby anniversary.

I see it more as an existential question around what is enough. Happiness, passion and the like are transient states our culture can be inclined to over-value. If you want relationships to last I think you have to look at unromantic notions like acceptance, compromise, respect and consideration.

Early in my Relate training I was presented with the idea that all the issues couples have around sex, money, parenting, work, jealousy, loneliness etc reduce to three key considerations - control, difference and intimacy. Control is about who's in control - can it sometimes be me and sometimes you or must it always be me, do I really want you to be in control etc? Difference is about how different can we let each other be and still feel connected. If you like steak and I'm a veggie, if you vote Tory and I'm a socialist etc. Intimacy is about how close or separate we can let ourselves be without feeling either suffocated or isolated. All couples face a continuous negotiation around these areas, usually out of both people's awareness. Healthy relationships tend to be fluid around them. Couples in difficulties tend to get stuck in habitual positions that can work for a while or even years. The problem comes when one of them wants to change.

If you pushed me I'd say the key to this healthy fluidity is good communication. Whatever else has been going on I usually find couples I see have either stopped talking, assuming they ever started, or they find themselves having the same arguments over and over - they've become so defensively entrenched they've stopped listening.

So talk to each other. Keep talking, then talk some more and, when you feel you can't talk anymore, try listening!

Talk to me: reflective listening.

If it feels a struggle for you and your partner to talk to each other, if, whenever you do, you both feel unheard and misunderstood, it might be time to try some reflective listening. It's a method I use with couples to help them learn to communicate better with each other.

Put simply it goes like this; first you decide what you're going to talk about. Then you decide who's going to start. If it's your partner they start by saying something. You listen. When they stop you don't respond. Instead you repeat back what was said to you in your own words. Not what you like or dislike, agree or disagree with. Not a defence of what you feel unjustly accused of. Not some biting riposte. Just your understanding of what's just been said to you.

To this end it's important that your partner gives you a bite-sized chunk to digest. So not a five minute rant, just one or two minutes max to begin with. You can say when you've heard enough. Once you've shared your understanding and your partner says 'yes you've got it' then it's your turn. If they feel you've missed something they need to tell you what it is. This is not an opportunity to add things they forgot to say, simply to say again whatever they feel you didn't get first time round. Again you repeat what's been said until they feel you've got it. Finally it's your turn and the process repeats itself.

It can feel like painstaking, artificial and frustrating work at first but it gets easier with practice I promise. And it's worth it. For a start the dynamics of arguing slow right down which will help with listening.

I suggest people make appointments with each other to do it as often as is feasible within their lifestyle - so 5 minutes a day at 7.30am, 15 minutes a week Weds at 10pm whatever feels realistic. Because when couples work at it regularly they can find that in quite a short time they both begin to feel heard and understood by each other. Which doesn't mean you necessarily agree but the sense that your partner has listened and gets you, even if they still feel you're wrong, will support the endeavour of working together to resolve your differences.

Sum of your parts plus some!

I am fascinated by couple work partly because I see a couple as an entity. There is you, there is me and there is our relationship. And our relationship is like a third party and certainly more than just the sum of the two of us.

So when, as so often, a couple arrive with a clear sense of who's to blame and wanting my confirmation I make it clear that I don't see it as my job to hear the evidence and make a judgement. No matter what's gone on in any relationship it's my conviction that no one person is ever solely to blame.

Every relationship maps out its own territory, using the unique dynamics of how those two people respond and interact with each other. The same people with different partners will make a different map. What one person might find rude and insensitive behaviour, another might refreshingly honest. You might think your partner can be too clingy but someone else might find them endearingly open. And these perceptions can change over time within the same relationship. So where your partner might have loved your passionate nature when you first met they might now see you as immature and irrational.

It may be that your partner seems to have changed in a way that make you feel justified in blaming them for the problems you're having. You're fine and if only he or she stopped whatever it is then everything could go back to normal. Or you may be aware that you've been through some changes that make you feel that you are the problem. And your partner may agree leaving you feeling guilty and confused. But I promise you, if the problem is in your relationship then it is a problem of how you relate to each other; a problem of 'we' rather than 'me' or 'you'.

Steve Lewis - Psychotherapy and Couples Counselling Lancaster

Help with depression, anxiety and stress
Steve Lewis - Psychotherapist and Couples Counsellor Lancaster

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