Intimate relationships in the 21st centrury

By Maria Arpa, founder of the Centre for Peaceful Solutions, a dispute resolution charity

There are many challenges that come with life in the 21st century. Problems such as being unable to find work or afford the basics and other issues like debt, poor heath, commuting, finding good childcare or caring for an elderly relative, it can sometimes feel like the pressures just keep piling up.

In my work, I see people trying to juggle all sorts of complex issues who are unable to articulate that struggle or get support. Often their partner is also under pressure and also looking for support. This is what I call the ‘empathy struggle’: when both partners are in so much emotional pain they are unable to hear each other.

In being unable to hear each other, frustration rises, arguments escalate and, if one or both partners is conflict averse, they will adopt strategies which are likely to damage the relationship, such as having an affair, drinking more or turning to online distraction.

The most important early warning sign is when the tenderness disappears from the relationship. At that point it is important to get help.

The truth is that we do not take enough time to learn how to manage relationships. We rarely make time to have quality conversations about the pressures of family life and we do not expect to put as much effort into our couple relationship as we do into parenting or our careers for example.

We expect that love will carry us through without creating a fit-for-purpose framework that will serve us when times get tough. 

Relationships are built on two equally important foundations: unconditional love and conditional agreements. Making quality agreements that work is a process that requires effective dialogue. The process of dialogue helps us to understand each other and discover the limits of our tolerances are so that we can support each other to grow.

I have heard it said that we meet the person who we can learn the most from and I have come to see this as having a lot of truth in it. The problem is how difficult we want to make the learning and at what point we choose to give up when the tools we have are not fit for the job we are trying to do.

Many couples are living in an ‘arrangement’ disguised as a ‘relationship’. A relationship is a fluid flow of energy which can navigate change and obstacles with elegance like water flowing along a river.

An arrangement is a set of positions which relies on both parties sticking to their position or one conceding to the other if something changes. In today’s world, where change is the norm, most arrangements cannot stand the test of time because the framework it is built on is not resilient.

When couples come to me for help, I ask them to examine the structures they have in place for making agreements and decision making. I look at the positions they have adopted and how the power is distributed in the relationship followed by an analysis of their conflict cycles, intimacy barriers and what unresolved experiences from the past they unknowingly brought with them into the relationship.

Being part of a couple is like anything in life. If you want to be good at it you need to make space to learn, practice and review. Using this process, we can admit what is a struggle and get help as well as taking time to celebrate what we do well.

Maria Arpa is author of The Heart of Mindful Relationships (published by Leaping Hare Press) and founder of The Centre for Peaceful Solutions.