When we think about relationship experts — be they prolific authors, well-studied psychiatrists or therapists with years of first-hand experience — the idea that they, too, must overcome hurdles in their own romantic lives seems somewhat unfathomable. Someone who doles out advice on the daily surely has it all figured out, right?
In a way, the answer is both yes and no. The reality is that we’re all human and therefore all subjected to complications surrounding love and partnership. The difference, though, is that experts tend to have adequately stocked toolbelts that help them better overcome common relationship stressors.
In the same way it’s refreshing to learn that Marie Kondo sometimes deals with a cluttered house, it’s reassuring to learn that relationship gurus must wade through interpersonal problems, as well. A handful of them got candid with us about the stressors in their own romantic partnerships and walked us through their approach for overcoming such obstacles.
RE-HASHING THE SAME ARGUMENT OVER AND OVER AGAIN
As is the case for any relationship, Linda Carroll — a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of “Love Cycles”— says she and her husband have their own litany of stressors.
“We are both intense people who have had to work long and hard to manage our own reactivity. On one level, we are a perfect fit. On the practical issues, we couldn’t be more different,” she says.
Their longest running fight — and she insists you don’t laugh — is over how to do the dishes. It’s been going on for approximately four decades.
“It seems dumb and it is dumb, but we have had some rough meltdowns about it,” she says. “Within 20 minutes of our first meeting we were arguing about it — although it was ‘cute’ and ‘flirtatious’ that first time — and I have no doubt that on our last days, if we are still standing, we will continue to be annoyed at the ‘wrong way’ our partner does it.”
Over the years, Carroll has learned how to quickly nip what used to be hours-long fits over this, and similar issues. How? By ditching what she calls “righteous indignation” and taking the argument at face value.
“Research shows that the majority of issues between couples don’t change. What does change is how we manage them,” she says. “We know how to let it go, to laugh at ourselves, to repair any damage and to move on — lovingly.”
JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS
John Kim, author of “I Used to Be a Miserable F*ck”, isn’t your traditional therapist. He runs a blog called The Angry Therapist (which was prompted by his own painful divorce) and has no problem telling anyone that therapists have imperfect relationships, too. He tells us that his most pressing relationship stressors have to do with his own fears and insecurities.
“The cognitive distortion I struggle with the most is jumping to conclusions. I assume before knowing any facts. I think something is true just because I feel instead of knowing what is real,” he says. “It’s important to be aware all my own [baggage], fears, insecurities and cognitive distortions, and to communicate them to my partner so we are doing life with each other instead of around [each other].”
He says that taking ownership over these fears requires constant surveillance of his own emotions and also the assistance of his own therapist.
“You stop jumping to conclusions first by being aware of when you may be doing it. You have to talk yourself off the ledge before you do something in action that you will regret. Know that it’s your mind spinning and not the truth. Know that feelings are not facts,” he says. “Once you can question your thoughts and thinking and don’t allow yourself to go there, you can start to feel and believe something different. The more you practice this, the easier it will get.”
STRUGGLING TO COMMUNICATE OPENLY
Having difficult conversations with anyone often breeds stress, discomfort and sometimes even fear — to the point that you think maybe it’s easier to just … not. Hannah Orenstein, senior dating editor at Bustle and author of “Playing With Matches”, admits it’s a struggle for her, especially when the potential for disagreement is high.
“I’ve learned that it’s so much better to speak up even if it feels uncomfortable in the moment. [Doing so] can smooth over potential conflicts before they even arise,” she says. “Our first fight was over a really trivial miscommunication about what time we should meet up for plans. He didn’t specifically tell me his schedule and I made assumptions without asking him first. If we had both been clearer and more communicative, we could’ve avoided that completely. Now, we both make speaking up and staying in touch a priority no matter how big or small the situation.”
DISPLACING WORK AND LIFE STRESS ONTO YOUR PARTNER
Dr. Paul L. Hokemeyer is an internationally-recognized psychotherapist who works with couples and families across the globe to overcome complex relationship issues. His work takes him all over the world, which means he’s constantly in a state of perpetual motion and personal stress.
“As a result, I often feel ungrounded and uncentered, which amplifies my professional-related stress. When these feelings become acute, I tend to point the finger at my spouse and place the blame on them for my uncomfortable feelings,” he says. “Fortunately, I’ve had enough training to know that these are what are known in the field as ‘displaced feelings.’ Yes, I can be angry and uncomfortable, but I need to own these feelings, take responsibility for them, and work to resolve them.”
Dr. Hokemeyer says that relationships that endure the test of time, and the inevitable stressors of life, must remain grounded in a daily commitment to stay in the relationship and a conscious effort to communicate gratitude and respect for your partner.
“For the last 25 years, I have had a daily ritual of spending the first 20 minutes of the day with a cup of coffee and a journal writing out my flow of consciousness for that particular morning,” he says. “At the end of this brain dump, I set out five intentions for the day. At the top of the list are to appreciate my spouse and to be of service to the world.”
At the end of the day, find comfort in knowing that no relationship is perfect, not even those of the experts that we turn to for advice. Wherever you’re at in your relationship and no matter what sort of stressors you battle, it’s important to recognize what issues you’re bringing to the table, to be completely open with your significant other, and sometimes, to laugh it off.