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The A-Z of connecting with your partner (Part 2: Maintaining & repairing relationships)

couple holding flowersThe next installment in our A-Z of maintaining and repairing relationships during a pandemic looks at some psychological aspects of couple relationships that are somewhat challenging. Tackling D, E and F will take quite a lot of effort but if you are serious about ‘maintenance and repair’, they are essential to developing self-awareness and practising new behaviours.

D. Defensiveness

Many of us tend to defend ourselves when we believe we are being verbally attacked, or criticized, whether or not the intention of the person speaking to us is to ‘attack’. For example, “This isn’t the brand of coffee we normally buy” right through to “It is all your fault we didn’t start treatment earlier”, “if only you had gone for your sperm test when I asked you to, not waited six months”, and “you never listen to me”.

We tend to automatically respond “It’s not my fault” or “that’s not true”, without being able to hear the content of what was actually said, and without being able to judge accurately the extent to which an attack was being made (including seeing the difference between angry criticism and mild criticism).

Sometimes this develops into a pattern in a couple’s relationship, with both people feeling their own actions are fully justified. Finding and dealing with the original issue seems to get lost. If you can notice and step back from the urge to respond defensively, (bite your tongue may come in handy again here) you can often de-escalate an argument, and better manage feeling criticised.

Stop, think and try a third way – not defending or attacking, but making a self-aware comment or asking for clarification instead:

“I can see you are angry about it, but I am not sure why?” or “We are going to need some time to sort it out”. And if your partner’s criticism sounds reasonable, you may want to say sorry. This is just one aspect of defensiveness. A useful resource is called, ‘How not to be defensive in relationships.’

E. Expectations

When a couple first meet, expectations of each other are usually overwhelmingly positive. As they get to know each other the minor irritations are often silenced by the thought he/she will change. Then familiar patterns set in, and we forget that many of those unfulfilled expectations may remain tucked away in our heads, often leading to disappointment or even anger - expressed either verbally or silently by sulking. Expectations, like defensiveness come from a place deep within us (that we’re not easily aware of) from our family of origin, or the environment we grew up in, and so are hard to recognize and put into words. Some may be crazily unrealistic.

A big challenge is discovering what unfulfilled expectations you have about your partner that you haven’t spoken to him/her about, and if he/she is aware of any unexpressed expectations of you, and gently exploring this together.

F. Feelings

How do you feel? It’s often hard to answer, because what we read and what we are told about feelings often leads us to imagine/think we’re feeling something we are not, or it stops us being aware of an emotion that is real because it doesn’t seem appropriate. But emotions don’t follow rules, they are related to but different from thoughts, and they can take over our thoughts for a while and then fade.

Perhaps one of you was the main driver to have a child or get treatment. This can lead to feelings of hurt and resentment building over time. This can also foster feelings of blame from the partner who was more ready to proceed to try for a baby, and guilt for the partner who may now deeply regret waiting. If you are a couple who met later in life, the pressure of age also becomes very real for women.

Practise recognizing your own feelings and empathizing with your partner’s feelings. Some obvious negative emotions to focus on include fear/anxiety, shame/humiliation, self-blame and anger.

Because we want to keep our relationship ‘safe’ we need to think carefully and lovingly about how we talk to our partners about them (sharing and comparing worries about how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting how you feel is really important at this time).

General tips:

  • Be empathetic;
  • Ensure you are not distracted;
  • Don’t try and discuss everything in one go;
  • Make sure one of you doesn’t dominate the discussion;
  • You may have to gently end the conversation, promising your partner you will come back to it. Make sure you do.

Next time we will discuss how to integrate gratitude into our lives during these tough times.

Our counselling team is available to our patients via email, phone or Skype. Please contact them on counselling@genea.com.au, or Genea Hollywood at perth@genea.com.au and Genea Oxford at joy@mindfree.co.nz.

Visit Genea's Fertility Collective to find more advice, useful tips and tools plus the latest updates on COVID-19 and the impact on fertility treatment.

Disclaimer: Please note that this is a Genea Group blog and as such information may not be relevant for all clinics. We advise that you consult clinics directly for further information.